John Howe

WE ARE THE RAVEN-FED

Just what is it about the making of pictures? Endless pondering on the nature of image-making, of the desire and the need to make images, has left me no closer to that mirage despite all the assiduous musing.

From where do images come – for they must have an origin – and how do we make sense of them and, through them, make sense of ourselves?

The images we make are not mirrors – or if they are, they are imperfect ones at best. They reflect those things we cannot clearly behold except by the imperfect process of drawing and painting.

The process is of course inspiration, a will o’ the wisp disguised as a discipline, the elusive resource upon which all depends. By the flickering light of that ignis fatuus masquerading as a profession, the midnight oil of the small hours of the mind, artists the world over sketch, draw, paint… create.

Sketches are an invitation to the muse, an awkward and ever-renewed seduction for the whirlwind affair of the next step, painting: placing a bet against the odds, or a negotiation with ever-diminishing potentiality. Sketching is the substantive of the immaterial, in equal measure intimate conviction and collective consciousness: Freud and Jung over tea, Yeats and Frazer talking shop.

But, above all, those who pursue image-making are raven-fed. Imagination is at the mercy of providence. Inspiration is akin to the flight of wild birds – sudden flocks filling a barren sky, or a solitary pair of wings, flashing by on the edge of vision.

Inspiration, like a flock of wild birds, makes us peer intently, raise our faces heavenward, wish we too could take flight. And, since we are earth-bound creatures, it is with pencils and paper we lift into the sky.

An aside: I have recurring dreams of flying, or more exactly, purposely floating, or slowly soaring, lifting from the ground hesitantly by drawing my breath back into my spine, clumsily directing my flight. It is exhilarating and disquieting. The dreams are in colour, the skies are always beautiful. Some sequences – in fantastical landscapes as often as not derived from novels – are as vivid as if I had lived them for real.

Birds.

A raven was sent forth by Ut-Napashtim, builder of the flood-tossed vessel with the last humans huddled aboard. The raven did not return, and the proto-Noah of the epic of Gilgamesh knew land had emerged from the waters. Noah also releases a raven, then frowns on the fickle and faithless bird when it does not return, and sends out a dove, which returns with a branch in its beak. Stories change, but the actors don’t always change their lines in time and the raven ends up getting bad press in the Good Book.

The raven flew on, however, discovering Iceland in the same manner, according to the Saga of Hrafna-Flóki.

Minerva transformed into a crow a beautiful maiden who had the misfortune of striking Neptune’s fancy, or so Ovid claims, at any rate. Crows and ravens are symbols of metamorphosis, embodiments of that troublesome and ever-changing duo: imagination and inspiration. They travel in the visible and the invisible world, with eyes that see both outward and within.

The spoiled sun-god Apollo, vexed by a raven bearing unwelcome news, turned its feathers night-black (the raven until then had been white), reminder of the eternal cycle of day and night, each one ever the prelude to the next. The crow is sacred to Hera. Pausanias reminds us that Pallas Athenae once had a crow perched on her outstretched hand, rather than the traditional owl. Nevertheless, the crow still faithfully announces the day with his dry-throated croaking (another “gift” from a short-tempered Jupiter to reward an errand shirked – the attributes of the raven seem to be, for the most part, acquired as penance.) The raven is the night-clad herald of the dawn. The raven, black as night, announces the light. (The Bible uses the word “orev” for all corvids; it may be derived from the Hebrew “erev” or evening.)

Raven Dreams the Land. Raven created the world, and re-creates the world by dreaming it. When Raven stops dreaming, the land will wither and the wind will carry it away. (The Kingdom of Brass)

An aside: “Raven” is derived from the Old English hræfn (Mercian), hrefn; hræfn (Northumbrian, West Saxon), from Proto-Germanic *khrabanaz (source also of Old Norse hrafn, Danish ravn, Dutch raaf, Old High German hraban, German Rabe “raven,” Old English hroc “rook”), from a proto-Indo-European root *ker- (2), imitative of harsh sounds (source also of Latin crepare “to creak, clatter,” cornix “crow,” corvus “raven;” Greek korax “raven,” korone “crow;” Old Church Slavonic kruku “raven;” Lithuanian krauklys “crow”). Essentially, crows and ravens have told us their own names.

The same ravens and crows came to peck at the sacrifices left for the gods on altars open to the sky. They were welcome there, a sky-sign that the offerings had been accepted, propitiation rewarded by flashing black wings and sharp beaks. By the same token, ravens and crows came as well to the sacrifices made to the battle-gods of war. Here, though, they were not welcome. They were seen to deny the peace of eternity to the victorious dead, their indiscriminate pecking and foraging in the eyes and entrails of friend and foe alike were unacceptable reminders that all dead are carrion. (Humans do not relish becoming fodder for animals.)

