Although they are more likely to be seen in upland areas of south-west England, Wales, the north Pennines and Lake District and much of Scotland, sightings of ravens are not unknown in the low-lying city of Bristol.

image of common raven

Common raven (corvus corax). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Your ‘umble scribe has seen single ravens around Temple Meads railway station, as well as in such inner-city districts as Easton. More often than not, I have heard the raven’s distinctive call before seeing it with the naked eye.

The largest number I’ve ever spotted at one time was a few weeks ago, when I sighted three ravens circling over Barton Hill, being mobbed by aggressive members of the area’s resident gull population.

Mythology and legend

Ravens have long featured in European mythology. In Irish mythology, the goddess Morrígan alighted on the hero Cú Chulainn‘s shoulder in the form of a raven after his death. In Welsh mythology ravens were associated with the Welsh god Bran the Blessed, whose name translates to “raven.” According to the Mabinogion, Bran’s head was buried in the White Hill of London as a talisman against invasion.

In Norse mythology, Huginn (from the Old Norse for “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse for “memory” or “mind”) are a pair of ravens that fly all over the world, Midgard and bring the god Odin information.

In England a legend developed that the country would not fall to a foreign invader as long as there were ravens at the Tower of London (invasions are averted by the simple expedient of clipping the wings of the resident ravens. Ed.). Although this is often thought to be an ancient belief, Geoffrey Parnell, the official Tower of London historian, believes that, like so many other legends of the British Isles, this is actually a romantic Victorian invention.

In culture

In western culture ravens have long been considered to be birds of ill omen and death, partly due to the negative symbolism of their all-black plumage and the eating of carrion.

As in traditional mythology and folklore, the common raven features frequently in more modern writings such as the works of William Shakespeare, and, perhaps most famously, in the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Ravens have also appeared in the works of Charles Dickens, J. R. R. Tolkien and Stephen King, amongst others.

Ravens have also featured in song. “The Three Ravens” is an English folk ballad, printed in the song book Melismata compiled by the appositely named Thomas Ravenscroft and published in 1611, but it is perhaps older than that.

The music and lyrics are set out below. The latter are in their original 17th century orthography, with the refrains in italics.

The ballad takes the form of 3 ravens conversing about where and what they should eat. One tells of a newly slain knight, but they find he is guarded by his loyal hawks and hounds. Furthermore, a “fallow doe”, an obvious metaphor for the knight’s pregnant (“as great with young as she might go”) lover or mistress comes to his body, kisses his wounds, bears him away and buries him, leaving the ravens without a meal.

image of musical score for The Three Ravens ballad

Music for The Three Ravens

There were three rauens sat on a tree,
Downe a downe, hay down, hay downe
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
With a downe
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe
The one of them said to his mate,
‘Where shall we our breakefast take?’
‘Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a knight slain vnder his shield.
‘His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their master keepe.
‘His haukes they flie so eagerly,
There’s no fowle dare him come nie.’
Downe there comes a fallow doe,
As great with yong as she might goe.
She lift vp his bloudy hed,
And kist his wounds that were so red.
She got him vp vpon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake.
She buried him before the prime,
She was dead herselfe ere euen-song time.
God send euery gentleman,
Such haukes, such hounds, and such a leman.

Your correspondent does not know what the three ravens circling Barton Hill found to eat, as dead knights are not exactly common in that part of the city. 😀