A bird of ill omen. They are said to forebode death and bring
infection. The former notion arises from their following an army under
the expectation of finding dead bodies to raven on; the latter notion
is a mere offshoot of the former, seeing pestilence kills as fast as
The boding raven on her cottage sat,
And with hoarse croakings warned us of our fate.
Like the sad-presaging raven that tolls
The sick man's passport in her hollow beak,
And, in the shadow of the silent night,
Does shake contagion from her sable wing.
Marlowe: Jew of Malta (1638).
Jovianus Pontanus relates two skirmishes between ravens and kites
near Beneventum, which prognosticated a great battle. Nicetas speaks of
a skirmish between crows and ravens as presaging the irruption of the
Scythians into Thrace. He also tells us that his friend Mr. Draper, in
the flower of his age and robust health, knew he was at the point of
death because two ravens flew into his chamber. Cicero was forewarned
of his death by the fluttering of ravens, and Macaulay relates the
legend that a raven entered the chamber of the great orator the very
day of his murder, and pulled the clothes off his bed. Like many other
birds, ravens indicate by their cries the approach of foul weather, but
“it is ful unleful to beleve that God sheweth His prevy counsayle to
crowes, as Isidore sayth.”
He has the foresight of a raven.
A raven was accounted at one time a prephetic bird. (See above.)
“Of inspired birds ravens are accounted the most prophetical.
Accordingly, in the language of that district, `to have the foresight
of a raven' is to this day a proverbial expression.” —Macanlay: History of St. Kilda, p. 174.
Ravens bode famine.
When a flock of ravens forsake the woods we may look for famine and
mortality, because “ravens bear the characters of Saturn, the author of
these calamities, and have a very early perception of the bad
disposition of that planet.” (See Athenian Oracle, Supplement,
“As if the great god Jupiter had nothing else to doe but to dryve
about jacke-dawes and ravens.” —Carneades.
Ravens were once as white as swans, and not inferior in size; but one
day a raven told Apollo that Coronis, a Thessalian nymph whom he
passionately loved, was faithless. The god shot the nymph with his
dart; but, hating the tell-tale bird-
He blacked the raven o'er,
And bid him prate in his white plumes no more.
Addison: Translation of Ovid, bk. ii.
Ravens in Christian art.
Emblems of God's Providence, in allusion to the ravens which fed
Elijah. St. Oswald holds in his hand a raven with a ring in its mouth;
St. Benedict has a raven at his feet; St. Paul the Hermit is drawn with
a raven bringing him a loaf of bread, etc.
The fatal raven,
consecrated to Odin, the Danish war-god, was the emblem on the
Danish standard. This raven was said to be possessed of necromantic
power. The standard was termed Landeyda (the desolation of the
country), and miraculous powers were attributed to it. The fatal raven
was the device of Odin, god of war, and was said to have been woven and
embroidered in one noontide by the daughters of Regner Lodbrok, son of
Sigurd, that dauntless warrior who chanted his death-song (the Krakamal) while being stung to death in a horrible pit filled with
deadly serpents. If the Danish arms were destined to defeat, the raven
hung his wings; if victory was to attend them, he stood erect and
soaring, as if inviting the warriors to follow.
The Danish raven, lured by annual prey
Hung o'er the land incessant.
Thomson: Liberty, pt. iv.
The two ravens that sit on the shoulders of Odin
are called Hugin and Munnin (Mind and Memory). One raven
will not pluck another's cyes out (German, “Keine krähe hackt
der anderen die augen ques”). Friends will not “peach” friends; you
are not to take for granted all that a friend says of a friend.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894