Truth & Myth: Crows & Ravens in The Game of Thrones

The sagas of Westeros, known as A Song of Ice and Fire and adapted into the wildly reknowned Game of Thrones TV series, makes frequent use of Crows and Ravens as omens, messengers and atmosphere. The foundation of the stories, plots and characters also draw heavily from real-world mythologies.  How much of this is fantasy and how much is rooted in truth? Here we examine the many facets of the Westerosi corvid and how it relates to the real-world counterpart – or doesn’t.

 Warning: this post contains mild spoilers if you have not read the books!

 

1Ravens vs Crows

The stories refer to Ravens mainly in the context of messengers, however later on they appear to Sam and Gilly beyond the wall in a massive flock perched in a weirwood tree.  The show also used “Ravens” in their promotional teasers, however the show often interchanges crows for ravens. So how can you tell the difference? Ravens are the largest corvids, and also the largest “songbirds.”  Twice the weight of a common crow at about 3 pounds (1.5kg), they grow to be an average of two feet (60cm) tall and have a wing-span of nearly 3-3.5 feet (1m) . They also have a diamond shape tail rather than the rounded square tail shape of the crow, and shaggy “beard” of feathers just below their heavier, hookier bill.

 

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2The Three Eyed Crow

Ravens factor into almost every known ancient mythos. The Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Semitic and Siberian legends depict the raven as a messenger of storms or bad weather. In African, Asian and European legends, the raven is an omen of death. In middle-European lore, ravens were often used as exponents of evil (for example in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Othello). In contrast, Norse mythology puts ravens in a place of power and worship, often associated with the god Odin.

Speaking of Odin, many theories and parallels have been drawn between Norse Mythology and the characters, plots and legends in A Song of Ice and Fire.  One such theory compares the Three Eyed Crow, which Bran seeks throughout his story, and Loki, the Norse god.  From what we know of the Three Eyed Crow thus far in the book series, we can assume Brynden Rivers , also known as “Bloodraven” or the” Night’s King”, is the Three Eyed Crow.

So how does he compare to Loki? Dorian the Historian explains on his blog that:

He is an extremely old Targaryen bastard living under the roots of a weirwood tree far beyond the Wall. (Loki lives amongst the trees)

He had been banished and condemned to the Night’s Watch for what was probably the death of Aerion Targaryen. (Loki was blamed for the death of Baldr, a great Viking leader)

He can warg (Loki can shapechange into animals and into the mist)

Baldr’s death(In the book represented by Aerion Targaryen in the World’s history, then repeated again as Joffrey’s death) is seen as the first in the chain of events which will ultimately lead to the destruction of the gods at Ragnarök. Baldr will be reborn in the new world, according to Völuspá. Sound familiar? This is very similar to the prophecy of Azor Azhai, who show watchers think is Stannis Baratheon. So as you can see, the Three Eyed Crow is quite an important symbol and character in both the book and adaptation.

But let’s move on to the warging bit…

 

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3Raven Warging

Warging, by definition, is mind control or mind-melding another living thing. Most mythologies involving Ravens also involve shapeshifting, which is conceptually similar. Native American legend tells of Raven shapeshifting into a man, a pine needle and even a wolf.  Japanese mythology has spirits taking Raven form, or women shapeshifting into Ravens. Norse mythology is rife with shapeshifting lore, including Loki as previously mentioned.  While this is a talent hard possessed by real-world human beings, who is to say it isn’t actually possible?

Both Bran and Jon Snow are connected with crows and ravens using their warging ability. We can also assume that Bloodraven makes frequent use of Ravens as his eyes, both in the scene with Sam and Gilly, and as Mormont’s Raven.

 

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4Mormont’s Raven

Lord Commander Mormont’s Raven(later becoming Jon’s Raven) stars opposite the Three Eyed Crow as the only other prominent corvid-character in the series. He is abnormally large, extremely old and commands a varied vocabulary.

Ravens live a very long time – from 40 to 80 years, so it is not unusual for Mormont’s raven to have been around as long as Maester Aemon.

