A brief history analyzing the mythos of the Raven from early Shamanism to modern fiction.
|“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of,” (Whedon). In a world where a group of people are able to destabilize another group of people by force-able means, writing is the only means of escape to be had. Beginning in the 1830s, Native Americans were systematically removed from their lands and pushed west of the Mississippi River. A third of the 125,000 persons moved died during the mass exodus. One of the largest groups within the exodus was the Cherokee. With sprawling, mountainous land from southern Tennessee to the hilly middle of Georgia, the Cherokee were and are continued to be known as one of the five “civilized” Native American tribes. In the modern-day world, the Cherokee manage a much smaller designation of land, their qualla, in western North Carolina, and into both South Carolina, and bordering the Rabun Gap in Georgia. They do not accept United States funding; they are entirely self-sufficient. While their designated reservation is in North Carolina, they have branched out into bordering states by purchasing back their former lands (Personal Interview with Cherry, James).
Your news stations probably won’t cover that fact, because, at the moment, it’s not something that’s on a political agenda. In fact, most people aren’t even aware of it, but it’s where I grew up. My family moved to south metro-Atlanta after my father sold the little string of green mountains we owned to a man I have since known as ‘Uncle Jimmy.’ James Cherry isn’t exactly the most terrifying name and it doesn’t really ring ‘Cherokee’ to most anyone. Be that as it may, the land was sold, and we moved into a much larger house with less land. The subject of the sell is still a fragile slight my family feels against my father.
What we lost in culture, we made up in a better available education. Personally, I went from a class of five children to a class of fifteen. For me, the change was both wonderful and awful. It wasn’t a day long affair to drive for groceries, but the horses were half an hour drive away so I couldn’t just ride all day. The people in the suburban neighborhood didn’t really understand my family, and my father to this day seems to think the neighbors talk badly about him, despite how well he adapted. Homeowners’ Associations. Dues. Lawn maintenance. Paperwork for tree removal. School became both a heaven and hell for me. The honors classes were amazing, but due to my introverted nature, I didn’t have many friends, nor did I want many. In particular, my homeroom teacher sent a letter home to my dad saying that I needed to make more friends. In response, my dad handed me a Stephen King book and told me I wasn’t in trouble. There were plenty of friends to be had in books.
English class was my favourite. It was a subject that allowed for creativity and next to private art tutoring at home, it was as creative as I was allowed to be while in public education. Despite my love of English, I couldn’t speak it worth a damn. Reading? Reading’s easy. Words? Ideas? They were easy to convey on paper. Raised by a German nanny and having most of my childhood friends fluently speaking Tsalagi (southern Cherokee), my spoken language wasn’t intelligible by most anyone except the nanny. Looking back, it’s probably the main reason I didn’t have many friends. So, I had English as a Second Language in lieu of Grammar and extra English classes when everyone else was at recess. Eventually, it came to pass that Mrs. Morgan, the fourth grade English teacher read to the class a number of Native American legends. Lo’ and behold, I knew several of them. It was something I was excited about. “Write your own legend using a Trickster animal.” It would be the first true writing exercise I’d have in the school system.
I wrote five paragraphs, double-spaced, on yellow legal paper as we were told to do as our rough draft. We’d have the roughs reviewed by Mrs. Morgan and then type the final draft on the classroom computers. People were finishing their final drafts after day two and I was panicking. Was I that slow? But no. I finished my rough draft. The Raven tricked the Unicorn into believing something or another and the Unicorns ended up annihilated by a single hunter in a bloodbath of sparkling doom while the Raven flew away, job done. I had never written a story before so I’m sure it was quite horrible, but by memory, I was rather proud of the outcome and the gore. Done with the rough, I brought my crinkled pages to Mrs. Morgan’s desk, hidden away by her many bookshelves, and handed them to her. Being around eight years old, I feel understandably sorry for my own self at the scowl given to me by that fourth-grade teacher. I know I felt as though I had done so poorly she wouldn’t even read it. She marked it up. I typed the final draft. I got an A. She sent a letter home to my father.
Being an inattentive child, and not understanding spoken English well, my nanny got the note and threw it in the trash. I loved my nanny, and still wish she had stayed longer than she had. I told my father later, about a year later, when he was dating an Australian woman whose son was my friend. As it turned out, the prompt had wanted five sentences, not paragraphs. Go figure. If my nanny hadn’t thrown that note away, if she had read it to me, I might not be who I am today. That one prompt on a Cherokee legend of a trickster Raven had spurned my writing spirit. I can look back on that misheard prompt and know that it’s the reason I would eventually become an English major, writing about it again for an Intermediate Composition class.
