Thursday, 3 January 2013


Greetings and a very happy and peaceful new year!

I am just settling into life up near Point Reyes, Northern California. To my surprise it is actually chillier here than in Devon, in the UK - although usually by mid day the sky is that wonderful, vast blue i associate with this part of the world. I look forward to leading the Oral Culture and Mythology program at Stanford from next week - i will also be doing working with myth, ideas and the living world up in Marin.

So here's a little something (i put some of this up early last year) in deference to some of my new neighbors, the mighty Raven. Please eat this and not me!

Something more coherent when i have finished unpacking, recovering from colds, opening bank account, finding a set of wheels etc.

Black-Mouthed Raven
Raven carries fear under its wings, and is not afraid to drop handfuls here and there to get what it wants. It's preponderance for the flesh of the dead, and its willingness to gobble scat, make it an edgier presence in our heads to that of the rabbit or budgerigar. Its ink-black plumage, elongated Roman beak and patterning of honks and ghostly croaks make it a bird with a rep.

Beloved of the Norseman, the natives of the pacific north west, and the Greeks, it has surprising associations with the sun, rather than endless gloom and corpse-picking. As the story states - there is the old native Trickster tale of Raven actually bringing light to the world in a small box stolen from a big man of the Otherworld so humans could hunt fish and collect berries. Odin bent his great ear daily to the litany of genius gossip that Hugin and Mugin (his raven companions) would report to him of the world's occurring.

We know that an alpha-raven’s mouth turns black on the inside when taking a position of leadership (always by force) within a community, and that the followers' mouths tend to stay pink, unless making a bid for dominance. There seems to be no way round this black-mouth leadership, even in our most refined universities. Knowledge can quickly become a form of intimidation to bruise your way to tenure. This way physicality is no longer so crucial, even the solitary can think their way to stature rather than swing a fist or kick a football.

Initiation has always placed emphasis on colour. Black is always one with knowledge of the Underworld, of failure, of stuckness, or depression, fatality, listlessness. Whilst having endured all that, they have somehow turned it into a great song. The colour red is more showy, more to do with the young warrior, than the patient depth of black. This mouth colouring reveals much about relationship; that too much subservience around the leader cripples development to an individual.

Remember the painter Willem De Kooning's refusal to work in Arshille Gorky’s studio?, “nothing grows around big trees.” he said. Depends what kind of tree i would suggest. For animals, pack living often greatly assists survival, and they know well that leadership will require constant display, strategy, barracking, and generally large behaviour. It’s exhausting. But for initiated tribes people, much of the West is a pink-mouthed society, a society that runs from much of what initiation offers in the raising of an adult – becoming kin to nature, facing the Underworld, staying connected and debted to a cosmos. When we stay distant, protected, coddled, ironic, our mouths stay resolutely pink. We have not taken responsibility for the shaping of our lives, we are not in service.

Animals have always been magical to ancient peoples. Unless you specifically traced one, who is to say that the raven that honks above the ancestral bone-yard is not a perennial constant, present, unchanging forever? (referring to story not seen in this blog) They disappear into the lonely tree line, and maybe in and out of other worlds entirely.

The seemingly modern notion of a raven, or snake, or parrot, as inner-figures that also dig away at our logical, up standing mind, is not so modern. Recall the third century Origen (Origen 1982 :115):

“understand that you have within you herds of cattle, flocks of sheep…and that the birds of the air are all within you…You see that you have all those things that the world has.” This has been a vital step from them as a mere meal on legs or being a resource only for labour and feast. We also realise that there is plenty of order, logic and up standingness in the animal world. All kinds of habits and cautions. Real animal nature is not just a byword for sweaty exuberance.

The trouble with this animal association is that too rigid an interiorising robs the animal of its independent vitality, we risk degradation in too many attempts to assimilate something that we recognise, but that should in some ways remain ‘other’. Raven is a spiritus rector, a guardian deity, not as a mere symbol ‘representing’ my mysterious side. We have the task of losing some vanity. The living world is very skilled at providing that.

Although enjoying a kind of solitary ambience, ravens are effective team-players when hunting. Terry McEneaney, an ornithologist from Yellowstone Park, reports seeing a raven landing on the rim of an opsrey nest and stealing a fish. Whilst the osprey was agitated, another raven working in tandem sneaked in and stole an egg. There are hundreds of such accounts.

This seems to indicate some kind of forward thinking on behalf of the ravens. Professor Dieter Wallenschlager witnessed a raven feigning injury – dragging a wing – to incite a swan to attack, whilst again its mate rushed the nest and stole an egg. Whilst opinion ranges on how much forethought is required to pull this off, what is clear is mutual dependence from both birds on the anticipated outcome.

The Tower of London still clips the wings of its ravens because of an old superstition that if the ravens leave, then England will fall. It is a bird close to wolf-mind: it will deliberately lead wolves to prey and then it will guzzle the greasy left overs. It was said they did the same thing for old west country hunters: they would be left the guts when the deer was killed.

They have also saved human lives: Ginny Hannum tells the story of being stalked by a cougar and only by the repeated, attention grabbing behaviour of a raven just overhead, did she glance up, see the cougar and rapidly retreat.

But let us not be too caught in the complete rehabilitation of the terror-birds; let us not place them comfortably within a human relational range of behaviour. They are mystifying, smart, aggressive and strictly hierarchical; they don’t sit round on bean bags in talking circles - they have black-mouthed leaders who intimidate to get themselves to the top of the pile until they themselves are toppled. Ravens are into power. The raven expert Bernd Heinrich tells the story of watching a particular dead beech tree for some time, and noticing that a succession of dominant ravens in the group would all choose a specific perch when their time came as top-bird. There were many others to choose from, equally plush, but somewhere in the wider raven-mind of that group it became established that that was the power-perch and so that was it. After years of careful and sometimes painful observation, Heinrich also noted that leadership amongst ravens came with a cost. All leaders have large bodies which require more feeding, all leaders have to constantly display their grandiosity, which requires many battles, much blood on the snow. You can’t relax, there is no one for you to follow, you lead, always.

Raven carries the Nigredo black of the alchemist on its wings, beak, body. It is like some charcoal stain on the optimist's blue horizon. Fifty thousand years of gobbling scat and flesh, a constant at the battlefield, make it a companion to putrefaction. Black is strong medicine, even when denied that it is a colour at all. It is the robe of choice for any decent occultist; the black of night is the cover for illicit liaison; to be ‘in the dark’ is to be wandering, confused, un-settled; it is a hint of what could await at the moment of death.

At the same time, archaeology tells us that black is the place to go. It’s long been known in England that any place name with the word black in it – Black Meadow, Black Woods, Blackingstone Rocks – is a place worthy of digging. The reason? The darker coloured soil will indicate an old settlement – generations of fire ash, food remains, and general use.

To a certain eye, black means to dig deeper. To a certain eye, it offers reward.
Raven carries this rattle-bag of contrary wisdoms, invokes a cautionary wave or grimace as it sweeps over the jolly street party. We know who would be first to pluck out an eye if we were we to slip one rainy night on the step. And yet, some memory remains of this bird and a box of light and a pinprick hole to the Otherworld (ref to ancient notion from Pacific North-West that Raven brought light to the world). They certainly stirs up mixed emotions. Duende, duende.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

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