I seem to be developing a particular love and admiration for our corvid friends lately, with a pair of clever and beautiful magpies visiting my garden in Norcia quite regularly and huge numbers of crows and ravens in that ancient valley. It struck me a while ago just how frequently they appear in Christian history – all the way back to the Old Testament – as our friends and helpers, and as messengers of God.
Ravens are perhaps among the world’s most successful predator/omnivore/scavenger species, found pretty much all around the top half of the planet, all the way through Europe, Siberia, Asia and North America, with a range from North Africa to the ice fields of Scandinavia, from Mexico to the furthest reaches of the Canadian arctic. We humans have had ravens and crows – corvids – around our camp sites as long as we’ve had dogs helping with the hunt. And they appear in our folk tales almost as often.
Throughout human history we’ve had a chance to observe these creatures in action, and our collective nouns for them indicate our opinion: a “murder” of crows; an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy” of ravens. (The term “building of rooks” might refer to the fact that these small, social corvids are the only species that create large colonies of nests where they live closely together, like a kind of rook city.) Native Americans have raven gods and totemic spirits that are a little more positive, focusing on their extraordinary cleverness but also as devious “trickster” types as ready to deceive and lead astray as to aid an unwary human. Pagan gods and fairies are always turning themselves into ravens to spy on human beings.
I have my own story, in fact. When I was a teenager, my parents kept sled dogs during my family’s brief stay in the Canadian sub-arctic. We had a couple of dogs who lived pretty handsomely on the cull fish that my parents caught in their ice fishing nets. But the ravens loved the leftovers from the lake too, and came up with ingenious methods of getting the food away from the comparatively dumb dogs.
They worked in pairs, with one flapping above and squawking just out of the dogs’ range, while the other one helped himself to the contents of their dish under cover of the commotion. After the first one had eaten they would switch roles, with the poor dogs going mad to try to catch at least one of the interlopers. When they were done, they would flap away and sit in a tree watching to see when the next meal was coming.
While folklorists and cultural anthropologists collect similar stories and fairy tales from around the world, it struck me the other day just what a gulf there is in European cultures between the popular, folktale version of the raven as a preternatural harbinger of doom, and the bird’s frequent appearances in Christian hagiography. Crows and ravens in fairy tales are almost never the “good guy” bird. But every time they appear in Christian “mythology”, it’s almost always to bring food or a message to a human servant of God down on his luck.
The 19th century “Smith’s Bible Dictionary” gives a not very flattering description:
There is something weird and shrewd in the expression of the raven’s countenance, a union of cunning and malignity which may have contributed to give it among widely-revered nations a reputation for preternatural knowledge…The smell of death is so grateful to them that when in passing over sheep a tainted smell is perceptible, they cry and croak vehemently. It may be that in passing over a human habitation, if a sickly or cadaverous smell arises, they should make it known by their cries, and so has arisen the idea that the croaking of a raven is the premonition of death.
But even with their macabre cultural reputation, ravens are nearly always depicted positively in the Bible itself. In Genesis, a raven was one of only two animals named specifically on the ark, and it was a raven that was first sent by Noah to look for dry land.
In 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah is cared for by ravens who are sent by God during a drought that was a punishment to the wicked idolaters in the reign of King Ahab:
And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before the Jordan. And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. So he went and did according unto the word of Jehovah; for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before the Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.
One commentator notes that this passage is a lesson not to rely upon our own powers, storing up food and wealth, but to get on with the task sent by God: “If Providence calls us to solitude and retirement, it becomes us to go: when we cannot be useful, we must be patient; and when we cannot work for God, we must sit still quietly for him.
The ravens were appointed to bring him meat, and did so. Let those who have but from hand to mouth, learn to live upon Providence, and trust it for the bread of the day, in the day. God could have sent angels to minister to him; but he chose to show that he can serve his own purposes by the meanest creatures, as effectually as by the mightiest.
One good 18th century Protestant divine wrote, “You may be sure that God did not forget his servant; but you would hardly believe, if it was not in the Bible, that he would send the ravens to carry food to him.”
The image of the raven bringing food and assistance to the holy men and women of God continues through the Christian era. When the greatest of all the desert fathers, St. Anthony, was sent by God to meet St. Paul the Hermit of Thebes, the raven that brought Paul his daily half loaf of bread showed up that day with a whole loaf, to accommodate the illustrious guest.
Again in the early eremitical monastic life of St. Benedict, when he had retreated from the world to a cave, he was provided with food by a local monk, but always shared with a friendly crow. Later, in the story that comes to us from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, we learn that Benedict was the intended victim of an envious priest, Florentius. “Possessed with diabolical malice,” Florentius “began to envy the holy man’s virtues, to back-bite his manner of living, and to withdraw as many as he could from going to visit him.”