Ravens throughout time share one commonality in that no matter the culture, they are a messenger to someone for something. Shamanism seems to be the very beginning of the Raven mythos so far as history can go. The earliest mentioning of the Raven is in Siberian and Altain Shaman writings (Eliade, 89). Both groups viewed the Raven as a helper and a Guardian to the Shamans (Eliade, 106). Not just that, the Raven was meant to be the Shaman’s messenger between their tangible reality and the immortal plain of existence (Eliade, 89). Car Lazar I Carica Milica, a Serbian epic poem, tells of two Ravens alighting on a tower housing a living Tsarita Milica and her dead husband, the Tsar Lazar. The Ravens are the messengers of death and arrive to tell the Tsarita that two of her armies have killed the invading Turks (Baldick, 37-39). Written in the mid-1400s, the epic has an unknown author of Kosovo origins while Tsar Lazar died in the early 1320s (Baldick, 40). Literature and popular culture reflect each society’s view of the Raven in a similar manner and the literature remains relevant even into the twenty-first century. Car Lazar I Carica Milica is merely a first reference point for the Raven in a long history to come.
Shamanists continue on in the form of the Uighurs who believed raven’s to be the connection between the living and the dead (Baldick, 48). Such led to the believe that a raven’s word should be viewed as the model of prayer (Baldick, 48). Similarly, the Yakut shamans believed the Raven to be both a true Shaman’s guardian in life and guide through the journey of death (Eliade, 389). The Eskimo’s shamanism, while in modern day grouped with Native Americans, can be traced further back than any other tribal mythos, with close ties to their Siberian neighbors (Sproul, 220). Having the Raven as a principle god, groupings of Eskimo have varying degrees on their beliefs. Some believe the Raven to be the Creator of the World, birther of Man, and God of the Sky while others believe the Raven to be the reason for the suffering of Man, but also the Bringer of Salmon (Burland, 32, Bastien, 155, 211, Sproul, 220-22). All tribes have the commonality in beliefs that the Raven acts as a messenger in the form of a transformative creature (i.e. a “Transformer”) in the form of a human man (Bastien, 208). Based on a true story, the Balto movies all have some portrayal of the Raven, who, according to the true story, had nothing to do with the arrival of the diphtheria anti-toxin to Nome, Alaska. In the movies, however, the Raven is a messenger from death, forewarning the protagonist, Balto, of the dangers should he give up his quest (Balto).
Greek mythos’ tales of the Raven follow Apollo, God of the Sun and Day (Hamilton, 112). Not always acting as a messenger, Apollo’s raven acts as an intermediary healer in Apollo’s absence on Apollo’s wishes. In his failure to save Apollo’s love interest at the time, Apollo curses the once white Raven to be “black as tar,” and the raven flies away to sulk alone. After having cursed his partner, Apollo discovers his dead lover to have birthed his son in her death. Naming the boy Coronius, the God of the Sun gifts the boy and his descendants with the gift of healing (Frazer 350-355). More often than not, though, Apollo’s raven is a messenger between Apollo and the other gods of Olympus (Clauss, 98). The myth of Coronius was the inspiration behind Linnea Tanner’s Apollo’s Raven ongoing series. In summary, Tanner’s fantasy novels foretell the fall of a Celtic king due to Apollo’s raven righting the wrongs of the new king by assassinating the king in a rather Macbethish manner (Tanner). The Trials of Apollo by Rick Riordan follows a humanized Apollo who is forced to rely on a descendant of Coronius to re-obtain godhood.
Closely linked to Greek mythos, Roman tales of the Raven are almost exactly the same as their Greek counterpart, with the exception that Mercury uses the Raven as his messenger to the gods and link to mankind (Clauss, 133). The Roman cult, Mithras, however, had high esteem for the raven, regarding the creature in most of their engraved tableaus and statues. Mithras is many times viewed as a warped version of Christianity due to their use of bull sacrifices and belief in a single God, Sol. They saw the Raven as their link between themselves and Sol (Clauss, 91). Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus, though taking place on earth, follows the tales of the children of the Roman gods as they fight against the children of the Greek gods. Mercury’s Raven shows up every once in awhile almost as an aside to keep the characters on track in their quest for Olympus (Riordan).
