Ravens: History and Mythology in Literature by I.A. Ashcroft
Name: Raven Song
Series: Inoki's Game (Book 1)
Paperback: 290 pages
Published Date: March 14, 2016
Publisher: Lucid Dreams Publishing
A clicking of talons, a rustle of shiny black feathers… a laugh, eerily like a human giggle, and yet, alien. Unsettling. Perhaps you see the creature in an apothecary, or perched atop a fresh corpse on the battlefield. But the image begins to form, easy, without needing much prodding. Very few beings beyond ravens have affixed themselves so firmly in our mind’s eyes and in our stories. They are symbols of death, rebirth, war, knowledge, the occult, luck, and so much more—a creature that holds mythological immortality.
Perhaps you are now hearing a quirking, parrot-like voice coming from this visitor from beyond: “Nevermore!”, it cries. Edgar Allen Poe’s tragic and chilling poetry is enduring. But the world’s love affair with these feathered portents of fate began thousands of years before Poe. Let us now remember the Norse god Odin’s two companions: Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“desire”, often mistranslated as “memory”). They travel the world on his behalf, bringing back knowledge and news. Wise Odin sometimes fears for them on their far-reaching travels: he says one day, they may not return, and though he would grieve Huginn’s loss, he would miss Muninn the most.
Odin has never been a god of trifling matters; his tales are steeped in blood and magic and prophecy. That the ravens should be some of his closest companions is telling, and even more so that their very species name in Old Norse, hrafn, was used as a kenning to speak of bloodshed. Odin’s other favorite animal allies were wolves, and both they and the ravens would gorge themselves on the battlefields of the wars he presided over.
As above, so below. Ravens and wolves share a kinship even in the mortal plane. When ravens find kills they cannot open themselves, they have been known to use their astonishing powers of mimicry to draw a nearby wolf pack, getting them to rip open a carcass for all to enjoy. Frighteningly intelligent creatures, these god companions. Did you know they regularly use tools? Did you know that ravens may have as many neurons in their brains as a primate? They simply pack them in more densely. So now you know where those keen, clever looks come from as they watch you, calculating.
Perhaps you will feel uneasy the next time a neighbor decides to try and exterminate them as pests. You see, they remember who is cruel to them, and who is kind.
But who else have they served? Beyond Odin, there was another god with a yen for prophecy that enjoyed the raven’s company: Apollo, of Greco-Roman lore. The raven was Apollo’s messenger, and was said to bring luck. But there was one important distinction to be made for the story-raven of this time and place. His feathers were a pristine white!
Unfortunately for his faithful feathered companion, Apollo, like all of his family, was subject to rages and jealousies, just as the mortals beneath Olympus. For you see, Apollo took a lover, the princess Coronis. She herself, unfortunately, fell for a mortal prince, and when Apollo’s raven brought the news back to its master, he scorched the bird’s feathers black in his rage. He felt the raven ought to have pecked out the prince’s eyes as punishment.
Perhaps this was unfair. Still, the raven’s loyalty did not falter, and it continued its service. Maybe this is why it was set in the night sky as the constellation Corvus. Or, perhaps it found its place there from an even more ancient time. Did you know the Babylonians also held fast to the raven? In their mythology, it clings to the tail of the Serpent, which in the Greek stories became the Hydra. And where Corvus rests in the sky, you can see the constellation Hydra in his claws.
Luck and omens, death and life: there is more to tell. For hundreds of years, ravens have perched around the Tower of London. We don’t know exactly when the British began keeping them there in captivity. But, we do know why: legend has it that there is a prophecy, one that says that Great Britain will fall should the ravens of the tower ever leave. So there they sit, keeping to their perches, stately and well-fed by the official Raven Keepers. Let’s hope they don’t decide to get a job elsewhere one day.
Ravens are the harbingers of downfall, of our deaths… dark wings, dark words, as G. R. R. Martin writes in Game of Thrones. But perhaps they have something to teach us about the dead; perhaps, like in Poe’s story, they are the messenger forcing us to confront that which we would rather not.
In Islam, it is actually the raven who taught humans how to bury their deceased. The Quran presents a version of the story of the siblings Cain and Abel, Abel lying murdered by his brother’s hand. Cain and his wife didn’t know what to do with the body, since humanity was so young, and there were no rituals around the dead yet invented. Then, Cain witnessed a raven burying one of its own, and decided to do the same. In Jewish folklore, there is a somewhat similar story, though this time it is his father Adam doing the burying.
