Ravens, crows and Halloween
By Kate Crowley
Stereotypes. It happens all the time in our society. It even happens with birds. How else can you explain the association of crows and ravens with the evil spirits of Halloween? Both of these birds belong to the Family Corvidae – my favorite, because of their innate intelligence and social interactions.
Like the fairy tales of the Big Bad Wolf, these glossy black birds have come down through the centuries with stories and beliefs that emphasize one behavior that we humans find revolting and ignores all others. During the Middle Ages and the scourge of the Black Plague, these predators and scavengers found easy pickings among the countless dead who lay exposed in streets or fields. The same was true for the warriors and soldiers killed in endless wars; people saw the wolves, crows and ravens feeding on the dead and were (not surprisingly) horrified.
It is not a coincidence that wolves and corvids would be found in the same places because ravens, lacking sharp tearing teeth, depend on wolves to open a carcass. Then they will feed on what the wolves leave behind. Lacking this assistance, the birds will attack soft tissue, including the eyes. I don’t need to say more than that to invoke horror movie memories.
Having that association, the birds became a part of cultural beliefs in evil and death. Europe and the British Isles are rife with stories about the magical and devious qualities found in crows and ravens. Germans believed ravens not only found the souls of the dead, but carry the souls of the damned. In Sweden, ravens croaking were thought to be the voices of murdered people who were improperly buried. The Irish had lots of crows in their mythology, both before and after Christianity arrived. Crows are associated with Morrigan, their goddess of war and death. They also believed that when crows flocked in trees they were really souls from Purgatory. In the Middle Ages, Russians believed that witches took the shape of crows, while others believed that they used the symbol of a crow’s foot to cast death spells. Finding a dead crow was a sign of good fortune.
In North America, before the Europeans arrived with their tales of the bad birds, the Indigenous people had their own stories with much different themes. In the Northwest, the Coastal Indians considered Raven to be a creator spirit, a trickster, hero or villain all at the same time. Most importantly he was considered the creator of the world or played a significant part in its creation. In many Indian Nations clans took the name of Raven or Crow.
Maybe we can blame Edgar Allen Poe for causing Ravens (and by association crows) to be symbols of our holiday that celebrates the macabre. In his chilling poem, The Raven, the bird only repeats the word, “Nevermore”, but the poem is filled with words, like; bleak, ghost, sorrow, fantastic terrors, darkness, ghastly grim and ancient Raven, disaster, horror and haunted. The narrator is on his way to madness, while the stoic raven just sits and stares malevolently.
Another, older poem called Counting Crows (or Magpies) describes the fortune telling beliefs of the number of crows one sees as in:
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil's own self.
Leaving all the mythology behind, we find that ravens and crows truly demonstrate forms of intelligence that we humans like to think only we possess. If you measure their total brain-to-body mass ratio it comes out equal to that of great apes and cetaceans, and only slightly lower than that of humans.
In recent studies of facial recognition, scientists in Washington State have discovered that crows use the same visual pathways in their brains as we do. When exposed to people who had captured the birds in nets for study, the crows were shown to have increased activity in the amygdala, thalamus and brain stem. This is where we process emotions and learn fear response. What is equally surprising is that the crows that learned to recognize the people (by their faces) who captured them, somehow passed along that knowledge to subsequent generations.
Since they have been associated with wisdom, secret knowledge, magic and trickery, it seems inevitable that these two Corvid species would become additional symbols of this annual Holiday of mystery and mayhem.