Seen more frequently than in Greek or Roman mythos, in Norse myths generally have their ravens at the forefront, most obviously because the ravens are the companion creatures to the head of the pantheon, Odin (Puhvel, 122). Named Muninn “Memory” and Huginn “Thought,” Odin’s set of ravens are always present when the pantheon is all together (Puhvel, 122). They are seen as Odin’s conscious’ intelligence, something Odin always listen to, but is generally correct and omnipresent. In essence, while Odin himself could be ever victorious by simply listening to his consciousness, in ignoring his companions, he loses an eye, his sons, grandchildren, and ultimately his throne in Ragnarok (Hamilton, 322). The ravens frequent Midgard (earth) in order to relay back to Odin the goings on of mankind. They act as both his messengers to other gods and as his spies. He can see through their eyes, making him, in some ways, omnipresent. (Ions, 105-7). Due to their position of power, Muninn and Huginn are more readily available in popular culture and literature. Most recently, the movie, Thor: Ragnarok, as the title suggests, retells the ending of the world, predicted by Huginn and Muninn. Furthermore, the two ravens are seen on screen in the first Thor, on Odin’s throne during Thor’s coronation. In Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard details another modern take at Ragnarok’s happenings. Finally, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has Odin’s raven everywhere in the background scenery. In his written reality, Gaiman’s ravens are the spies of Odin, bringing the pantheon head news of the New Gods and their doings in America.
Native American legends are not to be confused with Shamanism as they are not the magical or mystic performances. From east coast to west coast, the views on the Raven in legend vary dependent on outside sources and neighboring beliefs. First, the Cherokee legends are actively written and rewritten by the tribe. In their legends, the Raven differs from legend to legend and therefore has a slightly altered role. Each, though, revolves, once more, around the creature being a messenger to mankind. In one legend, the Raven desires to gift mankind with light in the night, and thusly finds the confined night sky, releasing the moon and stars upon his realization of its being (Bastien, 38). In another legend, similar to Apollo’s cursing his companion, the Cherokee raven of legend is originally white and is only burnt black when he goes too far in his gift giving to mankind. In other words, the legend has it that the Raven was turned black in his quest to bring Man fire so as to light up the night sky from earth (Bastien, 49). Most present in modern Cherokee mythos is the concept of the Raven Mocker, a grim reaper of sorts (Mooney, 401). The Raven Mocker swooped down from the sky to received the damned, and is still feared for the belief that it will take any person in its way to the damned one (Mooney, 401). Due to the fear instilled, some Cherokee chiefs would take the title of Raven Mocker as a wartime designator (Mooney, 283).
Moving westward, the Cheyenne viewed the Raven as the chief trickster (Ions, 106). The Crow viewed the creature as a mediator between Life and Death (Sproul, 146). Most Northwest Coastal tribes had the belief that the Raven was a creator god, most likely from their geographical relations to the Inuit and Eskimo who have a Shamanistic outlook on the Raven in lore (Bastien, 210). The legend of the creation of the Nunivak Isles is shared by twelve different Northwestern coastal tribes. It explains that the Raven carried dirt from the mainland bit by bit until the isles began forming, and then, still unsatisfied, the Raven picked up a mountain and dropped it on the largest of the Nunivak Isles (Bastien, 36-37).
In conclusion, from the Native American legends alone, thousands of works of literature, film, music, and other forms of media have originated from the legends of the Raven. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a DreamWorks cartoon film, shows a raven fly towards the ghostly wild horses that the protagonist, Spirit, has been forced away from, leading the hero to build the courage he needs to make his way back home. In that instance, the Raven is from Lakota legends and therefore, acts as a Truth Guide (Bastien, 159). Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven gives the shared view of the Raven as a mediator between life and death while Game of Thrones in television shows the Raven as a predecessor of death itself, an omniscient character. Legends and myths create inspiration for new works of art that may inspire others further. Lore takes one out of the realm of reality, at least for a moment, and creates a world of mysticism. Reality may not be ideal for some, but through these realities, those same people may find another reason to keep on writing.
Tanner, Linnea (Goodreads, et al. “Apollo's Raven (Apollo's Raven #1).” Apollo's Raven (Apollo's Raven #1) by Linnea Tanner, 9 Apr. 2017, www.goodreads.com/book/show/34348265-apollo-s-raven.
Author), Linnea Tanner (Goodreads, et al. “Apollo's Raven (Apollo's Raven #1).” Apollo's Raven (Apollo's Raven #1) by Linnea Tanner, 9 Apr. 2017, www.goodreads.com/book/show/34348265-apollo-s-raven.
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