(C) Copyright John Peter Luke Saunders, 2000 AD
Now each of these four founders
Formed their own house, for each
Did value different virtues
In the ones they had to teach.
By Gryffindor, the bravest were
Prized far beyond the rest;
For Ravenclaw, the cleverest
Would always be the best;
For Hufflepuff, hard workers were
Most worthy of admission;
And power-hungry Slytherin
Loved those of great ambition.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 156-7
“Ravens. What do you know about them? Their mythological
or paranormal significance.”
“Well, the raven is considered a very powerful symbol in certain Norse, Celtic and Native American cultures, mostly a negative one. Indians view it as a deceiving spirit, Christianity mostly associates it with evil, and then of course there is Poe’s raven and Nevermore and all that stuff.”
Skinner and Mulder, The X-Files
“But the raven still beguiling all my fancy into
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird,
And bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous
Bird of yore –
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and
Ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore’ “
Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
It is my argument that to interpret the Raven merely as a symbol of death and war is partial and incomplete.
Again, the Raven must be looked at in both it’s etic and emic functions as a symbol. How is the raven seen from outside the line in question, and how is it seen from inside the line in question?
Etic, in this case, is defined as all outside views, not just the Anglo-centric view. It is easy to assume that because the raven is a carrion bird that all cultures would view it with equal disdain – after all, the foul creature is as black as night. However, if one actually looks at raven semiotics from an intercultural perspective quite the opposite picture emerges: what is surprising is that raven often appears as a solar symbol, and may be described positive terms – in stark contrast to Poe .
So within the wider Celtic tradition, ravens are not just associated with war, but with knowledge, warning, procreation, prophecy, intelligence and in certain cases, healing. Ravens also are a form shapeshifters may take.
In the case of the Tower of London, they certainly have a guardian or a warning aspect. It is not when the ravens arrive that disaster is heralded, but when they leave.
This indicates that ravens are not simply symbols of death and war, although sometimes whether a raven is friendly or not depends on the presence of a white feather.
One of the versions of the battle of St Patrick on Croagh Patrick has him fighting large black birds. It would be interesting to speculate whether or not these back birds were in fact ravens, and whether or not this conflict alluded to a clash between St Patrick and the Ui Fiachrach. Unfortunately, this must remain as speculation as there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other.
Bran is the word most sources link to the word
raven. It is on the traditional site of the burial of Bran’s head that the Tower
of London lies, hence the raven guardians/watchers.
Yet an alternative word for raven is Fiach, hence the link between the Ui Fiachrach and the raven.
There is a point of tension which is ongoing: that
the way the line in question sees the raven may in fact depart from the way
the wider sept views the raven. This divergence is reflected in the tension
between the alternative translations of the word “dubh”, from which O’Dubhda
Dwelley’s Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary gives the word Fitheach for Raven, as opposed to feannag for carrion crow or rook.
The clan O’Dubhda is descended from an individual named Dubhda, a direct descendant of Fiachra through his son Daithi.
In the footnotes to the Annals of Ireland, the following is given – “The name Dubhda appears to be derived from Dubh, dark or black, and dath, a colour, which, by the elision of the last two letters, which have no sound, makes Dubhda, and might signify a dark-haired chief.” (Annals of Ireland, p. 98-99, Footnotes to the year 1294).
The O’Dubhda Family History by Conor Mac Hale of the O’Dubhda Clan Association gives the meaning of Dubhda as “The Dark One” which “probably referred to his black hair or dark colouring” (MacHale, 1990, p. 7).
Most sources concur with this translation.
If one looks up “dubh” in the Collins Gem Irish Dictionary, one reads:
“dubh, adj. Black; dark; black-haired; dismal;”
Using Occam’s Razor, we must therefore conclude that the surname means much the equivalent of the English ‘Black’, simply referring to the “raven dark” hair possessed by many members of the family, as noted in Chapter 5.
Yet even these translations are qualified by
“might and “probably”. They are simplest and most direct readings possible,
and therefore according to Occam’s Razor the most likely to be correct, at least
at a literal level.
But as will be shown shortly, within the cultural context of Ireland, and at a symbolic level, many other readings become possible. To complicate things, the extent of Viking influence upon the family is not known.
If one looks up “raven” in the Collins Gem Irish
Dictionary one reads:
“raven n fiach, m1 dubh”
Dwelley’s gives “dubh” further nuances:
Dubh, duibhe, a. black 2. Dark 3. Sad, mournful. 4* Disastrous. 5 Lean, as flesh 6. Sable, in heraldry 7** Dark haired 8** Wicked 9** rarely Great.
