Germanic Raven Goddesses

February 26, 2016

corvus_corax_(NPS)

The following is an excerpt from my book-in-progress about animal divination.

Despite being extremely social, ravens and crows squabble quite a bit between themselves, fighting over food and territory. They even, rarely, perform “executions,” a practice poorly understood though well documented. Corvids do not routinely harm members of their posse who are ailing and will even protect the disabled and bring them food. The dominant theory is that solitary birds with no allies eventually excite territorial instincts. Whatever the reason, the flock becomes very noisy as a number of birds execute the offender. Once killed, the cacophony abates suddenly and the birds abscond, leaving behind the corpse.

More common than executions of their own kind is mobbing of raptors. Any songbird might take part in a mobbing, but jays and crows are the most enthusiastic, while the larger and less vulnerable ravens seldom bother. Ravens do buzz and snap at eagles, perhaps to draw eagles away from nest sites (although this does not totally explain things). Some ravens hang out around wolf packs, waiting to devour leftovers from a carcass. In the meantime they enjoy teasing the wolves, pulling their tails and scampering off.

The raven-wolf pairing is more conspicuous in Germanic lore than the raven-horse, although both can be found. Two wolves sit at the feet of the god Odin, while two ravens flank his shoulders. The names of these ravens are Huginn and Muninn. usually translated as “thought” and “memory.” Odin the Allfather “sends them out at daybreak to fly over the whole world, and they come back at breakfast-time; by this means he comes to know a great deal about what is going on, and on account of this men call him the god-of-ravens.” There is some controversy over the meaning of “Muninn,” who is mentioned less frequently than his sidekick in extant Germanic lore. Two questions not entertained, to my knowledge, would be 1) Are these ravens really guy-ravens or is this a case of default male bias? and 2) Why two ravens?

The gender of the ravens does matter, since ravens are Odin’s servants and the Valkyries called the daughters of Odin, serve him on the battlefield as well as in Valhalla. In the Poetic Edda the battlefield is referred to as “Huginn’s grove,” so one or both of these same ravens are hovering alongside the fight like the Valkyries. Perhaps Huginn and Muninn are the culmination of a process from a dominant raven-goddess to a raven-goddess subsumed under rule of the Allfather to a subordinate raven deity stripped of feminine association.

That two wolves and two ravens flank Odin is curious. Why not one raven-wolf pair? Why not nine ravens? Two is not an automatically recurring number in Norse lore; nine, and occasionally three, are the most prominent numbers. If this were a story of Semitic origin I would attribute the pair of ravens to cultural emphasis on complementary halves, but that is not the case here. When Odin says he has two ravens, he means that the ravens are two, and we do have to ask, why two?

The idea that the mind of the God is divided into thought and memory is suspect, since this is a dualistic concept that, if it existed at all, would most probably have arisen through Christian influence. The translation of Muninn’s name as “memory” is contested anyway. There are marriages between gods and goddesses, which might explain the raven-pair, though marriages are often ways of blending the pantheons of conquerors with those of indigenous people, so a marriage might not fit with the idea of the ravens as vestiges of an earlier matriarchal cosmology. There are other deities that are commonly thought of in pairs, such as the goddess Frigga and her son Baldur, and the boar-goddess Freya with her boar-brother Freyr. Could Odin’s winged familiars be brother-sister raven deities?

Where the number two arises most frequently is in reference to the Aesir and Vanir, the two branches of pantheons that came together under the reign of the Odin. Feminist scholars theorize that these groups represent an indigenous Old European pantheon (the Vanir) linked to a conquering Indo-European pantheon (the Aesir) . We could also call them two allied Indo-European pantheons – the point is that they represent the confederation of two tribes. This would explain why Odin has two ravens and wolves at his command: they represent the raven-wolf totems of each of these tribes. This is supported by Odin’s revelation in the Prose Edda, “Over the world every day fly Hugin and Munin; I fear that Hugin will not come back, though I’m more concerned about Munin.” To me this speaks of a ruler trying to maintain control of an unruly alliance.

Sources

The Elder Eddas of Seamund Sigfusson, Benjamin Thorpe, trans, (London: Norroena Society) p. 143. Accessed at Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14726/14726-h/14726-h.htm February 22, 2016.

Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), p. 191.

Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson: Tales from Norse Mythology, Jean I. Young, trans. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), p. 64.

The Celtic Raven Goddess

January 8, 2016
Photo: Greg Tally
Photo: Greg Tally

Possibly the most common Craft name among Witches with a Celtic bent (as well as many Witches who do not consider themselves Celtic) is Raven or some variant like Ravenwood or Ravenspring. At a Witch gathering when Raven’s name comes up, the most likely response is, “Which one”? Perhaps this is apropos, since ravens seldom travel alone and they are rather hard to tell apart.