One day Florentius decided to rid himself of the vexing presence and poison a loaf of bread and send it to the saint as a present.
The man of God received it with great thanks, yet not ignorant of that which was hidden within. At dinner time, a crow daily used to come to him from the next wood, which took bread at his hands; coming that day after his manner, the man of God threw him the loaf which the Priest had sent him, giving him this charge: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, take up that loaf, and leave it in some such place where no man may find it.’ Then the crow, opening his mouth, and lifting up his wings, began to hop up and down about the loaf, and after his manner to cry out, as though he would have said that he was willing to obey, and yet could not do what he was commanded.
The man of God again and again bide him, saying: ‘Take it up without fear, and throw it where no man may find it.’ At length, with much ado, the crow took it up, and flew away, and after three hours, having dispatched the loaf, he returned again, and received his usual allowance from the man of God.
To this day, St. Benedict is commonly depicted with a raven or a crow somewhere nearby.
According to the Vita S. Meginrati in the 9th century, one of St. Benedict’s saintly monastic sons, the hermit St. Meinrad, was murdered by some would-be thieves:
Now there were some ravens who used to come regularly to the servant of God when he was alive and take what was offered from his hands. And as if wishing to avenge the dead man, the ravens followed the thieves while they were fleeing from the hermitage, and filled the woods with loud cawing. And flying as close to the murderers’ heads as they could, they published the crime that had been committed.
At other times, the ravens have to have their natural tendencies towards mischief curtailed and corrected by a good abbot, like any high-spirited, unruly monk. The Vita Sancti Cuthberti tells the story of the great Northumbrian bishop and abbot Cuthbert’s correction of the two naughty ravens of Lindisfarne who, despite having been warned, disturb the roof of the shelter built for the monastery’s servants. St. Cuthbert banishes them from the island for this misbehaviour. Three days later, having repented, the ravens return seeking pardon. After being forgiven by Cuthbert the ravens bring enough pig fat to grease the boots of the whole monastery for a year.
Of course, Catholics are not credulous biblical literalists, but we have more reason in our own times to believe it possible that these birds could have been used by God so often. We are coming to learn that the corvids, and ravens in particular, are a good deal smarter than we ever imagined. In fact, they are regarded by researchers as among the most intelligent of all animals.
First, did you know they could talk? Not quite on the level of a parrot, but pretty good for a bird.
Even more amazing, did you know crows and ravens make and use tools? And can figure out how to perform complex sets of tasks to get at a bit of food?
And did you know they recognise faces and give each other warnings about particular people?
The documentary, “A Murder of Crows,” made the rounds of the internet a few years ago and remains popular on YouTube.
I suppose there’s not much theological ground to be gained by speculating whether these stories are literally true; this isn’t really one of the questions theologians are asking. But given what we know about these animals, I see no reason not to believe them.
And perhaps it’s worth thinking about it in the context of our interactions with nature in general. I wrote recently that I was disappointed – though not surprised – when Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si turned out to be just another leftist political screed, repeating the dogmas of the anti-population ideologues. What a sadly wasted opportunity.
I’ve had time in the last couple of years to think about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. One of the great joys of my life in Norcia was all the time I was able to spend stomping about the countryside in wellies, with a knapsack of jam jars, binoculars, magnifying glass, identification guides, and a flask of green tea, cataloguing and collecting samples of local plants and watching the birds. There are a great many of the large and beautiful grey and black species, Corvus cornix, or hooded crows, about Norcia, as well as magpies, sparrowhawks, owls, doves and herons, song birds and even the beautiful, flamboyant hoopoes. I saw them every day and always thought of St. Benedict and his sister Scolastica, living in the same valley, seeing every day the same mountains and the same wild things, substantially unchanged from 1600 years ago.
I was raised in an environment very close to nature – spending most of my childhood, instructed by my mother, a biologist, poking around rock pools at the beach, learning to identify plants and bugs, trees and mushrooms. I maintain there were some things the hippies were right about, and their condemnation of the post-protestant, Enlightenment, utilitarian view of nature was among them. I hoped, and still do, that the Church will some day give us more authentic moral guidance on how we are to think of and treat the natural world.
Perhaps when we do, we could take the examples of these saints, and think of ourselves as caretakers, friends, and protectors of the natural world. Maybe it sounds naïve, but could we perhaps consider a different sort of life, more integrated? And perhaps then develop an ethic of careful stewardship instead of exploitation, while avoiding the idolatry and anti-human materialism of the current environmentalist movement? More Tolkien: Tom Bombadil, Ents and elves and gardening Gamgees; more Elijah, St. Paul, St. Benedict and Cuthbert, with their pet crows and ravens — and less Adam Smith?