That’s So Raven: The Divine Augury

Like many of the stories discussed here, divination was not an exclusively Celtic practice. Nearly every culture around the globe has engaged in some form of prophecy. After all, we’re only human. We like tidy cause and effect.

Two men, one wearing a veil, watch a flock of birds on the horizon.
“Ein Augur” by Bernhard Rode (1769). Roman augurs drew their prophecies from the flight paths of birds.

But the Celts went above and beyond in their study of prophecy. Classical writers spoke highly of their devotion and experience in divination. Nearly everything was a sign to the Celts–the path a hare took as it ran over a hill, the condition of the clouds, or the direction smoke danced.

Of all the omens of Celtic prophecy (and there were many), though, one took center stage: the raven.

There was some level of symbolism to everything a raven did. Even the timbre of its caw was associated with different meanings (gradh, gradh meant a clergyman was coming to visit; the softer err, err was a warning of sickness). It went so far as to granting ravens their own distinct brand of divination, known as “raven-knowledge” in the Highlands of Scotland.

A raven from Philip Henry Gosse’s Natural History of Birds (1849).

More so than any of their other associations, though, Ravens were linked to divinity. Specifically, the Celtic goddess of war, fate, and death, Badb.

Much like Brigit, Morrigan was a triple goddess, represented by three aspects. These aspects were known by many different names throughout the region*, most notably Badbh, Neman, and Macha. For simplicity’s sake, I will simply be referring to her as Morrigan.

Badbh was said to be able to transform into a raven. She guided men into battle in this shape, or perched on the shoulder of Daghda (king of the gods) to advise him on the outcomes of fights before they took place. She also often appeared to prophesy the death of a great warrior, such as the mythological Irish hero Cu Cuchulain.

A tall woman, dressed elegantly in the old Celtic fashion, stands on a hill over two men with her right arm outstretched.
“Macha Curses the Men of Ulster” by Eleanor Hull (1904). Although Morrigan rarely went into battle herself, her very presence was enough to inspire terror.

Over time the pagan religions died out, and belief in Morrigan waned as Christianity took its hold on Scotland and Ireland. But as we saw with the church grim, old religions don’t simply disappear. Instead, they tangle with new beliefs, creating what we call folklore.

Some of this lore was simple hedge wisdom–an adaptation of the auguries of years past. If a flock of crows took shelter in your field, for example, it meant that a storm was coming. The nesting habits of ravens were also sometimes used to measure the passage of the seasons.

Sometimes, though, the same old stories simply adapted to fit the changing times. Such was the case of the banshee–fairy women who typically appeared as hags, washing blood from clothes beside a river or loch. Their wailing call was thought to be an omen of death.

A sketch of an old woman sitting below a tree on the edge of a lake at night.
“The Bunworth Banshee” by W.H. Brooke (1825).

Although there is no explicit historical connection between the Banshee and Morrigan, they bear undeniably similarities. Most notably, their roles of portents of death, their appearances (despite her shape shifting powers, Morrigan often chose to appear as an old hag), and their storied connections to ravens and crows.

Like Morrigan, the banshee held some level of shapeshifting abilities. She was rumored to be able to be able to turn into a black dog, a hooded crow, or a raven. According to Katharine Briggs in An Encyclopedia of Fairies, “a crow perching on a house is often the form taken by a banshee.” As such, a raven perched on your house or tapping at your window was just as much a death omen as a banshee’s scream.

If one looks closely at the hooded crow, you can see where the fable may have arisen from–its markings represent a hooded cloak, as many banshees are said to wear.

A white crow with black wings and head.
The hooded crow is found throughout much of Europe. Photographed by Rossographer (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Birds have always been seen as guides to humanity. Seabirds lead sailors to land, and crows and vultures flock to battlefields. As H.C. March wrote in The Mythology of Wise Birds,

Mankind has learnt much from the wisdom of birds, whose extraordinary powers of flight and vision had been used by seamen for discovering the proximity of land or the direction in which it lay, and whose annual passage oversea necessarily proved to observant minds the existence and location of unknown countries.

But the Celt’s relationship with ravens and crows is particularly interesting to me due to the evolution of the superstition, from religion to folklore to mythology. Although it’s not exactly a rare path for stories to take, the raven makes a particularly clear example.

It makes you think, too. A hundred years in the future, or five hundred, what will historians think of us?

And what will they think of the stories we tell?


*The study of the ancient Celtic pagan religion is complicated by a lack of central structure or text, and the fact that our only historical record comes from the Romans instead of the Celts themselves. As such, many of the Celtic deities have very similar roles but are known by different names. For more information on this topic, read this article or A Very Short Introduction: The Druids by Barry Cunliffe.