In Celtic lore ravens and crows (who are often conflated) may be associated with heroes (Bran, Owin, Arthur), but are more often linked with frightening warrior goddesses. Badb Cath, whose name means “battle crow,” is a classic example. As her name implies, she waits at the edge of the battlefield to claim that the souls of the slain, like the ravens waiting to devour their flesh. Sometimes Badb appears as the soothsayer called The Washer at the Ford, a wailing pale woman with white-blonde hair who sits on the banks of a stream wringing out a bloody shirt that will not come clean.

Badb is not the only goddess linked with the Washer, nor is she the only goddess of the crows. Morrigan is another warrior who claims the dead. Like other Celtic corvid goddesses, she is not just a passive player who prophesies and accepts the dead: at times she actively challenges the hero, who can only parlay her attacks temporarily. This excerpt from The Ulster Cycle is illustrative:

One night while Cuchulainn was sleeping, during the time when he was still fighting the men of Connacht, during the time when the men of Ulster were still fighting their labor pangs, he was awoken by a piercing cry from the north. He scrambled from his tent to find his chariot driver yoking the horses, and the two drove out on the plain to investigate the sound. There they met a woman in a chariot pulled by a red mare. The woman had red eyebrows and red hair, a red dress and a red cloak. Tied to her back was a gray spear. “I hear you have performed heroic and wonderful deeds,” she told Cuchulainn, “and I have come to offer you my love.” “I have no time for lovemaking,” Cuchulainn replied emphatically, “for I am completely worn out. I have been fighting all day and must prepare for battle tomorrow. Your visit could not come at a more importunate time.” “I will help you in your struggle,” the woman countered. “I have already helped you greatly, Cuchulainn, and you have benefitted from my protection.” “It is not a lady’s help I need in this fight!” Cuchulainn argued hotly, “and I will not trust your protection.” “Very well,” she answered, “prepare to do battle with me as well as the others.” With that the lady in red, her mare and her chariot disappeared, and he and his driver were left completely alone, except for a crow sitting in the high branch of a tree. Cuchulainn felt his own pang of sickness then, because he realized he had been speaking to the warrior goddess Morrigan. [Quoted from Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess]

Other Celtic raven/crow goddesses I am aware of (and this list is probably not exhaustive) are Macha, Nemain, Rhiannon, Branwen, Natosuelta, and Cathubodua. Like actual ravens, these goddesses are difficult to distinguish and debate continues over whether they are in fact different appellations for the same goddess. The inclusion of Macha and Rhiannon, who many know as horse goddesses, may be surprising, but ravens and horses appear together consistently in Celtic art.

Sources

Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge, 1992.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

Blue Jay Communique

May 16, 2014

Photo Amos Oliver Doyle
Photo Amos Oliver Doyle

The jarring cry of the Blue Jay echoes in my skull like a radio song repeating itself in an endless loop. It’s like this every spring, when the Jays return to roost in the cedar outside my meditation room window. The only thing to do is to meditate on the Jay.

Many birders don’t like Blue Jays. They complain that Jays chase smaller birds away from feeders. Blue Jays can mimic hawks with surprising verisimilitude, making it more difficult to identify birds in the field. Suburbanites find the Blue Jay’s typical cry loud, harsh, and raucous. Homeowners do not appreciate the Blue Jay’s penchant for chipping away house paint, a behavior more characteristic of Blue Jays residing in the Northeast, where sparse sources of organic calcium make calcium-rich paint attractive from a nutritional standpoint. Setting out large numbers of chicken eggs will extinguish this behavior, but this will mean more Blue Jays hanging around your property. I myself don’t mind Blue Jays hanging around. I find it difficult to feel rancor toward any creature so handsome, which has probably been my undoing in life.

Photo Ken Thomas
Photo Ken Thomas
When humans and animals find ourselves in conflict, it’s usually because we have some sort of commonality. In the case of the Blue Jay, it’s a commonality of habitat. Blue Jays like open areas at the edge of woodlands, and suburban tracts, farmlands, and even large yards within forested regions meet this requirement. People who put out birdseed are calling the Jay, even though the seed is meant for the nice birds who play well with others. Objections to the aggressive territorial behavior of the Jay are interesting, considering humans are the most territorial species on the planet. Another way of looking at this behavior is to see the Jay clearing other birds off the window stage so we can pay more attention to him. His distinctive coloring, pushy behavior, and loud voice say “Listen to me! I’m important!”

