Ravens figure heavily in Celtic mythology and legend. They were linked to darkness and death – especially the death of warriors in battle. Celtic war goddesses often took the form of a raven. In “The Dream of Rhonabwy”, the knight Owein battles King Arthur in a dream world assisted by ravens. Some tales suggest that the great King Arthur himself was turned in to a raven upon his death.
Rhonabwy is the most literary of the medieval Welsh prose tales. It may have also been the last written. A colophon at the end declares that no one is able to recite the work in full without a book, the level of detail being too much for the memory to handle. The comment suggests it was not popular with storytellers, though this was more likely due to its position as a literary tale rather than a traditional one.
The frame story tells that Madog sends Rhonabwy and two companions to find the prince’s rebellious brother Iorwerth. One night during the pursuit they seek shelter with Heilyn the Red, but find his house filthy and his beds full of fleas. Lying down on a yellow ox-skin, Rhonabwy experiences a vision of Arthur and his time. Serving as his guide is one of Arthur’s followers, Iddawg the Churn of Britain, so called because he sparked the Battle of Camlann when he distorted the king’s messages of peace he was supposed to deliver to the enemy Medrawd (Mordred). Iddawg introduces Rhonabwy and his friends to Arthur, who regrets that Wales has been inherited by such tiny men.
Iddawg reveals that Arthur’s men are assembled to meet the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon. However, Arthur is more concerned with a game of gwyddbwyll (a chess-like board game) he is playing against his follower Owain mab Urien (Ywain). While they play, messengers arrive declaring that Arthur’s squires are attacking Owain’s ravens; when Owain asks that this be stopped Arthur only responds, “your move.” Finally Owain orders his ravens to attack Arthur’s servants; when Arthur asks him to call them off, Owain says “your move, lord.” Eventually Arthur crushes the chess pieces into dust, and the two declare peace between their forces. After this the Saxons send a contingent asking for a truce, which Arthur grants after consulting his advisors. Cai (Kay) declares that any who wish to follow Arthur should come to Cornwall. The noise of the troops moving wakes Rhonabwy, who realizes he has slept for three days.
Because King Arthur lived on in the form of a raven, in Corwall it is considered very unlucky to kill one, however there is no consensus about the ultimate meaning of The Dream of Rhonabwy. On one hand it derides Madoc’s time, which is critically compared to the illustrious Arthurian age, and on the other Arthur’s time is portrayed as illogical and silly, leading to suggestions that this is a satire on both contemporary times and the myth of a heroic age.
Many of the Celtic goddesses are linked with the raven or crow. In this mythology the goddesses are the aggressive deities, those associated with war and death. Badb, Macha and Nemain are all associated with crows and/or ravens, as is Nantosuelta, a Gaulish water and healing goddess. The wife of the Fomorian sea-god, Tethra, was said to be a crow goddess who also hovered above battlefields, and Scottish myth has the Cailleach Bheure, who often appeared in crow form. The association of the birds with death and war is an obvious reflection of its tendency to eat carrion, plenty of which is to be found in the aftermath of battle. This tendency led, eventually, to the persecution of the raven, as a harbinger of doom and destruction, and also to the common notion in modern European culture that the main attribute of Crow and Raven is their connection with the Otherworld. Upon Cuchulainn’s death, the Morrigan perched on his shoulder in the form of a raven.
The other main characteristic of Raven in Irish and Welsh myth is that of prophesy. The Morrigan was prone to prophesising and predicting the outcome of battle. King Cormac also came across the Badb as an old woman dressed in red garments (always a bad sign) who explained that she was washing the armor of a doomed king. Raven also acts as a messenger for the Irish/Welsh gods.
In “The Hawk of Achill“ Cuchulainn’s father, Lugh, is spoken of in association with ravens and crows. Ravens warned Lugh of the Formorians’ approach. Ravens tended Cuchulainn when he was very ill, which is about the only time Cuchulainn appears to have had anything approaching a good relationship with the birds, save for when he was announced by two Druidic ravens on his entrance to Elysium. He was responsible for killing a flock of magical sea ravens, which were large and able to swim in the sea (it is possible, from the description, that the birds were, in fact, cormorants, and not ravens at all. Cormorants also have a certain mythology associated with them). Also associated with ravens is the son of Cerridwen, Afagddu, who was also known as Morvran, or Sea Raven. Cerridwen ‘s intent had been to bestow the gift of Inspiration upon him. A rather bizarre association is that of ravens and chess.
Bendigeidfran (“Bran the Blessed“),perhaps the best known of the Celtic gods associated with the raven, was a giant of enormous strength and a fierce warrior whose head continued to speak after he was beheaded. Tradition holds that his head was buried at the White Mount in London, believed to be the site of the White Tower (The Tower of London). His head is a protective charm for Britain. The word “Bran” means raven, and this may be how the story of the Rooks of The Tower originated.
Tower of London
Today, ravens are still kept at the Tower of London. The ravens have their own Yeoman Warder to care for them. During World War II, Tower Hill was bombed, and the ravens were lost. Winston Churchill, knowing full well the ancient legends, ordered the immediate replacement of the birds, and they were brought to Tower Hill from the Welsh hills and Scottish Highlands.
In England, tombstones are sometimes called “ravenstones”.
Among the Irish Celts, the raven was associated with the Triple Goddess, the Morrigan, who took the shape of a raven over battlefields while acting as “Chooser of the Slain” and the protector of warriors.
Irish and Scots Bean Sidhes (Banshees) can take the form of ravens. Their calls from over the roof of a dwelling was considered to be an omen of death for the occupants.
“There is wisdom in a raven’s head.” – Gaelic Proverb
“To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish proverb meaning to have a seer’s supernatural powers. The raven is considered to be one of the oldest and wisest of all animals.
Ravens were the favorite bird of the god Lludd, the Celtic god of artists and artisans. He was said to have two ravens to attend to all of his needs (similar to Odin and his ravens).
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Samhain edition of “White Dragon”, 1998