Page Sources:

The Mythology of Wise Birds by H.C. March

The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain by Lewis Spence

Celtic Mythology: The Goddesses of the Insular Celts by Prionsias MacCana

The Religion of the Ancient Celts: Sacrifice, Prayer, and Divination

The Raven and Crow of the Celts by Shanon Sin

The Death of Cu Cuchulain 

The Church Grim: Gentle Guardian or Bad Omen?

Just like many people my age, I was absolutely obsessed with Harry Potter while I was growing up. I loved debating which Hogwarts house people belonged to, or whether cats or owls made better pets. I even went so far as to read the entire series about thirteen times over a few years.

None of the books enchanted me quite so much as the The Prisoner of Azkaban, though. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think a large part of it was the Grim, a creature of superstition who stalked Harry through much of the book.

A teacup containing leaves in the shape of a black dog.
The Grim reveals itself to Harry during a tea leaf reading.

The Grim is a large black dog that, according to Harry’s divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is “an omen–the worst omen–of death!”

It turns out that, just like with many of the other creatures in the series, JK Rowling drew heavily from folklore in creating the Grim.

According to English and Scandinavian legend, the first body to be laid to rest in a churchyard was charged with the eternal task of guarding it from the Devil. This was a lonely profession, and one without rest or respite. To save the souls of their fellow men, the people would instead kill a pure black animal (usually a dog or goat) and bury it in the churchyard. This animal–the church grim–served not just as a substitute, but as a loyal guardian, protecting the bodies and souls of its charges.

A large, black figure with the head of a white goat standing in a snowy forest.
The church grim (known as the Kyrkogrim in Sweden) also makes an appearance in the  iOS game Year Walk. Although church grims from England and Ireland are nearly always dogs, they typically appear as goats in Scandinavian tales.

Despite its obviously Christian connotation, the church grim tradition likely had roots in pagan beliefs. In his collection of Scandinavian folklore, Benjamin Thorpe explained the origins of the dark custom:

Heathen superstition did not fail to show itself in the construction of Christian churches. In laying the foundation, the people would retain something of their former religion, and sacrificed to their old deities, whom they could not forget, some animal, which they buried alive, either under the foundation or without the wall.

By today’s standards, the thought of burying an animal alive–especially an animal so beloved as a dog–seems morally reprehensible. But it’s important to remember the roots of the tradition. The Celts and Scandinavians were just two of many world cultures who regularly sacrificed animals to their gods. The Egyptians commonly buried mummified household pets alongside their owners. Even today, some choose to have their pets buried alongside them.

 

A large black dog reclining on a porch.
Thanks to their reputation as loyal (and fierce) guardians, few animals are both so loved and so feared as dogs. Photo by Joe Parks (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reclining_black_dog.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Pets bring us protection and companionship, and there are few times when we need that more than when we are about to die. Grims provided much the same purpose–to provide comfort. They were a reassurance that the bodies and souls of your loved ones would be protected.

The church grim wasn’t always an altruistic spirit, though. Irish folklore speaks of the church grim (also known as the barguest) as an omen, much like in Harry Potter. According to the Irish tradition, the grim appears as a “large black dog with fiery eyes” who, upon the death of anyone living near its churchyard, “would appear, followed by all the dogs in the district, howling and baying” (Katherine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies).

Nineteenth century writers speak of the church grim as something to be feared. They described it as a monster, with eyes of fire and a monstrous roar. However, I feel that is a misinterpretation of the source material, and that it makes much more sense to interpret the church grim not as something so simple as a guardian or a monster, but as a guide.

Humanity has always needed a way to rationalize death. History has proven time and time again that there is little we fear more than the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknowable as death. Not just what happens when we step beyond the veil, but what happens before. Will the end be soft and slow, or swift and violent?

As if that were not enough, the pagan Celts–despite their general obsession with cycles and repetition–didn’t believe in rebirth. They actually believed in the afterlife and eternal souls, much like the Abrahamic religions. You had one shot at life; after that came eternity in the underworld (or Tir Na Nog, if you were an extraordinary hero).

So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to have a familiar creature, one revered by cultures across the globe as a protector and a friend of mankind, to warn you when your time is near, and to accompany you into the darkness.

The symbolism of a dog (a common terrestrial animal) being buried deep beneath the earth seems to back up my theory. In a way, it forms a connection between the opposed realms of sky (the mortal, surface-dwelling world) and earth (the eternal underworld). The church grim can pass between these worlds, essentially serving as a furry Charon*.

Of course it’s frightening to come to terms with your own death–that’s just human nature. But church grims were more than a dark omen or a brutal ritual. They were a reassurance to the living–a promise that our loved ones would be cared for in the afterlife.

And as we near the end of our lives, very few of us ask for more.


*Charon, a character in Greek mythology, ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to the underworld.


Page Sources:

Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands (vol II), compiled by Benjamin Thorpe

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders by William Henderson

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Celtic Culture by Kristin Hawkins

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

Year Walk by Simogo

The Atlantic: The Movement to Bury Pets Alongside People