The crows are ever-present companions on my walks these days. More often than not their presence is a silent one; a hunched form perched high in a bare tree or a ragged shadow slipping across the darkening winter sky. On such days, with brooding clouds and a bitter wind, it is easy to think of them as harbingers of an approaching storm and I can understand why crows and ravens have a central role in much of our folk heritage. Yet they so often remain bit-part players, a supporting cast to the seemingly more noticeable birds and animals with which I share my ramblings.
Throughout literature, the crow has nearly always been regarded as a sinister bird, a creature of ill-omen. Perhaps some of this reputation was gained by the crow’s association with death; as a scavenger it would have been present at the aftermath of great battles or quick to exploit the macabre offerings available at the many gibbets and gallows that once dotted our countryside. It follows that if the crow (or raven) was present at the time of death then it may have had some supernatural role associated with the spirit’s journey to the next world. Other traits central to the success of various members of the crow family may also have lent weight to a belief in their having supernatural powers. Often long-lived, extremely bright and with a good memory, crows may exhibit behaviours that seem too advanced for ‘mere birds’. Odin was held to have two ravens, named Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory), who flew far and wide to bring him information. Anyone who has studied crows closely will know of their ability to retain information and such abilities may have been revealed when crows were kept as pets.
Other powers have also been associated with various members of the crow family. The traditions of ‘crow’, ‘raven’ and ‘jay’ stones all associate some power with these birds, which is then held in a stone. Holding a ‘crow’ stone conferred upon the bearer the gift of prophecy, while holding a ‘jay’ or ‘raven’ stone was believed to render you invisible.
One aspect of crow folklore that has long interested me is the tradition of warriors or other people becoming crows. A local Cornish legend has it that King Arthur became a chough (or possibly a raven) after his death, while there is a French tradition that has wicked priests turned into ravens and bad nuns turned into crows! While a modern day naturalist might laugh at such tales, they do provide an interesting insight to the degree to which we have now become divorced from the natural world around us.