Ravens are capable of the most complex vocalizations in the bird kingdom. They make many different kinds of calls varying from a low, gurgling croak to harsh grating sounds and shrill alarm calls. As the show plainly demonstrates, Ravens can be taught a variety of words and phrases, and have even been taught complex forms of communication through reward systems training similar to the methods made famous by Einstein the Parrot. Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context!

 

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5Corn?

Crows and Ravens do love corn, so this is an apt request from the Ravens of this story. The Raven diet is quite variable though, including fruit, nuts, seeds, fish, carrion, trash and an occasional french fry. Ravens are not birds of prey – you don’t need to worry about your dogs or cats roaming the yard unattended, just their food bowls, as Ravens are adept thieves.  Ravens will dig through snow, plastic bags, bins or compost to find their dinner, and may also follow wolf packs,  hunters or fishermen for a meal. Ravens are known to steal the food of many birds and mammals, even from dogs.

 

Michael S Quinton

Michael S Quinton

6Crows & Carrion

As the Game of Thrones is played out, the world is rife with war, plague and death, and thus crows are seen everywhere preying on the spoils. They are seen eating flesh, pecking out eyes and numerous other deeds usually reserved for vultures. This is not far from realistic – although only some kinds of Crow and Raven are known to eat carrion as a matter of course, mainly depending on their environment and options.

In this day and age, we know that crows and ravens often use their amazingly high IQ to manipulate other species where meals are concerned.  They have been observed calling to dogs, wolves or other predators to attract them to a corpse the Raven cannot scavenge or open on their own. This advanced intelligence also allows them to share social and territorial spaces with these kinds of predators without becoming prey themselves.  Ravens and crows have been observed working together to distract a person or animal away from a potential meal so the other can snatch it away.

Historically, crows have been depicted scavenging or circling the dead through many artforms, and have been used in Norse and Tibetan ritual to consume corpses in honor of the dead as vessels for rebirth.

 

Marino Thorlacius

Marino Thorlacius

7Dark Wings, Dark Words

This common idiom in our story refers to Ravens as omens of something bad.  This comparison is used throughout history and mythology as well. Ravens and Crows are famous symbols for death, tragedy and misfortune, which is likely the driving force behind author George R.R Martin’s use of them in the books to foreshadow and set the scene.

 

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8Raven Messengers

The most prominent role Ravens play in the series is as messengers of their sage-type masters, the Maesters of each keep or castle, and by Sam and Master Aemon on the Wall. This serves both functionally, to get information from one location to another, and figuratively as omens or bearers of often bad news.

While Ravens are super-intelligent, they were likely not used as messengers at any point in history, contrary to the romantic notion put forth in the series. Instead, carrier pigeons were used for their unique navigation and magnetic sensitivity. As ravens are not migratory, they would not make the best homers, although they range for very long distances.

However, Ravens have been noted as useful spy tools, purported as trained eavesdroppers capable of repeating back snippets of conversation overheard by the enemy, or retreiving items.

 

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9White Ravens

Among the vast arsenal of messnger Ravens employed throughout Westeros, the Maesters of the Citadel use a special white raven to distinguish messages coming from the Citadel from other messages.  Not to be mistaken for an albino bird, white ravens are quite real, and are the result of Leucism, a genetic disorder whereby the pigmentation cells are unevenly distributed, hence resulting in patches of feathers looking paler, bleached looking or show white. White ravens are the result of the mating of two common ravens with the same genetic defect. The same pair could produce many generations of white ravens, since common black ravens are monogamous and long-lived.

White Ravens have also been revered in mythology, including the story of Noah’s Ark (later translated into a Dove, which was more of a romanized romantic symbol). The significance of white ravens being used by Maesters of the Citadel could be to symbolically differentiate the messages they carry as being peacful or good, or it could simply be a means for noting importance.

 

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10Ravens & Wolves

Dire wolves and common wolves are almost as common as Ravens in A Song of Ice and Fire, with both Nymeria and Ghost in close companion ship with Crows and Ravens throughout their wanderings.

This partnership is common in the real world, too, as both Ravens and Wolves share common habitats. Aside from ravens enterprising on wolves as competent providers of food, Ravens are also extremely playful, earning them the legendary nickname of “trickster.” One of their favorite games is tail-pulling, which has been observed as perpetrated on larger birds of prey, wolves, big cats and even people. In one account, ravens were seen perching on the roof of a local supermarket, waiting for unsuspecting humans to walk by before pushing a clump of snow over the edge to fall on their heads.

