One of the most misunderstood creatures in the Indo-European mythic conceptual syllabry has to be the Corvid – the Crow , the Raven (and I must admit that I am biased upon this score – for it is an important part of my own name and therefore nature). For if you asked many just what they thought of when they heard these magnificent avians mentioned, they would most likely speak of darkness, death, doom, and despair. Although in recent years, knowledge of their advanced intelligence has also become prominent and is slowly but surely helping to rehabilitate the reputation of the revenant bird.
Yet it is not inaccurate to state that the Corvid has historically had quite the dark reputation, even within the annals of Indo-European myth. It is just that it is incomplete, and lacking in context. And context, as they say, as with Corvidae – is for Kings. In fact, it was just this latter pattern of association which initially inspired me to begin putting together this piece – as perched upon the head of the reigning monarch of Bhutan, we find just exactly that: the Raven Crown, linked to Lord Shiva as MahaKaal (MahaKala would mean ‘Great Death / Black / Time’ – rather apt for a Raven even afore we recall that Lord Shiva is, of course, Odin).
There, the Raven is regarded as regal – and is provided a protection akin to that enjoyed by a holy man, and for good reason. Central to their relatively modern foundational myth is the role of a Raven in providing guidance to the immediate forerunner ruler of their current reigning dynasty (himself known as the Black Monarch); and the Raven-insignia’d battle-helmet he wore during his bloody battles against both internal rivals as well as the foreign oppressive efforts of the then-powerful British (indeed, the involvement of the Raven, having been called for and invoked prior to that latter combat and thence showing up in person, is credited with the ruler in question’s preternatural accuracy and success in the ensuing conflict in Dewangiri against the British).
These days, the modern Raven Crown is no longer a war helmet – but instead something more akin to the Western conception of a hat. It does, however, still bear consciously death-like associations via the Skulls which ring the brim (in conscious imitation of the iconography of MahaKala Himself – the King, as is so often the case in the Indo-European Eternal Return / Mythic Resonancy of the Ruler, acting in emulation of the Divine Figure bearing the Heavenly Position analogous to his own); as well as the device, a Vajra (although formed in the shape of a Trishula – and these are strikingly mythically equivalent in some usages) or a Sun and Moon – both of which connote supreme sovereignty. Interestingly for our purposes, there are also Three Glaring Eyes to be found above the brim of the crown – echoing, once again, the Divine symbolism, wisdom, insight, and destructive capacity of the monarch; with the positioning of the eyed-skulls equidistant around the brim helping to reinforce that he is both all-seeing and with a suzerainty extending across the four quarters and cardinal points.
Now, we have started in with an Eastern instance of this ancient Indo-European concept , in part because I believe this to be one of the most vibrant exemplar instances of the archaic understanding being kept alive. Yet there are also some remnants to be found amidst the West, as well. Most prominent of which being the Ravens of the Tower of London – Who are, of course, presiding these days over an execution-site, yet in confluence with Bran the Blessed (an entirely uncoincidental name for such a figure!), are also providing the protection and watchful warding that is essential to Sovereignty, and the security of the state (and just as in Bhutan – there is quite the taboo attached to behaving unkindly towards these Ravens by killing them : the Lord of Death knows His Own !) . We are beginning, in other words, to see how the crowing Corvid plays a quite important role in the symbolism and the statelyness of the realm.
This ‘watchfulness’ also underpins the further relevancy of the Raven for the ruler. Odin sends forth Hugin and Munin to fly in reconnaissance for Him; and I would also surmise that the Corvid features for the Guhyakas [‘hidden’ ghost-like spirits that accompany the revenant horseman deity Revanta out on His Hunt] in part signify that they may perform similar spying missions where necessary. The notion of these creatures – Ravens or Raven-featured spirits and emanations of ‘mind’ – being sent forth to ‘keep an eye on things’ for the Sky Father is an interesting one; as the main Eye of the Sky Father (the Sun), or the nocturnal ‘thousand eyes’ (the Stars) are in theory ‘all seeing’, themselves. Which, of course, sets up the other side to the saliency of the Corvid when sent forth as the emissary of the Great God: Not only to see, but also to be seen. And often, rather pointedly, to deliver a message from On High, as well.
At its most simple, we have the acts of divination – wherein a human seer observes the patterns of the flight of birds, say, in order to divine what the future might hold. This is, in effect, looking for a message sent by The Gods, spelled out via the avians in question; or, perhaps, the patterns already endemic in the natural world which might be of service to the minds of man, likewise (for instance – the notion that where crows are congregating is likely to be a scene of death and bloodshed … and perhaps avoided as a place of hazard and peril for the still-living, still-breathing).
