This page is dedicated to the folklore of corvids in Northwest-Europe , especially the area of England-Netherlands-Germany.Corvids are crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws. They are associated with winter, death and dark magic. Ravens have become rare in Northwest Europe, mostly through excessive hunting down of these birds because of their negative image and the ravage they can cause on fields. But the other corvids are thriving. They are scavengers and clever opportunists who are feared by other birds. And it’s not only birds who fear them – I know of more than one person who has been attacked by a rook or crow seemingly out of nothing (though it probably has to do with us coming too close to their nests). Still, since prehistoric history the lives of humans and crows are intertwined, mainly through death.
This ancient connection can for instance be found in Iron Age (Celtic) pits, many of which contain animal remains. Ravens were often among those remains, and from that we can conclude that it may have been a chthonic animal (connected to the underworld) to the Celts. One such example is a raven found buried Winklebury, England. The site found in this town contained many humand and animal remains, but this raven was very peculiar. It was laid down at the bottom of a pit with its wings outstretched. These pits are generally considered ritual structures, and the raven was probably part of a sacrifice.
It is the eating of dead meat on battle fields and at the gallows that has gained corvids the reputation of devilish creatures who foreshadow death. Some even called them godless birds, since they would even steal the flesh from altar offerings. On the other hand, it is said that the ancient Germans would leave their enemies on the battle fields for the wolves and ravens to eat – an offering to the god Wodan. Which makes them very divine creatures indeed. This idea can be followed into late medieval England, where it was actually forbidden to kill corvids because they would keep the city streets clean (this idea would dissolve in later times, when these birds were more and more seen as vermin).
Naturally, corvids, the death birds, are connected to divinatory beliefs. A corvid flying towards a house would foreshadow death. If the bird landed on the house and would sit there, someone living in the house would die. If it woulfd fly away over someone’s head, some bad luck was coming that person’s way. Would it settle on a field when one was sowing, the seed wouldn’t grow. There are anecdotes of people coming from the fields to a home in which a sick person lived, who would run along in fear when hearing the cawing of crows. The meeting of certain creatures during the times of day (especially a first encounter in the morning) has of old been considered an sign of luck or unluck to come, based on whether the creature would go left or right of you. Strangely enough, despite the crow being considered mostly an unlucky bird, if it flew from left to right in the morning, this was considered a good sign.
As a bird of death, the corvid not only foreshadowed death, but also carried it with it on its wings and in its heart. They were bringers of pest in medieval times, and the devil used this creature as one of his many guises. There is a clear connection between the devil and the heathen gods, and it’s therefore not strange that corvids are associated with both. A bird so strongly connected to Wodan must surely be a demonic creature!
Corvids are seen as winter birds, but are of course with us all year. As with all birds, their behavioral patterns were often used to predict the weather. Basically, if they are restless and noisy, bad weather is on the way. If storm or thunder is coming, the corvids stay low and behave in a restless way (as do most birds). If they gather noisily during autumn, rain is on the way; and of they are silent during winter, the frost will last long. There is a short poem that has put this lore in rhyme:
‘Krassen kraai en raaf verbolgen,/ weldra zal er regen volgen. / Houden de kraaien school,/ zorg voor hout en kool.’
‘If crow and raven caw viciously,/rain will soon follow./if the crows flock together,/make sure you have wood and coal.’
In Boussauw’s Vogels there’s a bit about corvids (especially crows and ravens) being associated with eyes. According to Boussauw, there are sources who claim that corvids peck each other’s eyes out, hence the many birds with one eye (I must confess I’ve never noted this). Again, others say that birds who have diminished eye sight are actually helped by their peers. I love the idea of one-eyed ravens because of the strong connection to Wodan/Odin – but there’s no historical source for this as far as I know.
Still this is the place where I must mention Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory), the two ravens of Odin so named in the Icelandic Edda. Even though again there is no historical source for Hugin and Munin outside the Edda, the worship of Wodan/Odin was so widespread that it’s probable that corvids were connected to this god in other places, too. Their names connect these two ravens to mind and soul, as do the eyes which are its mirrors. As we know through extensive research, corvids are extremely intelligent birds with a good memory and actual insight in situations. To connect them to the mind seems an almost logical thing to do. Further on in this article you will find a strange and rather gruesome healing ritual that also connects the raven to the head.
The corvid as a follower of Wodan and devil, is also not stranger to witches who would use it for traveling. But there are also stories of witches who disguise themselves as ravens, and these are very similar to typical werewolf-stories. In Wahl, Luxembourg, some youngsters went to a neighbouring village to fire celbratory gunshots at an engagement party. A raven kept flying above them, and the young men suspectd something uncanny. One of them put a silver coin in his gun and shot the bird with it. Immediately the bird fell down and changed into an old woman who had been charged with witchcraft. Other stories relate of priest taking the shapes of corvids to work evil magic – no doubt the sources of these stories are Protestant.
That the crow is associated with the devil and with the Devil becomes clear in this short account from Eastern Frisia (similar account were heard in, among others, Fischbach Hohendorf and Baden): a boy promises the pastor that he will come back after death the tell whether he has been blessed. He comes back as a black crow and screeches the follow rhyme:
‘Gott un de Hillgen eenmal versworen / Is ewig verloren’
‘Once God and the saints have been forsaken/One is lost forever’
Talking of evil magic – here is a strange ritual from Mecklenburg to curse someone to death, if you perhaps need one: Dress a dead crow as a human being and place it in a box together with a form on which is written the full name of the one you wish to curse in the name of the Trinity – this way, the bird is baptized and is associated with that person. Then completely pierce the crows breast with needles and bury it in a place where neither sun nor moon can shine. As the bird withers away, so does the cursed person.
Dead corvids are also used for medicine. A recipe from 1704 tells us to cure migraine by cooking a crow’s head and eat it. No headache could last against this strong medicine. Another recipe from Denderwindeke (East-Flanders) helps against epilepsy: Kill an old black crow, cut off its beak and legs; then take out its guts, and fill the corpse again with anise seed and the bird’s heart, liver and bile. Put this in an oven and let it slowly burn to a powder, which is then put in the food of the ill person. The connection of corvids with epilepsy goes back to at least the 17th century, when it was though the corvids themselves had this disease.
As you could read throughout this article, the raven is a bit two-headed: mostly associated with death, bad luck and evil magic, but also seen as a cleanser and healer of some sort, and associated with wisdom. From the 18th century on the negative connotations became stronger and stronger. The corvids are now culturally connected to darkness and evil, though lately science has shown what truly marvelous birds they are, and the new pagan movement has given them back their divine part in the larger whole.
Boussauw, Johan. Vogels in volksgelood, magie en mythologie. Tirion Natuur, 2005.
Hendriks, Cor. Heksenstreken 1: Initiatie in de heksenkunst. PDF May 2016.
Marzluff, John M. and Tony Angell. In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Yale University Press, 2005.
Sax, Boria. Crow (Animal series). Reaktion books, 2003.