Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/November 1880/A Flock of Mythological Crows
By W. H. GARDNER, M. D.
PERHAPS there are but few persons who have read Poe's "Raven," or Dickens's "Barnaby Rudge," who have not felt some curiosity to learn why ravens and crows, more than any other birds, should be invested with characters so ominous and demoniacal. And not only do these birds bear this ominous reputation in poetry and fiction, and in the legends and folklore of many of the nations of the earth, but by the unlearned they are still looked upon as too weird and uncanny for ordinary birds; and many a person can be found even in this age of positivism who would consider a crow lighting upon his house-top as certain a harbinger of evil as Hesiod did, seven hundred and fifty years before Christ, when he said to his brother Perses, "Nor when building a house, leave it not unfinished, lest, mark you, perching upon it, the cawing crow should croak."
In this age, our plane of thought is so far above that of our rude and ignorant ancestors that their superstitions and myths seem too puerile to merit notice; but when we study them attentively, with the light which comparative mythology is able to throw upon them, we find that what at first seemed only childish fables are really degraded fragments of the religion of our forefathers, and as such they are surely worthy of the attention of their descendants.
In the infancy of mankind almost every system of mythology included the worship or veneration of animals. In one land the deity was a bull, in another it was a serpent, in yet another it was a bird; and in lands like India and Egypt almost every known animal was either an incarnated deity or demon. The same reasons that caused the animal to be deified and worshiped would, in a short time, surround its worship with numberless myths and legends, that would be remembered long after the occasion that called them into existence had been forgotten. As an instance of this, we need only cite the return of the Israelites in the desert of Sinai to the worship of the golden calf—the image of the Apis god of the Egyptians—they probably being no more aware that under this eidolon was represented the sun-god in the zodiacal sign Taurus than were the mass of the Egyptians themselves. Still another reason why these myths and legends would remain long after their real meaning had been forgotten, is due to the metaphoric nature of all early languages; and this cause would act still more strongly if the various shades of meaning of each metaphorical term were not limited by accurate writing. Brinton says the Algonquins, who translated "Michabo" into "The Great Hare," lost by a false etymology a great part of their religion, the true meaning of the term undoubtedly being, "The Spirit of the Light" or "The Dawn."
The great storehouse of myth and fable for all the Indo-European nations is the sacred books of the Hindoos; and it is here, among the religious beliefs of these old Nature-worshipers recorded away back in the morning of time, that we should first look for myths concerning the crow. In this curious pantheism all nature was divided into two opposing principles: the one containing all that was bright and life giving and beneficent for mankind—devas; the other including all that was dark and malignant and destructive—demons. Among these malignant powers of nature, we find frequent mention made of the crow, and usually associated with such ill-omened animals as the wolf and the owl. De Gubernatis says that in the Vedic hymns the term "vrikas" may mean both wolf and crow; but we find that, though the wolf and the crow were equivalent in many respects, and were both enemies to the devas or bright gods, yet the wolf was always demoniacal, while the crow in some of its aspects was benignant; and when the sun-god had finished his daily battle with dragons and monsters, and had sunk into the sleep of death, the crow bore him on his pinions down into the dismal land of darkness and the dead. In the last book of the "Râmâyana," we also find that, when the gods were fleeing before the demons, Yama, the god of the dead, borrowed the plumage of the crow in order to escape, in payment for which service he gave the crow the privilege of eating the funereal food.
In the Grecian mythology, at least as early as the days of Hesiod, the character of the crow or raven (κοραξ), as a prophet of evil, had already been established (see ante, page 43); yet we find it here also sacred to the sun-god and usually associated with the same malignant animals as in the Hindoo mythology.
Our Hellenic myths say that, "once upon a time, Apollo sent his feathered attendant, the raven, who was then pure white, to bring water for sacrifice, but the raven, finding a fig-tree with fruit nearly ripe, waited until it should mature, and he could appease his hunger; then, having to account for his delay, he took a water-snake out of the fountain, placed it in the pitcher, and brought it to the god, and told him that the snake had daily drunk the fountain dry. But Apollo was not to be deceived by any such story, and, as a punishment for his crime, he turned the raven black, and condemned him to be tormented with thirst during the season that figs are ripening."