North of the Wall, it is easy to imagine Raven playing with Ghost in much the same way.

In what other ways do you notice crows and ravens used in A Song of Ice and Fire, and what significance, if any, do you think they portray?

Read the latest car news and check out newest photos, articles, and more from the Car and Driver Blog.

John Cusack & The Raven

We have news of John Cusack’s upcoming film “The Raven” which will be directed by James McTeigue.  Cusack is starring as Edgar Allan Poe in  a fictionalized story about Poe teaming up with a detective (played by Luke Evans) to search for a serial killer who has kidnapped the author’s fiancée (Alice Eve) and gone on a murder spree that recalls Poe’s stories.

 

 

Click here for Steve’s interview with McTeigue where the director talks about the film.

Film Noir & Creepy Corvid Movies

If it is raining and gloomy where you are, then it is time to snuggle up in your favorite blanket, make some popcorn, and watch a really good (or awesomely bad) movie to celebrate Halloween. Ravens, Crows, and black feathered birds of all kinds have appeared in movies since film was invented.  Their voices and presence enable the film creators to convey mystery, foreshadowing, doom, danger, and in some cases – hope.

Some of the most popular feathered flicks of old include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds,  Vincent Price in The Raven,  and Betty Boop in The Scared Crows.  Ravens also appeared prominently in episodes of the Adam’s Family. Since then, Crows, Ravens and their cousins have been used as a signature (for directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky), mystical guide (The Crow), and every kind of harbinger or grim reaper.  To help you pick out the right one for you, we’ve compiled a list!

Foreign Classic

This 1943 french film ‘Le Corbeau’ (The Raven) follows a mysterious writer of poison pen letters, known only as Le Corbeau. who plagues a French provincial town, unwittingly exposing the collective suspicion and rancor seething beneath the community’s calm surface. Made during the Nazi Occupation of France, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau was attacked by the right-wing Vichy regime, the left-wing Resistance press, the Catholic Church, and was banned after the Liberation. But some—including Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre—recognized the powerful subtext to Clouzot’s anti-informant, anti-Gestapo fable, and worked to rehabilitate Clouzot’s directorial reputation after the war. Le Corbeau brilliantly captures a spirit of paranoid pettiness and self-loathing turning an occupied French town into a twentieth-century Salem.

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Cult

Dubbed “a fatal mistake from beginning to end” by the New York Times upon its release, this Poe-inspired Universal horror flick has since gained a latter day cult following, with Peary himself referring to it as “great fun”, and accurately noting that Lugosi seems to be having “a field day” playing the “fiendish surgeon” with a penchant for everything-Poe. Equally effective — and surprisingly sympathetic — is top-billed Karloff as a tortured criminal whose perceived ugliness has prevented him from becoming the “good man” he longs to be; his intentionally botched facial surgery at the hands of evil Lugosi is tragic to behold.  An excellent choice for anyone into classic horror.

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Family Classics



Vincent Price in The Raven



The Raven is a strange little film from 1960, made for children, in which horror may very well be the funniest thing to happen to you. Vincent Price teams up with Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff in this horror spoof that makes light of every horror movie scare feature.

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Noir



Alfred poses with Buddy the Raven (The Birds)



A classic movie for any Halloween party or gathering is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.  Starring Tippi Hendren as a blond California woman out to have fun, The Birds shows Hitchcock’s skills of psychological manipulation. Unlike horror movies that rely on straight gore and savagery, the birds scared audiences with the moments of quiet and isolation. The film has since become the single most influential piece Hitchcock ever produced.
The birds in the movie are mostly seagulls, but sparrows and crows do appear, all waiting for their chance to swarm on the helpless people. It struck a nerve with watchers because birds are indeed everywhere, and are usually ignored as friendly or harmless. But what if that flock of doves hanging out on the street decided to become hostile? What if those seagulls circling around at the beach chose to coordinate an attack on someone, for some unknown reason?