Dubh, duibh, s.m. Blackness 2. Darkness 3. Ink 4. Pupil of the eye
However, a counter reading of dubh also exists.
Micheil Mac Donald gives the following translation:
Dubh adj./adv. (pronounced ‘doo’) widely mis-interpreted Gaelic word, which is translated as ‘black’ but can mean secret, illicit, concealed etc (as in the English ‘black market’, does not refer to colour).
In interpreting the O’Dubhda shield, black denotes constancy. (MacHale, 1990, p. 18)
The ancient Irish also had a board game called
Brandubh, which might be translated as ‘black raven’. The idea was to move one’s
‘king’ or centre piece from the centre of the board past the ravens which ringed
the board (which symbolised Ireland itself) to a safe corner. Here the raven
might be seen as a negative symbol (although, as in chess, someone has to play
black). It is interesting to note, however, that such a game corresponds closely
to a pattern of diaspora.
The raven is, at times, also treated as a symbol which can be positive or negative depending on it’s context, such as it’s use in the novels of Caiseal Mor, where ravens are a negative symbol on the Brandubh board but are always linked positively to the druid protagonists otherwise.
To make things even more interesting, in at least
one point in O’Dubhda heraldry the raven has been punned to mean “dove”, which
is interesting in the light of the above symbolism in terms of ravens and white
feathers. (White here strictly means innocence, not cowardice. Given the warlike
reputation and history of the O’Dubhda discussed in chapter 5, no one has ever
called them cowards – as has already been seen, they have opposite reputation).
One way of pronouncing ‘dubh’ is ‘duv’, which sounds not unlike the English ‘dove’. Around 1450 there was a civil war in Tireragh, western Ireland. Some of the O’Dubhda survivors fled to Dublin, whose shield became five red doves on a white background with the motto “Innocent as a dove”.
However the rest of the O’Dubhda viewed the raven, the line in question appears to have viewed the raven in a positive light – hence the reference to the Ui Fiachrach as a ‘brotherhood of the raven’. Pet names or diminutive names in the family, particularly of those members with dark or black hair, have also referred to the raven from time to time.
The question “what did the raven mean to my ancestors” is unanswerable: it is not written down in definitive terms anywhere to my knowledge. What it MIGHT have meant could be an endless academic debate.
The more pertinent question is “what does the
raven as a symbol mean for us in the Third Millennium?”
In an era where symbols are continuallyFootnotes being appropriated and reappropriated, what does the raven symbolise for us: what meanings do we wish to take on board from the web of traditional meanings available? Are there new meanings possible?
Or, more simply, how do we wish to reinterpret the raven?
This process of reinterpretation and rereading, and it’s implications for the cultural evolution of the family’s written and oral traditions will be the focus of the final chapter of the thesis.
In general “as the raven is a talking
bird it is connected with prophecy and hence wisdom, but as black and a carrion-feeder
it represents darkness, destructiveness and evil and, with the wolf, it often
appears with the gods of the dead” (Cooper, J.C. “Dictionary of Symbolic and
Mythological Animals”, p. 199) while “ the Hebrews...considered it unclean and
for whom it typified the impure, mortification, destruction and deceit. It is
the first bird specified in the Old Testament and, with the Owl, represented
desolation. It was said to have been cursed by Noah at the Flood. On the other
hand it was a protector of Prophets and showed God’s providence by feeding Elijah.
There were also Christian saints, such as St Paul the Hermit, fed by ravens
– the raven, signifying solitude, represented the hermit. St Cuthbert was helped
by them and St Bernard’s raven prevented him from eating a poisonous loaf, but
ravens were also thought to incarnate the souls of wicked priests and the damned,
or those denied Christian burial, and to be the familiars of witches” (Cooper,
In medieval times “it was said in the Bestiaries that ravens do not feed their broods properly until they showed black” (Cooper, p. 200) yet curiously “there are many legends, world-wide, which describe the raven as having been white originally” (Cooper, p. 200)
In the classical world “as prophets, ravens foretold the deaths of Plato, Tiberius and Cicero among others, and they could also find lost property – this has been known as Ravens’ knowledge” (Cooper, p. 200)
Still further back “the beneficent aspect of the
raven appears in Zoroastrianism, where it is a ‘pure’ bird since it removes
pollution. This is carried over to Mithraism, where the first grade of initiation
is the Raven, the servant of the sun. It is also solar in Greek myth as a messenger
of the Sun God Helios/Apollo and as an attribute of Athene, Cronos and Aesculapius.
