Corvids: Crows, Ravens, and Jackdaws - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Corvids: Crows, Ravens, and Jackdaws

The corvids are a large, widely distributed family of birds including crows, ravens, and jackdaws, powerfully associated with witchcraft and magic. (Other members of the family include rooks and jays.)

Scientific knowledge and genetic research has altered the way humans classify living beings. Once upon a time, classification was based purely on powers of observation. Because crows, ravens, and jackdaws bear an obvious family resemblance, both physically and personalitywise, they have always been understood as related. Magpies, which have profound but different associations with witchcraft, are also corvids, but because they were understood to be a distinct, if similar, species, they have their own encyclopedia entry. See Magpies.

Crows and ravens are big, loud, noisy, black birds. Crows and ravens are often referred to interchangeably. Technically ravens may be slightly larger, with shaggy, disheveled-looking feathers, unlike shiny, sleek black crows. They also possess slightly different habits, being somewhat more solitary than crows, which may roost together in communities numbering hundreds. Ravens will also hunt more than crows, which are mainly scavengers.

When mythology distinguishes between the two, ravens are usually associated with transformative magic while crows are identified with healing. Both are teachers and sponsors of magic and shamanism.

Crows and ravens are characterized by their shiny black color and by their raucous, loud voices. Diurnal birds, like roosters, they noisily greet the sun. If you live in an area with many crows, they will be your daily alarm clock. Crows, like baboons and roosters, are strongly identified with solar power and may be understood to venerate or worship the sun themselves. In a Pacific Northwest myth, Earth is enshrouded in darkness; Crow is literally the one who hangs the sun in the sky.

Crows and ravens, like bears and humans, are omnivores; crows do not like to hunt, however, but prefer to scavenge and not only on road-kill. Historically corvids hover over battlefields waiting for an opportunity to feast on the dead. Crows thus have profound associations with spirits presiding over death, war, and disaster. In Irish Gaelic, badbh meaning “crow” is a synonym for “witch.” It is also the name of a Celtic battle goddess, who may manifest in the shape of her namesake bird.

Crows are oracular birds; they evoke the spirit of prophecy and are also affiliated with oracular spirits. Among the deities with whom crows/ravens are associated are:

Image Amaterasu (Japanese)

Image Apollo (Greek)

Image Badbh (Irish)

Image Cathubodua (Romano-Celtic Gaul, now France)

Image Epona (Celtic)

Image Kali (Indian)

Image Macha (Irish)

Image The Morrigan (Irish; known as the “battle raven” or “battle crow”)

Image Nantosuelta (Gaulish, now Germany)

Image Nephthys (Egyptian)

Image Odin (Norse, Aesir; “God of the Ravens”)

Image Tlazolteotl (Aztec)

Trickster heroes, Crow and Raven play an enormous role in world mythology, including Celtic, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Jewish, Native American, Scandinavian, and Vietnamese traditions, but most especially in the indigenous traditions of Siberia and North America’s Pacific Northwest.

Crows truly are tricksters and clowns; it isn’t just mythological affectation. If you spend time with them, you will observe their games and tricks. They are assertive, unafraid of people and as willing to play a joke on a person as they are on a dog, cat or on each other. Shiny things appeal to them and they’ve been known to steal them. Crows coexist well with people and occasionally become companion animals. Crows will, on occasion, mimic human language or the sounds of other animals.

The associations of crow/raven with witchcraft, magic, and shamanism pre-date Christianity. What changes post-Christianity is the perception of those associations. Rather than positive associations with wise-women, shaman, and seers, crows were now associated with diabolism and sin. In the eyes of Christian Europe, crows and ravens were linked with witchcraft because of their color, their raucousness, harsh voices, sharp intelligence, and assertive nature. Legends emerged explaining why crows were black—typically involving punishment for some kind of sin. According to the standard story, once upon a time, crows were pure white but they did something very bad and so were punished by being painted permanently black. Because crows are black birds that daily herald the light, the Church identified them with Satan in his guise as Lucifer, the fallen angel and light bringer.

Jackdaws, which are quite similar to crows and ravens, are restricted to the Eastern Hemisphere, ranging from Eurasia to northwestern Africa. It derives its name from its call: “jack!” It resembles a smallish, grayish-black crow, but is as noisy, raucous and sociable as its larger relations. It eats insects, worms, fruits, and carrion. The world’s most famous jackdaw may be Sybil Leek’s late companion, Hotfoot Jackson (see HALL OF FAME: Sybil Leek).