A Haven for Ravens


Ravens get a bad rap. Across cultures, they’re often considered a bird of ill-omen. No doubt this derives from the fact they’re considered carrion-eaters. In fact, they eat just about anything – rather like humans.

They belong to the Corvid family (that’s CoRvid not Covid) which includes crows, jays, rooks, choughs, jackdaws, magpies and more. Sticking strictly to ravens, Wikipedia tells me there are eight sub-species. This, however, does not include the Australian Raven, Corvus coronoides. That’s the raven I was most familiar with when growing up. It’s remarkable for its white irises which really ‘pop’ against its glossy black feathers.

But the species I show here and that feature in my stories are the Common Raven or Corvus corax, which is native to south-western Europe.

Ravens are incredibly clever. They are mimicks and can imitate human speech. They use tools and can understand challenging concepts like water displacement and can reason out cause and effect. As social creatures they also mourn their dead, hold grudges, appreciate fairness and plan for the future. All facts backed by scientific research. 

Perhaps this is why, across a range of cultures, ravens are what is called a ‘psychopomp’ – a messenger between realms, especially the living and the dead. 

Ravens in Legend and Lore


This fine fellow on the right is a Tower raven. That is to say, his home is the Tower of London. (Look at the sheen to those feathers!) Legend has it that the British monarchy will fall if the ravens ever leave – so the ravens there have their wing feathers clipped to prevent them flying away. The ravens at the Tower are listed as military personnel. Three ravens have been dismissed for “conduct unbecoming” and one retired to a pub. The first raven to be hatched at the Tower in thirty years entered the world in May 2019.

The connection between the Tower of London and ravens is partially attributed to a Welsh myth.


In Welsh, Bran means raven. Therefore, the ancient god-king, Bran the Blessed, was a Raven King. (Strictly speaking Bendigeidfran translates as Blessed Raven.) His sister’s name, Branwen, translates as White Raven. Bran and Branwen feature in the Mabinogion, a collection of stories compiled around the 12th-13th centuries from earlier oral tales. Lady Charlotte Guest translated and published the complete collection in both Welsh and English from 1838–45.

In the story Branwen the daughter of Llyr, Bran is the King of the Isle of the Mighty. His sister marries the King of Ireland but what started well ended badly and she trains a starling to send to her brother for help. In the process of attempting a rescue, Bran is wounded by a poison dart. Knowing he’s dying, he requests his men to cut off his head and bury it beneath the White Mount in London. (On which the Tower rests today.)  But though he loses his head, he keeps his sense of humour: chatting with his men, even eating and drinking by some accounts, until they leave the Otherworld (a land where no time passes) and it falls silent. They bury it facing France and it is supposed to protect from overseas invasion to this day.

Also in the Mabinogion is the tale of The Dream of Rhonabwy. In this story, Rhonabwy falls asleep on a stinking pelt and dreams of King Arthur playing gwyddbwyll (a game like chess) against the Welsh Prince Owain mab Urien. Owain’s men are called ravens. From the context, it’s unclear if these are actual ravens or humans called ravens. Personally, this increases the dream-like quality of the story.

Tower Raven

A Close Encounter

Ravens in Ireland

In Ireland, ravens are associated with a goddess not a god. And not just any goddess but An Mórrígan, The Morrigan. The origins of her name are much debated. Given her nature, however, it’s probably safest to call her The Great Queen (from mòr = great and ríoghain = queen) although Phantom Queen is another translation growing in favour.

As a Celtic triple goddess, one of her incarnations is Badb or Badb Catha, which translates as Battle Crow.* Her other two aspects are said to be Anu and Machaor Nemen and Macha.

The Morrígan is best known for her role in the Ulster Cycle with the hero Cúchulainn. After he unwisely insults her when she’s in disguise as a beautiful young woman – by rejecting her advances. She forewarns him of his death. After being fatally wounded, Cúchulainn fights on by tying himself to a standing stone. When he finally dies, his opponents aren’t sure he’s dead until the Morrígan lands on his shoulder in the form of a raven. 

In the Lébor Gabála Érenn or the Book of Invasions, the Morrígan is one of the wives of the Dagda (the Good God or Great God). A number of myths suggest she is the mother of Brí or Breda – more often known these days as Brigid.

*Interestingly, Ireland doesn’t have all-black carrion crows, it has hooded/ grey/ scald crows.