Our editor, Olivia Ngai, shares some insight into black bird (specifically raven) folklore from around the world.
Ravens have long held a featured place in mythology and folklore. From cultural depictions as a trickster and shape changer to the role of creator to the mediator between life and death, the raven is a recognizable figure that continues to persevere in our stories and literature today, most notably in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.”
How Raven Got His Crooked Nose tells the Alaskan Dena’ina people’s story of Chulyen the trickster raven and what happens when he loses his nose, or beak. Retold by mother-and-son team Barbara and Ethan Atwater, with illustrations by Mindy Dwyer, this Native fable gives a peek into the cleverness of the raven and the hidden magic he uses, and plays upon the theme of how clever tricks do not always work perfectly well.
Here are some other beloved folk tales about ravens that have been passed from generation to generation.
Greek mythology depicts ravens as symbols of bad luck. The story goes that the god Apollo sends the once-white raven to spy on his lover Coronis. When the raven reports back that Coronis has been unfaithful to Apollo, the god strikes the raven in his fury and turns the raven’s white feathers black.
The god Odin has two ravens, Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“memory”), who act as the Norse god’s eyes and ears by bringing him information from across the world. As such, the Norse people saw ravens as symbols of wisdom and intelligence. Because they’re carrion birds, the ravens’ presence also usually indicated a life sacrifice and offering to Odin, often made in battle.
In Japanese mythology, Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow or raven, represents the sun and the will of the gods. Legend has it that Yatagarasu was sent down from heaven as a guide for Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, to present-day Nara Prefecture to found his country.