One of the most remembered scenes involves the crows on the gym equipment in the children’s playground. As the children quietly prepare for recess, the crows begin to gather in larger and larger numbers. Soon they are a malevolent force, ready for the attack. Where most filmmakers would have only threatened adults, Hitchcock sends the birds after the kids, bringing out the terror in both kids and adults watching. The image is so strong in our culture that few now see a massive group of crows without being reminded of that scene.  If you can get your hands on an original Black and White copy of this film, the imagry is even more impressive.

Hitchcock hired Ray Berwick to work with the birds in the film. Ray trained birds for months and months. Ravens and crows are extremely intelligent and even learned to peck hamburger off of actors’ faces, for some ‘attack’ scenes. But the smaller birds were more trouble. In the scene where sparrows fly down the chimney, they tried lowering 2,000 bullfinches down. The bullfinches decided to just hang out on available perches! They ended up having to have the actors pretend to shoo away imaginary birds, and effected in the flying avians.

Seagulls were better. Ray had them trained to circle over actors, attack, and then return to his hand. When working with the children he would carefully wire their beaks shut, just in case, but the birds were extremely well behaved.

The ravens were the smartest and often had minds of their own. One raven, Corvus, hated Rod Taylor and would attack him any time he saw him. Another raven, named Buddy, loved humans and refused to attack them!  Both are sadly no longer with us today, but  Ray continues to train birds for film, including the Crow in our next pick.

Very recently, zoetifex studio create a wonderful animated short in tribute of the film:

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B-Rated



Carmen Electra in The Chosen One



You might think I had to dig deep for this one, but the truth is that I thought this was a great movie when I was 8.

When a serial killer mysteriously and savagely murders a young Indian woman in rural Los Angeles county, her sister McKenna must replace her as the keeper of an amulet, the sacred crescent. Reluctantly, McKenna accepts the role of chosen one. With the amulet and after the rigors of the ritual, she takes on the spirit and powers of the raven, the good forces in the battle against evil, the wolf. McKenna’s powers include a thirst for milk and great sexual energy, which she unleashes on her former boyfriend, Henry, a cop. The spirit of the wolf inhabits Rose, Henry’s jilted lover. Rose wrecks havoc of her own before a final showdown with the chosen one.  Great flick if you are 8 or just really drunk.

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Direct to Video



Stephen King's Crow series



Fast forward to the 80’s and you can be sure Stephen King covered this topic thoroughly. His Night of the Crow opens with a couple passing through a small Oklahoma town discover that it has been taken over by a homicidal cult that worships a crow god–and that all the cult members are children. Not a bad movie for Halloween – we recommend melted candy-corn on your popcorn to go with it.

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Popular



The Crow



Guided by a portentous crow , Brandon Lee plays a deceased rock musician who returns from the grave to systematically torture and kill the outlandishly violent gang of hoodlums who murdered him and his fiancée the year before. The Crow is a film haunted by a chilling production accident, but beautifully executed in spite of itself. The story becomes that much more symbolic and meaningful, even shrouded in comic book dialog and action. Highly recommended!

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Foreign Horror

Kaw is your typical ‘New Cinema’ style horror movie in which  the Sheriff of a small town is about to retire when his town is attacked by blood thirsty ravens that eat human flesh. Meanwhile his wife Cynthia visits a farm where a Mennonite family lives to say farewell to her friend Gretchen and discloses a dark secret about the origin of the fierce ravens. Clearly derivative of The Birds, not all is lost. This movie makes good background imagry if you plan to have a large party.

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Independent

Ricardo De Montreuil’s absolutely brilliant 6 minute short THE RAVEN is fluidly filmed by Director of Photography Alex Sanchez. This is a chase flick, wrapped in the trappings of a not too distant, or far-fetched dystopian future, where men are exterminated by machines (considering as you read this, somewhere unmanned planes are dropping fire from the sky, and major metropolitan municipalities are considering unmanned robotic droids to police the cities… it is a fiction uncomfortably close to tomorrow’s facts).

But above the cautionary tale, which has been and always will be at the heart of sci-fi or speculative fiction, it’s a truly  impressive and stylishly made film.  This one won’t get you through Halloween, but it will get you through right now. Enjoy!

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What movies would you add to the list?