Another says that "Apollo was in love with a beautiful nymph of Thessaly named Koronis, but she was false to the god, and was surprised with another lover by the raven, who flew off without heeding her entreaties and told his master; the god in a transport of jealousy slew the faithless damsel, and then, angry at the tattling raven for bringing him the unwelcome tidings, he turned his plumage black."
In the Grecian myth of the battle between the gods and the giants, Apollo is said to have disguised himself in the plumage of the crow, as we have before seen was done by Yama, in the Hindoo version of the story.
In the Roman mythology there were wanting many of the idealistic conceptions of the Greek mind, and even the glorious Apollo was not given a place in the Roman pantheon until a late day. Cicero says, "The whole religion of the Romans at first consisted of sacrifices and divination by birds."
Besides the sacred geese and chickens which were always on hand and kept in proper condition to consummate the "tripudium solistimum," whenever the good of the state required it, the Roman college of augurs divided all other birds, for the purposes of divination, into two general classes—Alites, those from which the augury was taken by observing their direction and manner of flight; and Oscineo, those in which the augury was taken from the voice or cry. Of the latter class none were considered more sacred or more certainly ominous than the crow and raven, though Cicero says, "The croak of a raven on the right hand or a crow on the left was reckoned a good omen."
Early Roman history records more than one instance when the hoarse croak of the raven and warning voice of the crow have been heard and heeded in the councils of the nation, and sometimes even turned the doubtful issues of a battle. In the war with the Gauls which occurred in the consulship of Camillus, Livy tells us that "when the opposing armies were drawn up ready to join in battle, a Gaul of gigantic size stepped to the front and defied any one of the Romans to meet him in single combat. His challenge was accepted by Marcus Valerius, who was assisted in the fight by a crow, that, suddenly appearing, lit on the helmet of the Gaul and attacked him with beak and talons until Valerius slew him, when the crow flew away to the east. The death of the Gallic champion brought on a general battle, in which the Gauls were beaten and forced to retreat. After this remarkable event, Marcus Valerius was surnamed Corvus."
Pliny tells of a sedition that occurred in Rome in consequence of the killing of a raven, and, though we can hardly relegate this probably historic incident to the domain of mythology, yet it will serve to show the peculiar veneration in which these birds were held by the ancient Romans. He says:
"A raven, that had been bred upon the top of the temple of Castor, flew down into the shop of a shoemaker which stood opposite; the shoemaker took much delight in its visits, and taught it to speak, after which it would fly every morning to the rostra overlooking the forum, whence, addressing each by name, it would salute Tiberius, then the Cæsars, Germanicus and Drusus, after which it would greet the Roman people as they passed, and then return to the shop. For many years it was constant in its attendance; but at length another shoemaker, envious of the popularity of his fellow craftsman, killed it; upon which the people became so enraged at the cruel and irreligious wretch that they drove him from the city and eventually put him to death. The funeral of the bird was celebrated with almost endless obsequies; the body was placed upon a litter carried by Ethiopians, preceded by a piper, and was borne to the pile with garlands of every size and description."
Among the Scandinavian gods, the highest throne was assigned to Odin—the Alfader. And, though there was but little in his cruel and relentless character to remind us of the bright and life-giving Vishnu, or the glorious and benignant Apollo, yet there is no doubt but what he was another apotheosis of the sun, only with attributes so changed as to suit the ideal of a stern and warlike race, who had not only brute and human foes to contend against, but even to wage continual war against Nature herself. In the Norse mythology, both wolves and ravens were sacred to Odin. In the prose or elder Edda, which was the sacred book of the Odinic mythology, it is said, "Odin gives the meat that is set before him to two wolves, called Geri and Foeki, for he himself stands in no need of food." And, again: "Two ravens sit on Odin's shoulders, and whisper in his ear the tidings and events they have heard and witnessed. They are called Hugin and Munin (mind and memory). He sends them out at dawn of day to fly over the whole world, and they return at eve toward meal-time. Hence it is that Odin knows so many things, and is called the ravens' god."