A territorial inclination is not the only trait we share with the Blue Jay. We plan ahead and stockpile food reserves, going to great lengths to secure our supply. The Jay needs sufficient provisions to last the winter, which is the motivation behind the apparent greediness that some object to. The Blue Jay carries seeds in an esophageal or “gular” pouch, and he is very sneaky and creative in secreting his cache. There are many “trickster” qualities to this bird. As mentioned before, he mimics other birds, especially hawks, and his Red Shouldered Hawk imitation is particularly fine. Actually the Blue Jay has a varied collection of calls, which can make identification difficult. Differentiation between male and female birds can also be challenging. All Blue Jays have subtle differences in pattern, but both sexes look similar, except when they don’t. Occasionally the female will be slightly more drab in color, but this cannot be depended on.

Photo Frank Miles
Photo Frank Miles
Migration is another area where the Blue Jay mystifies those who try to study him. Blue Jays tend to be permanent inhabitants throughout their range, but some Blue Jays migrate; yet not all of them migrate from the same area, and the ones who migrate one year may decide to overwinter the next. There is doubtless a logical explanation for this puzzling behavior, but humans have been unable to discern it. Another Blue Jay behavior in the trickster category is theft. Jays steal from humans and from other animals. Squirrels do not bother to cache acorns when they hear Jays in the vicinity, because they expect to be robbed. In the context of criminality, it’s interesting that Jays are sometimes called jaybirds, while the pejorative “J-bird” (short for jailbird) is used to denote a person who has been incarcerated.

Trickster behavior teaches us discernment. The Jay’s mimicry and variety of calls make us sharpen our ears and our memories. Blue Jays themselves are masters of discernment, as the paint chipping example shows. A major component of this bird’s diet is acorns, and while Blue Jays receive nourishment from a nice bug infested acorn, they know enough not to store a weevily acorn for winter consumption, and they are able to discern with high accuracy whether an acorn has been compromised. Oak trees are more dependent on Blue Jays than on squirrels for disbursement, since a Blue Jay can carry an acorn a mile or two away.

Photo Dawn.
Photo Dawn.
Blue Jays are members of the Corvide family, which includes not only other Jays but also Magpies, Crows and Ravens. Like Crows, Blue Jays are intelligent, curious, and full of surprises. Whether they find us similarly baffling cannot be known, but Corvides study humans more closely then we study them, and consequently they have our behaviors better catalogued.

Ravens and Crows frequently appear in myth to impart oracular insight to the plot. In the ancient art of augury a Crow or Raven appearance held important significance. As a fellow Corvide, the Blue Jay can be seen as a herald, especially since the wild Jay is more talkative and has a greater range of sounds. Blue is the color associated with the throat chakra, which strengthens the link with prophecy. However, the blue coloration means that the Jay does not carry a shadow symbolism like the inward seeking Raven or Crow. The Blue Jay is more extroverted.

The Blue Jay’s messages cannot be catalogued for symbolic reference—the cries are too voluminous for that—but he’s definitely got information to unload. He is alert, interested in his environment, and more perceptive than you or I. We can dismiss him as noisy, pushy, and common, but these are the very qualities that call out for our attention. The Blue Jay knows his business—and everyone else’s, too.
Photo Manjith Kainickara.
Photo Manjith Kainickara.


Sources:

Bessette, Alan E. et al. Birds of the Adirondacks: A Field Guide. Utica, NY: North Country Books, 1993.

Hilton Jr., B. “Boisterous Blue Jays.” Hilton Pond Center. http://www.hiltonpond.org/ArticleJayBlueMain.html.

Marzluff, John M. and Tony Angell. In the Company of Crows and Ravens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Seriously Science. “The Blue Jays are Coming! Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Nuts!” Discover Magazine. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/seriouslyscience/2014/05/07/blue-jays-coming-hide-kids-hide-nuts/.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Blue Jay.” http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/blue_jay/lifehistory.

Bird Companions of the Goddess: A quiz

April 12, 2012

Photo by Courtney Johns

How much do you know about the winged companions of the Goddess? If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’ll recognize many of these. Match the bird in the left column with the European or Middle Eastern goddess (or god) she is frequently associated with.

Owl

Goose

Raven

Falcon

Vulture

Dove

Pelican

Woodpecker

Eagle
Baba Yaga

Morrigan

Mars

Athena

Lugh

Freya

Aphrodite

Astarte

Mut



Answers are here.

Feel free to add other goddess and god associations for these birds in the comments.