The Crows Shall Inherit the Earth

Animalia is an inter-species fairytale about a girl who is disenchanted with the world and wishes she could fly. She joins the circus only to discover it is a secret military operation. She then runs away to the woods and falls under the spell of a mystical deer. When she becomes an antlered deer-creature, she finally achieves flying powers and enters an ethereal world of hybrid creatures.

Animalia began as a multi-media performance created by inter-diciplinary artist C. Ryder Cooley. Now the story is coming to life as a unique animation and printed book. Collaborator Bart Woodstrup is working with Ryder, animating her hand drawn illustrations. The Animation will be available as a digital download and screened alongside Animalia performances. It will also be available as a limited edition DVD with the printed Animalia Book. This project is in the final stages of production. Currently a 12-minute assembly has been created. The final animation will be approximately 15-20 minutes. The remaining work involves creating additional drawings, scanning and animating the drawings, finessing transitions between scenes and recording/mixing additional music for the soundtrack. Below is what is out so far…enjoy!

Kudos to Beth Surdut for sending along this story!

The 7 Ravens

Ravens appear in fairytales from all over the world, from simple anecdotes of wisdom (Aesop) to elborate illustrated stories (The Brothers Grimm).

This tale,like The Twelve Brothers, The Six Swans, and Brother and Sister, features a woman rescuing her brothers. In the era and region in which it was collected, many men were drafted by kings for soldiers, to be sent as mercenaries. As a consequence, many men made their daughter their heirs; however, they also exerted more control over them and their marriages.

The stories have been interpreted as a wish by women for the return of their brothers, freeing them from this control. However, the issues of when the stories were collected are unclear, and stories of this type have been found in many other cultures, where this issue can not have inspired them. In the original oral version, there were three, not seven ravens; one study of German folk tales found that of 31 variants collected after the publication of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, only two followed the Grimms in having seven ravens. You will also notice that this later translation bears a striking resemblance to other well known fairy tales, as well as takes on the cadence of biblical prose.

Following the story is a  wonderfully imaginative cartoon based on the  Fairytale.


By Helen Stratton, 1903

There was once a man who had seven sons, and still he had no daughter, however much he wished for one.  At length his wife again gave him hope of a child, and when it came into the world it was a girl.  The joy was great, but the child was sickly and small, and had to be privately baptized on account of its weakness.  

The father sent one of the boys in haste to the spring to fetch water for the baptism.  The other six went with him, and as each of them wanted to be first to fill it, the jug fell into the well.  There they stood and did not know what to do, and none of them dared to go home.  

As they still did not return, the father grew impatient, and said, they have certainly forgotten it while playing some game, the wicked boys.  He became afraid that the girl would have to die without being baptized, and in his anger cried, I wish the boys were all turned into ravens.  

Hardly was the word spoken before he heard a whirring of wings over his head, looked up and saw seven coal-black ravens flying away. The parents could not withdraw the curse, and however sad they were at the loss of their seven sons, they still to some extent comforted themselves with their dear little daughter, who soon grew strong and every day became more beautiful.  

For a long time she did not know that she had had brothers, for her parents were careful not to mention them before her, but one day she accidentally heard some people saying of herself, that the girl was certainly beautiful, but that in reality she was to blame for the misfortune which had befallen her seven brothers.  
Then she was much troubled, and went to her father and mother and asked if it was true that she had had brothers, and what had become of them.  The parents now dared keep the secret no longer, but said that what had befallen her brothers was the will of heaven, and that her birth had only been the innocent cause.  

But the maiden took it to heart daily, and thought she must save her brothers.  She had no rest or peace until she set out secretly, and went forth into the wide world to search for her brothers and set them free, let it cost what it might.  She took nothing with her but a little ring belonging to her parents as a keepsake, a loaf of bread against hunger, a little pitcher of water against thirst, and a little chair as a provision against weariness.  

Now she went continually onwards, far, far to the very end of the world.  Then she came to the sun, but it was too hot and terrible, and devoured little children.  Hastily she ran away, and ran to the moon, but it was far too cold, and also awful and malicious, and when it saw the child, it said, I smell, I smell the flesh of men.  At this she ran swiftly away, and came to the stars, which were kind and good to her, and each of them sat on its own particular little chair.  