Turning now to the Semitic tribes, we will find that among them, also, ravens were held in greater veneration than any of their feathered congeners; and more than one mention of them is made in the sacred chronicle as especial messengers of the prophets. In the Biblical narration of the deluge, we read: "And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made; and he sent forth a raven, which went to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth." And, again, after the prophet Elijah had foretold to the wicked King Ahab how the land would be cursed with drought, the word of the Lord came to him, saying: "Get thee hence and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith that is before Jordan. And it shall be that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith that is before Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning and bread and flesh in the evening, and he drank of the brook."
In the Babylonian legend of the deluge, as given in the fragments of Berosus, we have also the episode of the birds being sent out to see if the waters had subsided, but neither the raven nor the dove is especially mentioned by name; while in the legend as given by the old Arabian chronicler, Abou-djafar Mohammed Tabiri, he not only mentions the raven especially being sent forth first, but also gives the reason of his not coming back: "Noah said to the raven, 'Go, and place your foot on the earth and see what is the depth of the water.' The raven departed; but, having found a carcass, it remained to devour it, and did not return. Noah was provoked, and he cursed the raven, saying, 'May God make thee contemptible among men, and let carrion be thy food!'"
We have another legend—of the raven as a. grave-digger—which is given in Baring-Gould's "Legends of Old Testament Characters" as follows: "After Abel was slain, Adam and Eve sat beside the body and wept, and knew not what to do. Then said a raven whose friend was dead, 'I will teach Adam a lesson.' And he dug a hole in the soil, and laid his friend there and covered him up. And when Adam saw this he said to Eve, 'We will do the same with Abel.' God rewarded the raven for this by promising that none should ever injure his young; that he should always have meat in abundance, and that his prayer for rain should be immediately answered."
From the same source we select one more legend, in which the raven appears as the possessor of a valuable secret, which, upon compulsion, it teaches the great king: "While Solomon was building the temple, he captured Iachr, one of the most powerful of all the jinns; and, having the demon bound and completely in his control, he promised him his liberty if he would tell him how the hardest metals could be cut and shaped without noise. 'I myself know of no means,' answered the demon, 'but the raven can tell thee how to do this. Take the eggs out of the raven's nest and place a crystal cover upon them, and thou shalt see how the raven will break it.' Solomon followed the advice of Iachr. A raven came and fluttered some time around the cover, and, seeing that she could not reach her eggs, she vanished, and returned shortly with a stone in her beak, named iamur or ichamir, and no sooner had she touched the crystal therewith, than it clave asunder. 'Whence hast thou this stone?' asked Solomon of the raven, 'It comes from a mountain in the far west,' replied the bird. Solomon commanded a jinn to follow the raven to the mountain and bring him more of those stones. Then he released Iachr as he had promised. When the jinn returned with the stone ichamir, Solomon went back to Jerusalem, and distributed the stones among the jinns whom he had employed in building the temple."
In the Egyptian mythology we have no single equivalent of the glorious sun-god of the Greeks; and, though the Rosetta-stone has explained to us the mystery of the hieroglyphs, and revealed the long hidden meaning of many of the sculptured monuments and half-effaced papyri of the land of the Pharaohs, yet much of her curious mythology is a sealed book, and the attributes of some of her unique gods are still enigmas even to the most learned Egyptologists. Osiris, Aroueris, (the elder Horus), Harpocrates (the younger Horus), Chnum, Ra, Tum, and Mentu were all deifications of the sun during some part of the day or year; but it is no easy matter to limit the peculiar province of each god, or give his exact equivalent in Greek thought; and though Herodotus and other Greek writers assert that Horus was the same as the Greek Apollo, even this throws but little light upon the subject, since there were two Egyptian gods bearing this name, and several (probably deified) kings, one of whom restored the worship of the sun, after it had been forbidden by Amenophis IV, and had been neglected for nearly one hundred years. However, it is at least certain that Horus was worshiped by the Egyptians as the embodiment of the sun in a part of his course, and to him were sacred the hawk, the wolf, and the crow. Pritchard, quoting from Æolian's "History of Animals," says, "The Egyptians reverence the hawk as sacred to Apollo, whom they name, in their language, Horus."
And again, quoting from the same authority: "The crow also was sacred to Apollo, or Horus. In the neighborhood of Coptos only two individual birds of this species were to be seen, which belonged to the temple of Apollo."
