Humanity’s view on ravenkind has always been ambiguous at best. You can see how ravens got a bad rap. Their voices are, even to this raven fancier, unlovely. With their jet-black feathers and their long, heavy beaks, their appearance could be considered sinister. (Personally, I think they look rather cool.) They are often associated with death because they feed on carrion, including battlefield carrion.
In their defense, they didn’t cause the death, unlike raptors, which are basically killing machines with wings. We can hardly expect other species to be any more sentimental about our dead than we are about theirs. (Looking forward to that Thanksgiving turkey?)
And ravens are smart. Not just smart-for-birds, but very smart. Smart enough to use sticks as tools and to steal fish from a fisherman’s unattended line. Like crows, they recognize people and remember who was nice to them, and who wasn’t. (Public service announcement: Always be nice to crows and ravens.)
British folklore almost always paints ravens as villains. The very word raven in Old English is practically synonymous with bloodshed and strife. The traditional ballad Three Ravens has a hawk, a hound, and a lover defending a knight’s body against the depredations of three ravens. (Contrasted with the better-known and more cynical Scots ballad Twa Corbies, in which the hawk and the hound couldn’t care less and the lady fair is strongly implied to have brought about his death through treachery.)
Celtic traditions are a little less clear about ravens and crows. Both are associated with the Morrigan, the battle-goddess. A truly fearsome figure, yes, but evil? Depends on which side of the battle you’re on.
Norse people had a more positive view of ravens. Two ravens act as messengers and intelligence officers for Odin All-Father. (Though given the raven’s clever, trickster nature, I’m rather surprised they weren’t assigned to Loki. Perhaps he didn’t like competition.) I wonder if the Norse fondness for ravens didn’t damn them further in British eyes. The British Isles had little reason to love the Vikings.
But if you go back to classical times, the Greeks had a much more positive view of ravens. Crows or ravens were servants and messengers of the sun-god Apollo, he who brought light and warmth to the people.
Native American traditions tend to be much less absolutist than European ones, and Raven is an important and contradictory figure in many of them. Raven is part of many of their creation stories, either as creator of the world or creator/discoverer of human beings. Sometimes he is the one who steals fire, either from the sun itself or from another creature that hoards it, so that the people might have light and heat.
Yet Raven is also a trickster on par with Coyote, and like Coyote, he sometimes outwits himself to his own detriment.
In literature and film, the contradictions continue. In Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the villainess has a pet raven. In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, the titular bird is a bad omen, a harbinger of doom and despair. Yet in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, ravens serve as messengers for the dwarven heroes. And in George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones series, ravens serve as messenger birds. Many of Charles de Lint’s novels borrow heavily from Native American traditions. His Raven created the world so long ago that he seems to have forgotten he had done so. He moves through the story half-asleep— but with the threat of powerful things happening if and when he wakes.
In my urban fantasy Ravensblood, I deliberately play with the ambiguity of the raven as a symbol through the name of my protagonist. The Ravenscroft family are notorious dark mages. When Corwyn Ravenscroft, called Raven, tries to seek a path of redemption, he has many doubters, himself among them, At one point, even his chief supporters question his motives and loyalties— and one of them gets a little advice at that point from Mother Crone:
“You were not the only one who believed in Raven when he was young.”
Ana started. She had not heard Mother Crone return.
“I granted him access to my coven’s sacred lands when he was in General Academy. I felt he needed some quiet place to be, away from others and how they judged him. He never abused the privilege. And I have never revoked it, though he has not returned since he went to William.”
Ana stared at her, found herself studied in return. Mother Crone was a seer, and one of the best. She could not know, not with a certainty, but if she had even an inkling. . .
Mother Crone patted Ana on the shoulder as though she were a child and not a woman a mere decade her junior. “In some Craft traditions, the raven is associated with battle and death. But in others, the raven is the one who brings light to the people. Take this from my Craft—when you are in doubt, when your mind cannot make sense of the facts before you, let your innermost heart guide. It is wiser than you know.”
The raven will never be easy to pin down. Which may be why it has captured the imagination of so many,