Crows, Ravens, and Magpies

Unearthing the Sacred: Melanie Stevens

There’s something magical about these corvids which has placed them into a category all of their own. Poets have written about them, troubadours sang of their riddling natures, and even in today’s society, they place prominence by being namesakes of sports teams, bands, and TV series. In movies, they provide awareness of ominous foretelling. Sometimes, they’re even used as pets of the awkwardly strange character. In social media, they’ve become a sensation for being intelligent and trainable.

In general, corvids are first and foremost messengers. There’s always a reason why they make their presence known in our lives. But, before getting into their symbolism, we’ll start with the basics: appearance.

Magpies happen to be the most distinguishable, yet, unlike crows and ravens are not found throughout the entirety of the United States. Typically, they have both black and white coloration but may also have blue or green, instead of, or including, white depending on their location in the world. (Only the Hooded crow, found in Eurasia, may be varied in coloration otherwise as it is both black and white).

In this brief introduction of the corvids, we find certain characteristics to pay attention to. First, predominantly they all either are completely black or black is the baseline of coloration. What does the color black mean to you? Scientifically, black is known as the absence of color or light. Socially, in the Western world, it was historically vilified and has been associated with darkness, evil, and grieving. American Indigenous however use it as representative of the West quarter of the Medicine Wheel and the I Ching places it as the color of the sky, and therefore a good color. In both cultures, it symbolizes water – which, historically, indicates emotion. Blue, on the other hand, is the color for grieving in Mexico. However, blue can also symbolize calm, safety, peace, trust, and healing, and even used to ward off the evil eye. Green is often seen as a color of healing and can be stabilizing or loving. White, unlike black, is a combination of all color spectrums – sometimes used for wearing to funerals but often associated with healing. While our genetic and cultural history has instilled certain biases within us, it’s important to understand how our body reacts instead of automatically accepting another’s notion of a personal symbol. Does it make us scared, happy, or neutral? Do we associate anything with that color? Is it even of importance in this matter? Pay attention to any other colors that may be present for they may offer a certain nuance to their meaning. In the next video, I’ll address color symbolism in more depth.

Crows and ravens are much harder to differentiate as they look a lot alike. With some difference in head structure, size is usually used to distinguish the two. Crows are only about ⅔ the size of a raven. For me, how I easily know which one is in the area happens to be by the sound. The first time I heard a raven, I was a bit baffled. I had only grown up around crows my whole life and it wasn’t until I was walking on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia that I heard the very distinct guttural caw of the raven. Their vocal range begins at a lower note and may sound more gravelly. 

Though size and sound distinguish the difference between crows and ravens upon first meeting, there seems to be a marked difference in flight, character, and intelligence. Ravens fly smoothly, with the current, while crows must maintain constant flapping. Though both are known for solving complicated tasks, ravens appear to have more reasoning ability and can calculate their moves. Crows tend to operate more like jays in that they will flock together to defend their territory and are much more aggressive against their enemies.  

One of the most famous poems about a raven comes from Edgar Allan Poe, titled Raven. The beginning verse is one of my most loved openings and reads:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

While mourning his lost Lenore, the Raven begins tapping at his door. Throughout the poem, Poe demands answers to his grieving heart yet ‘quothe the Raven, “Nevermore!” Even Poe at this time knew the ravens were messengers, delivering words we may not wish to hear. 

Throughout my life, I have held a fascination for Odin, the most prominent and powerful of the Norse gods. In contemporary storytelling, Odin comes across as a petty and vengeful god who treats others with a callousness and irreverence that I find an immature analysis of his character. One thing Odin was known for was hanging from the Yggdrasil, or Tree of Knowledge, to gain wisdom. Part of this storyline includes the runes of the goddess Idun. Hanging from the tree allowed him to receive the wisdom and knowledge found within them. This small, overlooked aspect of Odin’s character belies the pettiness portrayed in modern-day retellings. 

One of the most known aspects of Odin was his two ravens: Hugin and Munin (alternatively spelling: Huginn and Munnin). Historically, Hugin translates to thought and Munin to memory. Etymologically, Mímir, whose head Odin carries with him to relay secret knowledge, is more closely aligned with memory than Munin. Personally, I believe a better translation would be active will or desire as being specific to our inherent covenant with God.

From the Poetic Edda, it reads:

O’er Mithgarth Hugin and Munin both
Each day set forth to fly;
For Hugin I fear lest he come not home,
But for Munin my care is more.

If Munin represents perhaps both memory and creative will, then his loss would indeed be greater. Hugin, as thought, or thought process, may allow for understanding but Munin allows for the automatic creation of inherent will. 

Like the crows, magpies love to collect shiny objects and are quite sociable. Similarly to crows and ravens, they are considered opportunists and jack-of-all-trades as their intelligence allows them to adapt, scavenge, learn, and adjust pattern behavior as needed. They have a reputation for being vicious and have been accused of eating their victims alive, though this may be unfounded. In China, magpies are considered the bird of happiness. In other countries, they tend to be messengers of either good or bad news, controllers of the weather, protectors, and omens.

One for sorrow, Two for joy,
Three for a girl, Four for a boy,
Five for silver, Six for gold,
Seven for a story yet to be told.
Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird, You must not miss. Eleven for health,
Twelve for wealth,
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself

Variations of this nursery rhyme can be found throughout history. One version, handed down by the Scots, reads:

One’s sorrow,
Two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding,
Four’s a birth,
Five’s a christening,
Six a dearth,
Seven’s heaven,
Eight is hell,
And nine’s the devil his ain sel’.

In my own personal experience with crows (since magpies are not common where I am), I have the tendency to use this as a bit of a guideline, to an extent, but with slight variation. One crow or raven, to me, seems to mark acknowledgment of the beautiful day, as if to say that I am doing well and on track. Two stays with the program as one of joy. Three, I need to start paying attention for something might just be lurking in the shadows. When a flock (or murder as it’s called) of crows congregate, I know, without any doubt, I have to run. Whatever situation I have found myself in, I must leave. It’s time. This ideology was developed over an extended period of time for me and has remained consistent. It will vary though from person to person as we can see by the discrepancies between my response using crows versus the versions of this nursery rhyme regarding magpies. 

In general, corvids evoke magic. As foretellers, they offer guidance to lost or unaware souls. Their message can be found in the colors seen, the sounds made, or the number of birds but this depends on the viewer or hearer to discern significance. Sometimes, the message may be blatant. In 2002, I happened to be walking out to my car to go to work. Three crows stood in triangulation around my car. They each began sounding out their caws with a distinct “r” roll at the end. My car had already been giving me trouble and sure enough, before I arrived at work, my car broke down.

Sometimes, the messages are more subtle or convoluted. My first major encounter with crows began just before this last situation one night at around 2 AM. I had gone out onto my balcony and looking to my right I noticed the copse of trees covered in black splotches. Confused, I kept staring, thinking maybe they were dead leaves still hanging in the middle of winter. Within moments, every single one of those black splotches took flight circling above the courtyard in front of me. I felt like I was in Hitcock’s Birds as I had never seen that many crows before in my life. There must have been hundreds.

Later, I learned that when crows come roosting in the trees outside my windows, they’re telling me to get out of whatever situation I have found myself in. Not long before the second time this happened, like in Poe’s Raven poem, I had a crow tapping at my window one morning. Corvids constantly are asking the question “are you paying attention?” However you choose to interpret your encounter and learn to develop recognition of patterns with these birds, that is the one question you should always be hearing: “are you paying attention?”

For more information on these or other bird and animal symbolism, check out Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small.

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