The stygian plumage of crows and ravens transforms them into shadow-beings; they are punctures in eternity, black holes in the fabric of the sense of the world. They denied smooth and peaceful passing into the world of the dead, croak and cavort in a sepulture and cast shadows over our self-certain souls. (Two sides to every coin: The raven standard was the flag of the Danish Vikings; the raven not only could lead them to victory, he could disfigure their dead; emblem and pariah in the same feathered cloak.) The Swedish dead might, if unrestful, return as ghosts in raven shape.

Raven was the name of the Gaul who sacked Rome. A raven figured on the standard of 15th-century Hungarian monarch Matthias Corvinus, the Raven King at the head of his Black Army. Surely crows followed in his train. Irish Babd and Morrigan, like Siberian Ilbis Kyyha and Ohol Uola, could take flight in raven form. When the ravens cease circling and alight on Kyffhaüser Mountain, Barbarossa will awake once more. If the raven greets the sun, the raven also rides the storm.

Unperturbed, ravenkind continued its travels between light and dark, death and life, metempsychosal migrators, winging not south and north with the seasons but ferrying between worlds; between our world and the otherworld, between the world of gods and those of men. Our fears and distrust run off their feathered backs like so many raindrops unheeded; they have their minds on other business.

Besides, Raven is a trickster, loitering about the longhouse hearth with the Kwakiutl, Haida or Salish. You can count on Raven like a brother. Once. Twice, perhaps more. You can’t trust Raven. Not even once. He is like that, he decides. How much of Raven is human? However much he wants. After all, forsaking the rainbow plumage once his pride, he risked life and pinion bringing fire to mankind and was charred to coal-black. He is a pre-Columbian Prometheus, but he is also Loki, or Dionysus, or Bes, or Savi.

An aside: Raven mythology shows considerable homogeneity throughout the whole area [northern regions of the northern hemisphere] in spite of differences in detail. The Raven peeps forth from the mists of time and the thickets of mythology, as a bird of slaughter, a storm bird, a sun and fire bird, a messenger, an oracular figure and a craftsman or culture hero. (Edward A. Armstrong, “The Folklore of Birds,” 1958)

Raven could also be cruel, a purveyor of illusion and despair. He brought the Ghost Dance to the Paiute, then to other tribes who were witnessing the collapse and destruction of their world. They danced with two crow feathers bound into their hair – two feathers from the bird that could pass between worlds, and might show them the way to the world they had lost – dance that ended at Wounded Knee.

 

Raven is everywhere. Huginn and Muninn, when they were not perched on Odin’s shoulders, travelled at will through the Nine Worlds. Crows as Thought and Memory. Van Gogh painted jagged inverted circumflexes over a cornfield with a ragged sky. Crows as Art. A crow fed Elijah in the wilderness. Crow as Providence. The raven perches on the bust of Pallas. Raven as Poetic Death. The Romans understood the raven’s cry as “cras,” Latin for “tomorrow.” Raven as Hope Eternal. If the ravens ever desert the Tower of London the Kingdom of England will fall. Ravens as Luck.

 

Raven as Inspiration and Imagination

Their plumage of all colours and no colours lets ravens and crows move easily between worlds. Traditionally, they are creatures of inspiration, they reveal dreams and visions.

Raven-fed: wandering in a world where the bland and everyday does not exist, because ravens and crows are there to remind us of the beauty of the light, of the magic of dawn; to guide our steps on the entelechy of circumstance that confers meaning, sense, and harmony. Ravens are guardians and heralds of the liminal and the sublime.

Inspiration depends on the providence of these wing-beats between worlds. If we frighten away the ravens and crows, or become deaf to their cries, we forfeit our relationship with the world and what we can make of it. Fantasy is simultaneously poetic disengagement from and engagement with the world. Trade between the two is the hazardous commerce of the artist. Truly, raven-fed.

And lastly, when we laugh in true wonder and delight, we have crow’s feet at the corners of our eyes. What more need be said?

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Thanks to Mirriam Neal for the kind help proofreading, and grateful acknowledgment of a debt to Patrick Leigh Fermor, consummate wanderer and travel writer, for the words “raven-fed,” from “In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor.”

For further reading: “Crow” by Boria Sax, published by Reaktion Books, London, 2003