A perhaps not unrelated Indo-European mythic element is the Apparition of the Corvid as not so much the message – but rather as the messenger.
One prominent example for this trope is even preserved amidst the Zoroastrians, wherein their ‘inverted’ version of Yama, King Yima, receives an important decree from a bird – the Karsiptar, the ‘Black Winged’. There is some debate as to just which species of bird local to the Indo-Iranisphere this should most properly represent, with recent theorizing focusing upon either a species of Iranian Lark, or an Indian bird known as the Cakravaka. This latter is due to the alternate Avestan term for the Karsiptar – the Caxrwak.
However, to me these prospective ‘modern’ interpolations do not seem too likely (and not least due to the fact that at least of them is in fact orange rather than ‘black’ of wing or otherwise). Instead, if we run the plausible etymology of Caxrwak the speculation would be that the latter particle would be commensurate with ‘Vak’ [‘Voice’], whilst the former should represent something akin to the more usual ‘Garh’ , ‘Gerh’ – which means a ‘harsh noise’. It is where we get terms such as ‘Crack’ from, as well as various other words for the Roar of Thunder; and most directly for our purposes – it is also where we get ‘Crow’. (I should note here that there is another possible etymology for some Corvid-related terms such as ‘Corvus’ – going back to Proto-Indo-European ‘Ker’, in this sense being, again, a ‘Harsh Noise’) ‘Caxrwak’, therefore, would be the ‘Harsh-Voiced’, or perhaps, as we shall see, the ‘Indistinct Voice’/’Hidden Voice’.
The Karsiptar, the Caxrwak, being a ‘Black-Winged’, ‘Croaking’ (or, if you prefer, ‘Crowing’) creature would logically link it to the Corvid – especially given the strong associations of this bird-family with the Hindu Yama, and as it happens, an array of other deities across the Indo-European sphere with similar Deathly associations. Apollo and Shani both have such linkages, as does Odin. This is not necessarily to imply that all these three are the same figure (not least because at least one is substantively the other’s Son per our reconstructive typology); but it is evident that the same Deity has ‘leant’ conceptry to all three – strong concordances between Apollo and Rudra are to be found, Rudra is Odin, and Shiva in relation to Shaani is likewise a case of serious coterminities.
There is also a certain degree of association of the Corvid with Heaven – although interestingly, acting to deliver messages and insight even to other birds. One myth has the Corvid intervene at an impending Coronation of the Owl as King of the Birds; acting to remind the avian kingdom that they already have a ruler in the form of the aquiline Garuda, and cunningly manipulating events so as to deny the Owl his coronation ceremony. Another tale has the Garuda being dispatched to learn from the Crow (and becoming humbled as a result – I hesitate to employ the modern English idiom for such a term .. ) .
Given the longstanding Indo-European associations of the Eagle with Heaven, this occurrence of the Corvid as the wise and cunning ‘advisor’ or ’emissary’ alongside the more immediately regal Eagle is evidently quite an ancient and resonant thematic presentation; occurring, as it does, in symbolic terms amidst a certain Nordic we shall be meeting later, as well as the Bhutanese foundational myth we had met earlier (in which it is the ruler’s religious advisor, the Lama Jangchub Tsundru, who had come up with the Raven Crown worn by his King) – as well as the incredibly strong devotion of a Crow Sage to Lord Rama, an idealized Hindu King.
Speaking of whom … we additionally find mention relevant to the Ramayana of the famed Brahmin sage Vasistha going to learn from the seemingly immortal crow Bhusunda, Whom we might rather literally describe as a Being Above Time. He has, after all, lived through not only multiple passings through of the cyclical flow of the ages, but also the apocalyptic cataclysms which bring to an end each ‘season’ or ‘cycle’ of the time; witnessing the reinvention of the world, and various events occurrent within the (re-)enacting of the Cosmic Drama, play out upon the universe’s stage each time as if anew (and occasionally with rather intriguingly different outcomes).
Part of the manner in which he has accomplished such a feat, is due to his mastery of a particular blessing of Varuna, around the Soul; although I would also suspect that it is at least partially due to His perch up high in the unassailable world-tree – the Axis Mundi about which all, including time as well as space, shall turn. Due to his status as literally being ‘above’ time, he is occasionally regarded as capable of ‘time travel’ in modern Hindu interpretation – capable, one supposes, of flight into any point in the ‘sidereal time’ which he can see occurring out past his world’s (inner) edge vantage-point-of-view.