Coming now to the rude and primitive mythology of the red race of America, we find here also several tribes by which these birds were held sacred. And curiously enough, in the Algonquin myth of the deluge, we find both the raven and the wolf as attendants on Messon, the Great Spirit. Brinton quotes it from Father Le June as follows: "One day as Messon was hunting, the wolves which he used as dogs entered a great lake and were detained there. Messon, looking for them everywhere, a bird said to him, 'I see them in the middle of this lake.' He entered the lake to rescue them, but the lake overflowing its banks, covered the land and destroyed the world. Messon, very much astonished at this, sent out the raven to find a piece of earth wherewith to rebuild the land, but the bird could find none; then he ordered the otter to dive for some, but the animal returned empty; at last he sent down the muskrat, who came back with ever so small a piece, which, however, was enough for Messon to form the land on which we are. The trees having lost their branches, he shot arrows at their naked trunks, which became their limbs, revenged himself on those who had detained his wolves, and, having married the muskrat, by it peopled the world."
In the Athapascan myth of the creation, the creative power takes the form of the raven. Brinton, quoting from McKenzie's "History of the Fur Trade," says: "With singular unanimity, most of the Northwest branches of this stock trace their descent from a raven, a mighty bird whose eyes were fire, whose glances were lightning, and the clapping of whose wings was thunder. On his descent to the ocean the earth instantly rose and remained on the surface of the water. This omnipotent bird then called forth all the variety of animals."
And again: "A raven, also, in the Athapascan myth, saved their ancestors from the general flood, and in this instance it is distinctly identified with the mighty Thunder Bird, who, at the beginning, ordered the earth from the depths. Prometheus-like, it brought fire from heaven, and saved them from a second death by cold."
A poetical description of this mythical bird has been given by Mr. Shelling, and is preserved in Griswold's collection of American poetry. We have room, however, for only a few lines of the poem:
"About his burning brow a cloud,
Black as the raven's wing, he wore;
"Afar on yonder faint-blue mound,
But besides the more ancient myths concerning crows and ravens, a volume might be filled with those degraded myths which, under the names of fairy-tales, or folk-lore (Mährchen), are found in all the languages of Europe; and though we can not follow each one, step by step, in its downward career, or trace all its varying phases with the same certainty that we can the metamorphosis of Odin into the wild huntsman of the Hartz, or the dethronement of Jupiter and his decretion into Jack the Giant-Killer, yet there are always preserved sufficient distinctive features by which their parentage can be traced.
In the Mecklenburg story of "The Three Crows," in the Grimms' collection, after Conrad had been beaten by his knavish companions until he was blind, and then robbed and tied to the gallows-tree, the three crows that perched over his head at night informed him how he could regain his sight, cure the sick princess, obtain a supply of water for the famishing town, and by so doing obtain the king's consent to marry the princess whom he had saved.
We rarely discover in any one story so many of the mythological characteristics of the crow as are associated together here; the ill-omened gallows, the black night, the more than human wisdom of the crows, their knowledge of prophecy, and the healing art befitting Apollo's birds, their power of obtaining water, and lastly their malignant nature; for when Conrad's wicked companions sat under the gallows-tree, hoping to hear the crows tell something for their advantage also, the crows fell upon them with wings, beaks, and talons, and buffeted them until they were nearly dead.
In the story of "Faithful John," given in the same collection, we find the crows here also possessed of more than human wisdom in addition to the gift of prophecy. Faithful John, who understands the language of the crows, is enabled, by overhearing their colloquy, to save the lives of the prince and his bride; his motives, however, are misunderstood by his royal master, who sends him to the scaffold, whereupon he tells the prophecy of the crows and explains all his conduct; telling the secret, however, seals his fate, and while his master is begging forgiveness the faithful servant is turned into stone.
This tale in varying forms is one of the most widely spread of all the stories of the Aryan tribes. Cox says it comes from the same source as the Deccan story of Rama and Luxman; and we find a somewhat erratic form of it in the touching little story of Prince Llewellyn and his faithful hound Gellert.