But the morning star arose, and gave her the drumstick of a chicken, and said, if you have not that drumstick you can not open the glass mountain, and in the glass mountain are your brothers.  The maiden took the drumstick, wrapped it carefully in a cloth, and went onwards again until she came to the glass mountain.  The door was shut, and she thought she would take out the drumstick. But when she undid the cloth, it was empty, and she had lost the good star’s present.  What was she now to do? She wished to rescue her brothers, and had no key to the glass mountain.

The good sister took a knife, cut off one of her little fingers, put it in the door, and succeeded in opening it.  When she had gone inside, a little dwarf came to meet her, who said, “My child, what are you looking for?”  

“I am looking for my brothers, the seven ravens,” she replied.  

The dwarf said, “The lord ravens are not at home, but if you will wait here until they come, step in.”

By Anne Anderson, 1935

Thereupon the little dwarf carried the ravens’ dinner in, on seven little plates, and in seven little glasses, and the little sister ate a morsel from each plate, and from each little glass she took a sip, but in the last little glass she dropped the ring which she had brought away with her.  

Suddenly she heard a whirring of wings and a rushing through the air, and then the little dwarf said, now the lord ravens are flying home.  Then they came, and wanted to eat and drink, and looked for their little plates and glasses.  

Then said one after the other, “Who has eaten something from my plate?  Who has drunk out of my little glass?  It was a human mouth!”

And when the seventh came to the bottom of the glass, the ring rolled against his mouth.  Then he looked at it, and saw that it was a ring belonging to his father and mother, and said, “God grant that our sister may be here, and then we shall be free!”  

When the maiden, who was standing behind the door watching, heard that wish, she came forth, and on this all the ravens were restored to their human form again.  And they embraced and kissed each other, and went joyfully home.


Birds on a Wire

Jarbas Agnelli is a Brazillian filmmaker and composer with an impressive ad portfolio.  His short ‘Birds on a Wire’ has gotten a lot of buzz, and features around 40 Crows sitting on telephone wires posing as musical notes.

“Reading a newspaper, I saw a picture of birds on the electric wires. I cut out the photo and decided to make a song, using the exact location of the birds as notes (no Photoshop edit). I knew it wasn’t the most original idea in the universe. I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating.

I sent the music to the photographer, Paulo Pinto, who I Googled on the internet. He told his editor, who told a reporter and the story ended up as an interview in the very same newspaper.”

[box type=warn]Note from AvesNoir: These could actually be Giant Cowbirds.[/box]


The Raven Animated Short Film

The challenge of animating a popular poem such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is to effectively represent the mood, style and most importantly the voice of the poem. Inspired by the haunting literary imagery within the poem itself as well as illustrations by Edward Gorey,Michael Dibblee has created a dark, ominous visual that compliments and reinforces the poem.

View more of Michael’s work at michaeldibblee.com

 

 

 


The Raven Diaries

Rick and Diana Boufford are a grassroots on fire for live couple who dedicate large amounts of their time to documenting Ravens  in Utah, Catalina, and more. Their love for all things living is portrayed through the relationships and lives of ravens and all the different kinds of animals we share territory with.  They are currently hard at work on their debut documentary film The Raven Diaries, which you can preview below.

Check out more at The Raven Diaries website

When I See an Elephant Fly…

One of my fondest memories as a little girl was reading any one of my Little Golden Books to my stuffed animal audience, with my favorite being Dumbo. As I grew up, it evolved into me sitting alone in my aunt’s cozy living room watching Disney’s Dumbo. I must have seen it a hundred times, and it is the only one that, to this day, I could still probably recite.

The story was one of overcoming the odds and accepting oneself. These were concepts I greatly identified with as a white girl growing up in consistently ethnic surroundings.  The crows in the movie held a special attraction for me as they proved to be Dumbo’s saviors. They gave him the magic feather (faith) which granted him the confidence to lift himself out of his despair, even after raucously mocking his presence in their tree after a night of drunken excess.

Whether its been awhile, or you’ve never seen the film, take a moment and revisit the joyous highlight of the crow posse singing to Dumbo and Timothy the mouse:

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