Of interest to us is not only his explication of metaphysical doctrines, and teaching of a sage – but the fact that, as the living witness to so much history, he was also regarded as the forerunner ‘compiler’ or expounder of the Ramayana literary epic; although this is rather curious, as Kakbushundi (Kak – Crow) is also said to have witnessed the playing out out of the events of the Ramayana almost a dozen times, with different outcomes and occurrences therein, which may make the Crow’s Telling of the text either rather broader or rather different to the better-known Valmiki version with which we are more customarily familiar.
Bhushunda evidently likes this tale very much – as every time that Lord Rama appears in Ayodhya, the Crow flies out from his perch upon the World-Mount to be near to the infant Rama. A tale he has less fondness for the engagement with, however, is that of the Horse-Sacrifice of Daksha (wherein the Wrath of Shiva fights off the entire rest of the pantheon combined) – which Bhusunda reportedly gave up watching rather quickly after it became readily apparent that it could only ever have precisely one outcome (unlike the Mahabharata, Ramayana, etc.). And as we should expect, the paternity of this Bhusunda links him to a Chanda Crow that is of the Court of Lord Shiva.
Yet to bring it back to Yama (and truly, there is an apt aphorism – for eventually, all things do return back to Death, preserved only ever in Image) – the Corvid is regarded for us as a Yamaduta , an Emissary of Yama. They are also regarded as on-earth forms of the Pitrs (‘Forefathers’, ‘Ancestors’), come back amongst us in such black-winged form. Hence the important Hindu custom of ensuring that They , the Pitrs as Crows / Ravens , are fed at Temples and during the time of the Fortnight of the Ancestors (when the Shades of the Forefathers are more prominently amongst us). The metempsychotic journey of Aristeas of Proconnesus occuring in Corvid form – wherein he appears to have followed Apollo as a raven, and ventured up to the gates of the afterlife only to return to the mortal realm initially in such shape to guide and advise men in greater piety towards his patron, is almost certainly of a similar tincture.
This notion of the Corvid as Ancestor is perhaps surprisingly, a potentially broader Indo-European trope: with the Wusun living in Western China in antiquity, likely deriving their thenonym from a term meaning just exactly that: The Descendants of the Crow/Raven. Given the space of the sphere of the Realm of the Glorious/Ancestral Dead as housing both the Ancestors , and also the Sky Father (also our ultimate progenitor) in His Role as Ruler over same – it makes logical sense that the Birds of Death should be as His Emissaries … and be drawn from the ranks of our own Ancestors when They are sent down to meet with us, to guide and to advise. Although speaking euhemerically for just a moment – it is touching that the human-like intelligence of the Corvid has been recognized via the accordance in ritual-metaphysical terms of these creatures as having a sort of ‘human’ status in our belief.
However, the ‘trick’ with regard to this counsel of the Crows is to be able to hear it and thence to understand it. Rather than just dismissing it as the caw-ing of the birds. This faculty we might, of course, link to the earlier commentary around the acts of divination (including those carried out by the man who would be king – c.f the contest of just such a skill entered into in some readings of the Romulus & Remus foundation myth for Rome, itself an ‘echo’ of the Man(n)u(s) and Yama mytheme encountered so broadly elsewhere across the Indo-European sphere); however I believe that there is something else to be found here, and not least due to the obvious difference between merely watching the flight of the birds, and actively listening to the speech of the birds directly to you.
One well-known instance of this is to be found in the mythology of Sigurd Dragonslayer – wherein following his inadvertent drinking of a small quotient of dragon’s heartblood, he gains the ability to understand the ‘Language of the Birds’. They told him of something that was going to happen (Regin’s intended murder of the man) … if he did not take moves to prevent it. “He who sees his own doom can better avoid its path. He who sees the doom of others can deliver it “, indeed. Such potencies are also attested elsewhere amongst both Germanic and Greek Indo-European mythologies – and via less illustrious manners and mechanisms than first slaying a Dragon in order to drink from its roasting heart. It is my belief that part of what is being recalled in such mentions is the imbibification of the Soma / Meath of Poetry granting an enhanced perceptional ability (or, if you prefer, psychedelic experience) – and therefore finding such revelations via communing (rather literally) with the world, nature, and the Divine.