Philosophers at various times have attempted to account for this peculiar veneration of animals, which by many of the nations of antiquity was heightened into worship, and which, among some of the rude and barbarous tribes of Africa and the South-Sea Islands, still exists as almost their only recognition of a religion. But a bare recital of the numberless theories would serve no good purpose, and draw out this article to unnecessary length. There are, however, two theories which not only seem plausible, but which seem to be supported by the facts of history and the practices of the savage tribes of the present day.
One is, that zoölatry is an outgrowth of a primitive worship of ancestors (necrolatry). The other is, that zoölatry as well as heliolatry, sabæanism, sex-worship, and probably other cults, are all derived from a primitive worship of the deified powers of nature (pantheism).
Though history affords many noted examples of the apotheosis of ancestors, and particularly in the patriarchal form of government, when the ancestor was also the ruler, yet it is only since the scientific study of ethnology has become general that the means have been afforded students of becoming acquainted on any extended scale with the crude and primitive beliefs of the lower races of man.
After the examination of a great mass of facts bearing upon the subject, Herbert Spencer arrives at the conclusion that the first ideas of ghosts or other supernatural beings have arisen in the mind of primitive man through the agency of dreams, somnambulism, trance, catalepsy, and other analogous conditions; and that the same conditions are continually reproducing the same ideas in the minds of his more civilized descendants. This alter ego, which exists in the dreams and visions of the primitive man, he believes also exists during the sleep of death; and that it is then more powerful than during life, and is able to perform not only all the vagaries and metamorphoses which he believes have actually occurred during sleep, but is also able to enter into and take possession of the bodies of animals, and even other human beings. As the vague notions of ghosts and spirits grow into definiteness by the corroborating testimony of other members of the tribe, there would naturally arise a desire to gain the favor or avert the displeasure of these powerful beings by gifts and offerings similar to what would have given pleasure during life; these offerings would usually be made at the grave, cave, or house where the dead body was laid, and thus the tomb would become an altar or temple, as we see the tomb and temple associated even in civilized communities. In addition to the belief that the ghost of a dead ancestor or relative has the power to pass into the body of a beast, is the fact that the languages of the lower races of man are so imperfect that metaphorical names require to be interpreted literally, and consequently primitive speech is unable to transmit to posterity the slight shades of difference between an animal and a person named after that animal; moreover, having no knowledge of proper names, naming after animals, from some fancied resemblance or association of ideas, is most common, and hence we find such names as Black-Hawk, Little-Crow, Lone-Wolf, and Sitting-Bull. In the course of a few generations these animals would be looked upon as the ancestors of respective tribes, and would be reverenced and sacrificed to as deities. Besides explaining animal gods, this hypothesis accounts for sundry anomalous beliefs, the divinities half-brute and half-human, the animals that talk and play active parts in human affairs, the doctrine of metempsychosis, etc.
On the other hand, the pantheistic theory assumes that whatever caused the sentiment of awe, wonder, or fear, in the mind of primitive man, would be deified and worshiped; that the first objects that would excite these emotions would be the sun, moon, and stars, clouds, wind, rain, thunder, lightning, etc.; that from their ignorance of even the rudiments of physical science, together with the want of exactness of early language and its wealth of metaphor and personification, these cosmic objects and forces would be conceived of as individual entities, each having absolute personal volition: and since these metaphoric names would vary with the varying conception of each one of these fervent old pantheists, there would thus arise that almost endless polyonomy which has been the fertile source of so many of the myths that have puzzled and horrified mankind ever since their origin was forgotten. Moreover, since all metaphors depend upon some real or fancied resemblance of things less known to things better known, all of these deified powers of nature would be invested with forms and attributes similar to the animals and men with which they were already familiar, though in a magnified degree; and from this conception, by a very natural and usual transition of thought, the human or animal form, which had at first been sacred only as the eidolon of the god, would in a short time be thought to possess some intrinsic sanctity independent of that divine association.
There are many arguments in support of both of these theories, the chief objection being that either one alone is too exclusive to account for all the facts; for, while there can be no doubt that ancestor-worship was the primitive and only religion of many, possibly all, the tribes of the earth at the dawn of their civilization, yet it is also certain that when tribes had formed settled communities, and a higher grade of culture had been attained, ancestor-worship was supplemented or supplanted by a worship of nature.
