Some of Crows’ and Ravens’ Roles in Fairy Tales and Myth and Literature

(A version of this post originally appeared on myWordPress site)

Ravens are bigger than crows. There are other differences too; like their voices. Supposedly the crow can say: ‘uh-huh’, ‘caw’, ‘eh-aw’, ‘kow’, ‘aww’, and the intonation can sound really nasal.

The raven’s voice is harsher and it says things like ‘kraa’, or it makes a deeper croaking sound … They’re both cunningly clever and I think the differences are very subjective. I tend to think of them interchangeably.

From Gothic Divine, this amusing depiction of the physically different characteristics of ravens and crows, by artist J. Russell:

A group of ravens is called an “unkindness.”

A group of crows is called a “murder.”

Heckle and Jeckle are postwar animated cartoon characters created by Paul Terry, originally produced at his own Terrytoons animation studio, seen below:

One of my favorite Counting Crows songs, which is layered with meanings (domestic abuse, etc.) is called A Murder of One.

Here are a few lines:

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for girls
And four for boys
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told.

(Songwriter/artist Adam was inspired by an old English divinity rhyme-with origins of magpies- both for this song and for the name of the band: Counting Crows.) Wikihas an interesting moshposh on the origins of the counting crows folk rhyme. “A version of the rhyme became familiar to many UK children when it became the theme tune of an ITV children’s TV show called Magpie, which ran from 1968 to 1980. The popularity of this version is thought to have displaced the many regional versions that had previously existed.”

Have you ever read Grimm’s Grimmest?

I’m including some illustrations here that are in that book. I think the crow art is astounding. Disney’s versions of fairy tales are SO watered down.

Take for example:

Aschenputtel (Grimm)

There’s a Cinderella in this story. Evil stepsisters. A prince. A festival. And a shoe that won’t fit. But to make it fit, they resort to cutting off a big toe. Desperate times call for desperate measures!

Grimm’s Grimmest (Chronicle Books)-

Illustrations by Tracy Arah Dockray-

This illustrator is a sculptor who mastered the art at Pratt Institute. She always had a love of children’s books and started her craft by working with Play-Doh of all things. She ended up doing a “My Play-Doh Book Of Animals” with Penguin. (I love this woman.) A self- taught painter whose art in Grimm’s Grimmest is everything it should be.

The Seven Ravens (Grimm)

This tale has a dwarf, seven misbehaving sons who turn into ravens, and a little girl who cuts her own finger off. Interesting how many times ravens and crows are main characters in fairy tales. And have been banished this role in modern versions. Why?

The Crows (Grimm)

This tale involves crows telling tales to each other about burning frogs and sick princesses while perched upon the gallows above a bound hanging man. And they peck people’s eyes out. But in their defense, they do peck out the eyes of the bad guys too.

Faithful Johannes (Grimm)

This tale has kidnapping, three conversing ravens (again) blood from the breast of a queen and the beheading of children, (but no worries because their heads get reattached and they survive in the end).

The Fox and the Crow (Aesop)

The crow is in the tree with cheese in its beak. The fox is down on the ground conniving how to get the cheese- so it flatters the bird into cawing, telling it what an exquisite singing voice it has. The crow drops the cheese to sing.

“Nice voice but what you lack is wits,” says the fox.

Factually speaking, it isn’t true that crows ‘lack wits.’ They are smarter than their aviary contemporaries. Crows/ravens are not only proficient in tool-using but in tool construction! They actually are up there with apes in encephalization quotient. Each item in the picture here was given to a little girl named Gabi Mann and these items were ALL gifts brought to her by crows. See article here.

What does encephalization mean?

Encephalization is a kind of measure of brain mass size relative to animal size. Crows/ravens can even distinguish humans’ facial features and recognize one person from another. Crows learn from their flockmates which humans are dangerous. A study has found that crows’ close relatives, magpies, recognize researchers. They learn by observation, many studies done on this. Fascinating.

How about The crow and the pitcher story? The thirsty crow drops pebbles into the pitcher till the water level rises and then it can drink. This isn’t just a fable, it’s been proven. Crows have been seen doing this.

In Irish mythology, crows are associated

with Morrigan, pictured here in a stock

photo depiction, the goddess of war and death.

In Cornish folklore, crows – (and magpies particularly)- are associated with death and the “otherworld.”

In Norse mythology, Huginn and Muninn are a pair of ravens that fly around the entire world and bring the god Odin information.

Viking Shield depicting them:

In Sweden,

ravens are thought to be the ghosts of murdered men.

In Denmark,

the night raven is considered an exorcised spirit. There is a hole in its left wing where the stake used to exorcise it was driven into the earth. Those looking through the hole will become a night raven themselves.

In Australian Aboriginal mythology,

the Crow is a trickster, culture hero, and ancestral being. Legends relating to the Crow have been observed in various Aboriginal language groups and cultures: the Crows’ theft of fire, the origin of death, and the killing of the Eagle’s son. See Australian Aboriginal artwork celebrating nature here.

In Hinduism,

crows are thought of as carriers of information. They give omens to people, much like the Odin story, regarding their situations. For example, when a crow crows in front of a person’s house, he is expected to have special visitors that day. Also, in Hindu literature, crows have great memories which they use to give information.

Arabs call the crow Abu Zajir: Father of omens.

Crows Over a Wheatfield, Van Gogh’s last work.

Halloween is a smorgasbord for crow decorations. My own personal Halloween decoration in my yard:

I carved this homage to crows. (see my Happenings page, and Art page)

In the bird world, eggs (except with ground-dwellers like ostriches) tend to have oval shaped eggs, to discourage them from rolling out of a high nest and hitting the ground. Have you ever seen a crow deliberately bounce up and down on a pine bough, to jostle Blue Jay eggs out of a nest? I have. Eggs hit the ground. Crows feast.


“The crow cawed again overhead, and a strong sea wind came in and burst through the trees, making the green pine needles shake themselves all over the place. That sound always gave me goose bumps, the good kind. It was the sound an orphan governess hears in a book,before a mad woman sets the bed curtains on fire.”
–April Genevieve Tucholke

“Where there’s a doctor it’s always a bad sign. Even when they are not doing the killing themselves it means a death is close, and in that way they are like ravens or crows.”
—-Margaret Atwood

I close with Poe’s Raven poem, in entirety:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tis some visitor,” I muttered, tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
This it is, and nothing more.

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you—here I opened wide the door; —
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!” —
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
Surely, said I, surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore —
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; —
‘Tis the wind and nothing more.

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door —
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door —
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou, I said, art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore —
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning— little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door —
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as Nevermore.
—–Edgar Allan Poe