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 sword.
The boding raven on her cottage sat, And with hoarse croakings warned us of our fate.
Gay: Pastorals: The Dirge.
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).
Raven. 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, p. 476.)
“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