And so, the children of these people continued to bury their own for generations.
Perhaps there is always truth in a tale. Did you know ravens have truly been observed to hold “funerals”? They call out and cluster around their dead, as if saying goodbye.
And where there is death, there is life. There is a promise of rebirth. In Kenyan lore, meat offerings left to ancestors on Kilimanjaro may be reborn as the white-necked ravens native to the land. In the Bible, ravens are responsible for sustaining the prophet Elijah, bringing him food while he was in hiding after all else failed. In an Athabaskan tale from North America, it was Raven who formed the first human lives from clay (though when he tried to marry one of the women he created, the men refused it, and so he also created mosquitos as revenge.)
There are some who cast the clever raven as the reason we have a beautiful, livable world at all, the raven as Prometheus, bringer of fire. The Haida peoples of North America tell us this: the raven brought the world light itself, and was forever changed for it. Clever Raven was once so beautiful in his regal white feathers, catching the eye of Gray Eagle’s daughter. But when he entered her family’s longhouse, he saw the treasures her father Eagle hoarded: fresh water, the sun itself, the moon, the very stars. Meanwhile, the people below lived in darkness, no fire nor water to comfort them. So, he stole everything, including a fire brand Eagle kept, and escaped. He hung the sun, moon, and stars in the sky. He dropped the fire brand into the rocks below (so rocks would make fire when struck). But, because of his steadfast clinging, the smoke from the fire brand scorched his feathers pitch black.
And so his feathers remain. Perhaps you see a similarity to the tale of Apollo, the raven burned. The raven has been transformed from white to black in countless stories across the world. Why do we remember it so?
Of course, a raven isn’t all black, not really. The ones who call Europe and North America home are more like something that slid out of an oil slick. They have an ethereal, blue-indigo illumination. You need to get close to see it, but it’s there, beauty in the night of their form. And there is playfulness too, because ravens aren’t as somber and grave as so many make them out to be. They are children; they are pranksters. They are known to treat the world as a game, outfoxing traps researchers put out for them. They cavort around in flight, taking heart-stopping dives and bounding back through the air for no reason other than pure amusement. They’ve been seen loitering around on a winter’s day, finding a car buried by the weather—and off they go, tumbling ass over teakettle down the snowy windshield slope, chittering, laughing, dancing as if they want to do it again. They are bubbly and wild. The verve of a raven is something that must be witnessed to be believed, and it never fails to bring a smile.
And this is why they’ve been popular companions throughout the years to gods and mortals alike. Charles Dickens kept several in his life, loving their play and expressiveness, perhaps inspired by their place in the stories before him. His favorite, Grip, made a merry game of biting his children’s ankles (they did not appreciate this). Grip spent his days swaggering about, chattering, and learning new words (“Hallo old girl!” was said to be his favorite phrase). This creature inspired Dickens so much that he was allowed to strut right into the story Barnaby Rudge… a book that became a muse to a man who was about to put another talking raven to pen… a man named Poe.
Beloved and inspiring, feared and respected, exterminated as pests and treated like royalty: the raven. There is something both mystical and incorrigible in their dances, something that commands us to weave them into our stories forevermore. A hundred tales I could tell, but as raven teaches us, life does not go on forever.
Look closely in those dark, shiny eyes, and listen to its laughter… do you see that magic spark?
~ I. A. Ashcroft
The writer, I. A. Ashcroft, invites you to spend more time with these mystical and enigmatic creatures in their debut novel Raven Song, the first in a series about old gods, a destroyed world, and people with magic trying to find their place. Visit ia-ashcroft.com to learn more and get free short stories.
Book Blurb:A century ago, the world burned. Even now, though rebuilt and defiant, civilization is still choking on the ashes.
Jackson, a smuggler, lives in the shadows, once a boy with no memory, no name, and no future. Ravens followed him, long-extinct birds only he could see, and nightmares flew in their wake. Once, Jackson thought himself to be one of the lucky few touched by magic, a candidate for the Order of Mages. He is a man now, and that dream has died. But, the ravens still follow. The nightmares still whisper in his ear.
Anna’s life was under the sun, her future bright, her scientific work promising. She knew nothing of The Bombings, the poisoned world, or the occult. One day, she went to work, and the next, she awoke in a box over a hundred years in the future, screaming, fighting to breathe, and looking up into the eyes of a smuggler. Anna fears she’s gone crazy, unable to fill the massive hole in her memories, and terrified of the strange abilities she now possesses.
