Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Tower of London: Raven Mad

England's most famous ravens are those that live at the Tower of London. Legend has it that if the six resident birds left the Tower then the kingdom would crumble and fall into the waves. It seems King Charles II decided to take chance out of the equation by protecting the Tower's ravens and encouraged them to stay. The story goes that the royal astronomer, John Flamstead, was less that thrilled by the monarch's decision, complaining that the birds got in the way of his observations in the White Tower.

In the modern day seven ravens (one birds is a spare!) are looked after the Ravenmaster. Their wings are clipped so they cannot fly away but despite this, occaisionally one goes AWOL or is sacked. A raven called Grog diseappeared, last seen outside an East End pub, whilst another called George was dismissed for chewing television aerials.

Odin, with Huginn and Muninn on his shoulders.
But ravens have been associated with mythology and legend for at least a millennia before the first stone of the Tower of London was laid down. In Norse Mythology, a pair of ravens, Huginn and Muninn, were the familiars of the Norse god, Odin. It was their job to fly out at dawn, collecting gossip from around the world and return to their master at dusk. A poem compiled in the 13th century, from earlier sources, tells of Odin's affection for the birds:

Huginn and Muninn fly each day
over the spacious earth.
I fear for Huginn, that he come not back,
yet more anxious am I for Muninn

Another image of Odin, with Huginn and Muninn
In England, medieval folk lore linked the appearance of a raven to predicting an impending death. It was said that a bird perched on a house of a sick person was sure sign they would not recover. It's possible this reputation came about because ravens eat carrion and therefore have a reputation for sniffing out death - an impression heightened when farmers report having seen ravens hovering near injured sheep, waiting for them to die so they can feast.
One of the ravens currently resident at the Tower
March 2013
Perhaps it is their sinister cawing, or the jet black nature of their plumage, but from Virgil writing in 40BC, to Pliny the Elder in AD 77, and indeed William Shakespeare in the early 17th century (Macbeth) - ravens are regarded as prophetic or agents of death.

"The raven himselfe is hourse
That croaks the fatall entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements."

But if you think yourself immune to such superstition, who has not heard this rhyme about magpies ?(a member of the corvid family and a relative of the raven):
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl
And four for a boy."
An Australian magpie pursuing a cyclist.
It seems the magpie is beleaguered so because, according to Christian folklore, the magpie was the only bird to remain silent and not sing to comfort Jesus at his crucifixion. Perhaps even more sinister is Scottish ore that holds a magpie keeps a drop of the devil's blood beneath his tongue!

So if you meet that most portentous of sights, a lone magpie, how can you diffuse it's evil influence?  Simple! You talk to him, saying:

"Morning, Mr Magpie, and how is your wife?"

Hence invoking the presence of a second bird and converting sorrow to joy!


  1. This was an interesting post. Living in California, I've never seen a raven, only crows. But I've always been riveted by Poe's "The Raven", and now i know why he made it so ominous. I love these tidbits of English history. Thanks for another good share.

  2. You've put your finger on it - Poe's "The Raven" was directly plumbing into the sinister associations with the occult and death. Thank you for leaving a comment and I'm so glad you are enjoying the posts.
    Grace x


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