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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Raven and Crow of the Celts by Shanon Sin