It is also a symbol of fertility and as such is invoked at weddings, but in
Orphic art the raven depicts death and appears with the pine cone and torch
of life and light, representing death and rebirth.” (Cooper, p. 200)
The connection with the sun also exists in Chinese lore: “In China the raven is again solar, the three-legged raven lives in the sun, representing the three phases of rising, noon and setting. It is one of the creatures of the Twelve Terrestrial Branches and symbolizes power. In Indian myth Brahma appeared as a raven in one of his incarnations.” (Cooper, p. 200)
In the new world - “Of all the Amerindian Trickster-Heroes Raven is the most widely distributed; he is the archetypal Trickster but also appears as a creator and Raven Man. He is The Big Grandfather, the Outer One, he steals the sun and is one of the creatures which recreated the land after the Flood, a culture hero and demiurge who created night and day, also a shape shifter. He (sic) is the subject of myth from Alaska and the Innuits (Eskimo) to the Plains, Woods and Pueblos Indians. He is also a messenger of the Great Spirit” (Cooper, p. 201).
In Scandinavia “the raven was an emblem of the Danes
and Vikings and two ravens were the messengers of Odin/Woden. They sat on his
shoulders, and one was called Hugin, ‘thought’, and the other Munin, ‘memory’.
They ranged all over the land reporting what they had seen. In both Norse and
Celtic lore the raven is associated with deities of war and features as a helper
and protector of warriors and heroes. It is an important Celtic figure but is
ambivalent as helper on the one hand and connected with death and the Raven-Crow
goddess goddesses on the other; it can be ill-omened but also represents wisdom,
intelligence and prophetic power. The Raven-Crow goddess, ‘The Blessed Raven’,
had a three-fold function as war, procreator and prophecy. The raven is also
associated with the Wren in prophecy and divination and the Swan in solar symbolism,
and is connected with the dove-cote as a house-symbol, this probably being pre-Celtic.
The Raven of Battle, the Goddess Badb, symbolizes war, bloodshed, and malevolence.
Morrigon as a raven goddess watched over battles. Bran has a raven, and
Lugh or Lugos, who had two magic ravens, is an all-purpose and wise Raven-God
like the Teutonic/Scandinavian Woden/Odin. The Welsh hero Owein had an army
of ravens which had magic powers and fought King Arthur’s men. When all black
the raven is malefic, with a white feather it becomes beneficent” (Cooper, p.
“In the Irish literature, prophecy and destruction are associated with ravens: magic ravens warn Lugh of the approach of the Formorians...Irish goddesses of war and destruction can change shape from human to raven form at will.” (Green, 1986, p. 174).
“In the Welsh Mabinogi, ravens are beneficent Otherworld creatures associated with Rhiannon.” (Green, p. 1986, 174).
Ravens accompany many deities in Celtic iconography: Lugh was traditionally linked both with ravens and with the founding of Lugdunum (Lyon), and coins show the ‘Genius’ of the Roman city accompanied by a raven. The goddess Nantosuelta is depicted with a raven, probably as an Otherworld symbol; and other goddesses, such as Epona and the Mother-goddesses, may be depicted with ravens. At Mavilly in Burgundy, a raven is the attribute of the presiding healer-god, perhaps because its bright eyes symbolically attested the eye cures for which the shrine was renowned” (Green, 1986, p. 174).
“To have the foresight of the raven is a proverbial saying which refers both to the raven’s knowledge and his (sic) prophetic gifts. To have raven’s knowledge is an Irish phrase meaning to see all, know all” (Standard Dictionary of Folklore, p. 927).
“The raven banner of the Danes was described by the Anglo-Saxons as being a banner of pure white on which a raven became visible in time of war. The raven was also the oracular bird of the Old Irish mythological Bran; and bran is one of modern Irish words for raven, and, figuratively, for chieftain. The legend that on the presence of Bran’s head in London depends the safety of the kingdom may account for the keeping of tame ravens by the Tower of London garrison to this day.” (Standard Dictionary of Folklore, p. 928)
“In Cornish belief Arthur lives on in Raven form. The Cornish people therefore do not shoot ravens; to shoot a raven would be to shoot the hero.” (Standard Dictionary of Folklore, p. 928).
“After his death Arthur’s soul went into a raven’s body in Cornish folklore. The raven seems to have been associated with the god, Bran, whose name signifies a raven in both Welsh and Irish. Beliefs concerning the ravens at the Tower of London whose departure is thought to herald Britain’s downfall, may be a vestige of the cult of Bran” (The Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends, p. 188).
“Stories of two ravens which follow the Wild Hunt
are associated with Odin’s ravens, Odin often being the leader of the Wild Hunt,
and also with the night-raven of Danish folklore, which is said sometimes to
precedes the Wild Hunt, and perhaps personifies Odin himself.” (Standard Dictionary
of Folklore, p. 928)