The Coalition government has turned its watchful eyes towards them. The secret factions of the city move to collect them first. And, old gods stir in the darkness, shifting their pawns on the playing field.
If Anna and Jackson wish to stay free, they must learn what they are and why they exist.
Unfortunately, even if they do, it may be too late.
Raven Song is the first of a four book adult-oriented dystopian fantasy series, a story of intrigue, love, violence, and the old spirits in the shadows who wait for us to notice them again. Readers of Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, and Charlie Human will enjoy this dark magic-laced tale rooted on the bones of what our world could become.
‘Aware that this is just the first book in the series and I am hooked and will read on, however as a standalone book it would still make a fantastic read.’ ~ Mark on Goodreads
‘A good urban fantasy with well-developed characters and a grim and complex setting. I would recommend.’ ~ Dannica Zulestin on Goodreads
‘Ashcroft has a brilliant imagination coupled with an eloquent writing style that draws the reader in, makes us feel a wide array of emotions, and holds us captivated to the very end. I anxiously await the next volume in this series.’ ~ K. McCaslin on Amazon
‘I usually think endings are the worst part of most books, hard to wrap up into a logical and solid ending, this book did well at it I was satisfied but very much looking forward to the next book.’ ~ taruofatlantis on Amazon
‘The narration by Mikael Naramore was good. He was able to capture the voices of the characters well, especially the manic Tony. In general the characters were distinguishable and the voicing gave life to each of them. The production quality was good as well.’ ~ Poonam on AudioBook Reviewer.
I. A. Ashcroft has been writing fiction in many forms for almost twenty years. The author's first book, written at age seven, featured the family cat hunting an evil sorceress alongside dragons and eagles. This preoccupation with the fantastical has not changed in the slightest.
Now, the author dwells in Phoenix, AZ alongside a wonderful tale-spinner and two increasingly deranged cats. Ashcroft writes almost exclusively in the realm of darker fantasy these days, loving to entertain adults with stories of magic, wonder, despair, violence, and hope, bringing a deep love of mythology into every tale penned. The author also loves diverse and intriguing casts of characters.
When not buried in a book, one might find Ashcroft learning languages, charting road trips, and playing tabletop RPGs with clever and fun people.
Contact the Author:
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/I.-A.-Ashcroft/e/B01CTY42S0/
A boy lay on the broken sidewalk, eyes closed. He was pale and thin, looking not a day over ten years old. His half-clothed body shuddered against the chilly night air. His bony frame scraped against the grime of the street as he curled into himself, trying to keep back the cold. Overhead, the stars hung bright and lonely.
In the alley, almost invisible against the midnight darkness, a man stood tall over the boy. His well-pressed suit was as black as the shadows, as his skin, and as the raven on his shoulder. The way he hovered over the child, he seemed a strange guardian. But his eyes were turned upwards to the sky, away from the boy’s plight, as if it was no real matter. In those black eyes the stars were mirrored, impossible and brilliant. Those eyes stared back into the past, when the celestial lights were loved and revered, when each constellation had a story.
Once upon a time… this was when the world had sung to him, the dream-walker, the song-weaver, the star-stringer.
Once, before humans had forgotten his name.
Now, the starry sky was almost hidden by the glowing blue haze of the Barrier, a shield cast over what was left of the city: proud New York, ruined, rebuilt, defiant.
The stranger kept staring upwards into oblivion, even as the boy let out an unhappy whimper, chills wracking his weak frame. The raven flew from the stranger’s shoulder then, alighting onto the sidewalk, picking past the weeds and rubble. It rejoined its fellows who had settled amicably around the child, oblivious to the fact that ravens were all supposed to be dead. One hundred years ago, poison had leeched into the earth, into the grass, into the grazers, and into the corpses left behind. The blight spared little, its kind no exception. Regardless, this impossible creature affectionately brushed at the boy’s dark hair with its beak.
At the touch, the boy awoke with a start. His wide, uncomprehending eyes took in the world as he struggled to sit up, his head swinging around wildly; past awnings and high rises he had never seen, past scrawled words and graffiti he could not understand. He teetered to his feet, then fell back down again as his knees gave out, sending the birds around him into flight.
He saw no starry eyes in the darkness, no stranger standing nearby. He was halfnaked, shivering, hungry, and alone, his head aching down to his teeth. The nameless boy shook off the dreams he couldn’t remember and wondered where he was.
If there had been any passersby on that cold autumn night, they would have sworn that this boy hadn’t been there a minute ago, and no stranger or ravens had been there at all.