And since to primeval man none of the powers of nature seemed so beneficent or worthy of adoration as the sun, heliolatry was one of the most widely spread of all the religions of antiquity, and the daily conflict between the sun-god and clouds and darkness a never-ending theme for poet and priest. And as the incidents of these oft-repeated battles were handed down orally, from generation to generation, decked in all the glowing metaphors of exuberant fancy, the real nature of the deity they described and the celestial battles he waged would gradually be lost and forgotten, while the metaphoric names and metaphoric incidents would "survive the wreck of time" and come down to historic ages as actual incidents in the lives of real gods.
And it is in this mythological contest between the sun-god and the powers of darkness that we will find the origin of the demoniacal character of crows and ravens, these birds always representing in ancient thought the dark and terrible night, or the black and howling storm cloud, the natural and necessary opponents of all that was bright and divine and good, of which the sun was the source and origin, Nor were these metaphors far-fetched or inappropriate, the darkness of night settling silently down over the calm, still earth might not inaptly be compared to the descent of some black gigantic bird; and, to describe the fierce storm-cloud rushing through the sky "on the wings of the wind," no metaphor could be more exact than to liken it to a huge, ravening bird of prey. In most of the myths herein cited, the cloud seems to be the more exact equivalent of the bird, though in the earlier Hindoo mythology the cloud and the night are often convertible. The crow, as the metaphoric name of the cloud, also explains the connection of these birds with water, which we find not only in legends of the deluge but in many others.
The first Greek myth given is a degraded version of one of the numerous Hindoo myths of the god Indra, who slays the black dragon that has shut up the fertilizing waters: the white raven is the fleecy cloud of summer that contains no moisture; but, as autumn advances and figs ripen, the cloud grows blacker and brings rain. It is worth noting, also, that the monstrous dragon of India shrinks into an insignificant water-snake when transported to the less rank soil of Hellas.
In the Greek myth quoted from Ovid, we have another of those widely-spread myths of the sun and dawn. Koronis (κορωνις) is the beautiful (crown of light) Aurora, surprised by the morning cloud, the raven, in the embrace of another lover, the night.
In the Norse mythology the ravens that sit on Odin's shoulders are the clouds that are seen on either side of the rising sun. As the sun mounts higher and the heat increases, the clouds are dissipated, to return again in the evening when the air is cooler and the sun sinks into the western sea. The wolves have doubtless the same nebulous origin as the ravens; the name of one of them, Freki, most probably being a reminiscence if not a direct derivative of the Sanskrit vrikas (wolf), which, as we have before stated, in the Vedic hymns signifies the black night or the howling storm-cloud.
In the Semitic languages, from the prolific root arab, one of the meanings of which is to be black, was formed the Hebrew oreb (raven), ereb (evening, land of the setting sun), etc. From the same root also come Erebos and Arabia hence, on linguistic grounds alone, it is impossible to decide whether Elijah was fed by the ravens or the Arabians.
The legend of Schamir is found in most of the languages of Europe, but in variously modified forms. In one place it is a stone, in another a worm, and in yet another it is a plant. Their agreement, however, in the power to rend rocks and to discover hidden treasures shows the origin of the myth to have been the storm-cloud which carries the thunderbolt, and with it rends the hardest rocks.
In the Egyptian mythology the reason assigned for dedicating the hawk to Horus is the bold flight which the bird is observed to make toward the sun without being dazzled by its rays; but the reason for dedicating the crow to the same god is not so apparent, though it is probable that under the forms both of the wolf and the crow was represented the black night as an invariable and necessary follower of the god of day. Ælian says that in the temple of Apollo at Delphi was the statue of a wolf, and that the reason the wolf was sacred to this god was because he was born of Latona, or nursed by her, under this form. It was doubtless a wolf of the same species that suckled the warlike twins of Silvia, at a later age, on the banks of the Tiber.