Now, however such powers of perspicacity are garnered (and the other ‘option’ is that it is an innate potency of the born Seer (Rsi) or perhaps, as we shall see, King;), the difficulty for an ordinary person, or even an extraordinary one in amidst ‘ordinary’ circumstance, to make out just what is being said by these Birds – arkens back towards one of my favourite Hindu theological concepts: ‘Vacam Garjit Lakshanam’ [‘Thunder bearing the characteristics of Speech’; although also renderable as ‘Indistinct Sound [‘roaring’] bearing the imprint of Divine Speech’], via the same Proto-Indo-European ‘Gerh’ that underpins both the word for Thunder/Indistinct Speech (‘Garjana’ etc.) and various words for ‘Crow’ – due to the ‘harsh’, loud noise of the Crow’s characteristic (indeed literally eponymous) voice.
Now, the concept itself has occasionally been explained as the fact that if you can hear thunder, it is ‘telling’ you that rain is taking place somewhere. That prominent phenomena in the natural world correlate with other impacts of interest out there – and can be ‘read’ in useful ways. So, too, if one can see or hear birds being disturbed somewhere – it indicates that somebody is likely approaching through such a vector. Or birds and other such creatures fleeing a place where an earthquake or other natural disaster is shortly to be impending; Crows and Ravens gathering above the site of impending bloodshed (and even acting as ‘scouts’ for wolves that then take down prey for them to join the feast upon). And this is not inaccurate – although it is euhemeric to insist that that is the only element being communicated via it. And really, I do pity those who hear the loud peals of thunder overhead of an imminent and immanent storm, and cannot countenance the idea that there may very be a Divine Laughter heard thereamongst.
No, what is actually being communicated via this aphorism, in the theological sense – that is to say, the proper one – is that there is a loud and prominent sound … yet whose meaning, whose intelligibility, is hidden to those other than the intended recipient or specially competent listener : he who is capable of recognizing that there is more to it than merely natural phenomena. That the Voice of the Divine is speaking, in terms and in a ‘language’ that sounds like nothing other than the electrostatic discharge of clouds rather than the thunderous speech of the Heavens.
Something of which we may be able to catch a glimpse in the Rigsthula’s presentation of Kon (the emblematic exemplar of the ‘King’ figure of the Old Norse mytho-sociology) being guided by the voice of a Crow upon his path to greatness – to actually becoming a King. The Corvid’s sage counsel is for the Young King to ride out in conquest against other humans rather than merely catching birds for his prey. Perhaps there may have been a certain note of self-interest in the Crow’s words … and perhaps Kon was quite glad to no longer be afforded the prospect of ‘eating Crow’.
Yet the logical interpretation here is that the Crow was sent by Kon’s Father, the God Odin (although some identify Rig with Heimdall, in which case Odin would be Kon’s Grandfather), specifically in order to provide the Divine Guidance to further Kon’s self-actualization and his intended, needed destiny as part of the Gods’ Plan. The Sky Father, in other words, the (ultimate) Ancestral Forebear of Kon, sends down a Corvid from His Realm of the Glorious/Ancestral Dead; just as we have seen for the Hindu understanding of the Corvid. And Speaking in a voice which only the sort of man who was not merely a man – but rather, of the appropriately divine bloodline and/or education and empowerment – should be able to comprehend. Just the sort of thing one would wish to present to one’s people if you were a newly minted king. The great diviner, the one who can see things as they actually are, and discern the proper pathway and godly guidance where others only hear the harsh caw-ing of carrion birds.
This also brings us full-circle – as we began this piece by speaking of a young King, Jigme Namgyel of Bhutan, who was provided with guidance and the evident support of a patron deity in the course of his campaigns to found the kingdom which his son and their descendants would eventually come to rule … and we are ending with the youthful Kon, being provided with the guidance and evident support of a patron deity in the course of his campaigns to found the kingdom of which his descendants shall inherit.
Perhaps that Crow Sage, Kak Bhusunda , was on to something in viewing not just mythology but also history as being, in effect, a cycle of repeats and resonancies. Patterns which themselves seem to re-occur across time and space ‘neath the Raven’s watchful eye. Indeed, which the Corvid in question evidently may play some role in turning about and making to actually (re)occur. There is nothing quite like ‘active intervention’ to render future predictions as exercises in accuracy (indeed, near-certainty) rather than chance.
I am often fond, in these circumstances of explication around the concepts of ‘eternal return’ and ‘mythic recurrence’ or resonancy to mention a Terry Pratchett quote –
“No one remembers the singer. The song remains.”
And yet, with deference to the croaking, cawing song of the Corvid – it is evident that occasionally, just occasionally, the Singer, too, gets His Due.
So let it be with these magnificent beings.