In both the Hindoo and the Greek mythologies we find the owl intimately associated with the crow—the owl, like the crow, being one of the demons of the night; but, as the owl was the representative of the bright night, or the moon, there was a constant warfare going on between them. The Pancatantra describes a battle between the owls and the crows, the casus belli being the opposition of the crows to the owl being elected king of birds. Aristotle, too, gravely informs us as a fact of natural history that "the crow and the owl also are enemies, for at mid-day the crow, taking advantage of the dim sight of the owl, secretly seizes and devours its eggs, and the owl eats those of the crow during the night."
Whether an observance of the habits of crows led to their being selected, in the first place, to represent the dark and evil principle, can not now be told, but it is very certain that their feeding upon dead bodies, frequenting battle-fields and plague-infested districts, would add to and intensify their ominous reputation, even if it did not originate it; moreover, being constantly associated with death in its most repulsive forms, and from their keenness of scent and vision being able, apparently, to foretell the death of an animal or human being, their very presence soon came to be regarded as a foreboding of evil.
This keenness of scent and vision and their straight, vigorous flight were taken advantage of by the old Norse sea-rovers, who made use of these birds as pilots to guide them on their murderous forays and voyages of discovery. According to the "Landnama Book," one of the earliest records of Iceland, about the year 865 a. d., Floki, one of the most famous Vikings of that day, having performed a great sacrifice and consecrated three ravens to Odin, started from Norway on a voyage of discovery. After touching at the Shetland and Faroe Islands, Floki steered northwest for the open sea, and when he was fairly out of sight of land he turned loose one of his ravens, which, after rising to a great height, flew off toward the land they had left. From this Floki concluded that he was nearer these islands than any other land. After proceeding on his course some days longer he "let fly" another raven, which, after being some hours on the wing, returned to the vessel. Floki continued his course, and after a few days more let loose his third raven, and followed the direction of its flight until he reached the eastern coast of Iceland.
In Callimachus's hymn to Apollo, we also have mention of a pilot crow being sent by the god to guide the tongue-tied Battus to Libya, where the Python had declared that he must found a colony. And, again, Plutarch tells, on the authority of Callisthenes, that when Alexander crossed the Libyan desert to consult the oracle of Jupiter Ammon, he was directed by a flock of crows, that suddenly made its appearance, and guided him on his way, flying briskly ahead when he was on the march, lighting when he halted, and, what is stranger still, when he was going wrong calling him by their croaking until he was in the right direction again. We might also mention, in this connection, the story Herodotus tells of the ubiquitous Aristeas, whom the Metapontines say appeared in their country, and told them to erect an altar to Apollo, and place near it a statue bearing the name of Aristeas the Prœonnesian, for Apollo had visited their country only of all the Italians, and that he who was now Aristeas had accompanied the god in the shape of a crow.
Another characteristic of crows is their longevity. Hesiod asserts that they will live nine times as long as a man, and it is certain that they have attained an age of more than one hundred years. On this account the sorceress Medea, with many other ingredients of a peculiar nature, placed a crow's head and beak in the magic caldron when she was compounding the "elixir of life" to rejuvenate the decrepit Aeson.
Still another peculiarity of this family of birds is their human-like voice. All of them are easily domesticated, and nearly every variety can, without much trouble, be taught to speak. In some species, particularly the jabbering crow (Corvus Jamaicensus), their voices are so similar to those of human beings that, at a short distance, it is almost impossible to distinguish them apart.
But, while the ability to articulate probably first caused the crow to be regarded as a prophet, its evil habits, funereal associations, and metaphoric opposition to the sun-god caused it to be looked upon as a prophet only of evil, and as such it has always been regarded in mythology, legend, and popular tradition.
It seems curious that the figments of extinct mythologies should come from the dim and misty past, down through the ages, and still exist in the enlightenment of the present day; and yet we know that the débris of these effete religions not only survive in the legends and folklore of all the lands now civilized, but to a certain extent adulterate their manners and customs, their laws, and even their forms of religion.
A veneration for old manners and customs and the religion of his forefathers is imbibed by the child almost with his mother's milk; the sentiment grows with his growth and strengthens with his strength, until, when adult age is attained and the mind should be sufficiently mature to inquire into the truth and propriety of what he has been taught, the judgment has already become so prejudiced, by years of unquestioned obedience and unconscious imitation, that to defend and perpetuate even the errors and superstitions of his forefathers appears to him a solemn duty nearly akin to religion.