November 19, 2017

No dark wings and dark words here

My television birdwatching has reached new heights in recent weeks with the return of Game of Thrones.

To be honest, I’m more of a Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul viewer myself with a little “Nordic noir” thrown in, and I had so far resisted the demands of my family to make each episode of the fantasy saga a family experience.

That was until I heard the cry of a raven. My ears pricked up and I was hooked.

By some remarkable coincidence – although in my experience, coincidence and the mysterious seems to fly with ravens – I was at the time reading of research in Sweden which has put raven intelligence on a new level. It has been established for the first time that the European raven has the power to think ahead, an ability previously documented in only humans and great apes.

I’ve fed the only members of the raven and crow family found in Tasmania – forest ravens – in my garden over many years and seen behaviour which demonstrates they do some planning for the future instead of just acting on natural urges. They commonly hoard food, carrying off the scraps I put out for them to a hiding place.

But the ravens in a research program conducted by scientists at Lund University in southern Sweden have also shown they can actually plan ahead by setting aside for later a tool they know will get them a tasty treat. According to reports on the research, the ravens also bartered with both humans and other ravens for food, swapping a favoured blue plastic bottle top which they used as a toy, for a treat.

Although the evidence is new, ravens have long been associated with powers of foresight.

The series of epic fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted into the Game of Thrones episodes, makes frequent use of crows and ravens as predicting things to come, and as messengers. The foundation of the stories, plots and characters also draw heavily from real-world mythologies.

Ravens feature in every known ancient myth. The Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Semitic and Siberian legends depict the raven as a messenger of storms or bad weather. In African, Asian and European legends, the raven is an omen of death. In middle-European lore, ravens were often used as exponents of evil (for example in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Othello). In contrast, Norse mythology puts ravens in a place of power and worship, often associated with the god Odin.

Many theories and parallels have been drawn between Norse mythology and the storylines in A Song of Ice and Fire, although there is a common idiom in the story that refers to ravens as omens of something bad. The creator of the original work, George R.R. Martin, no doubt saw ravens as symbols for death, tragedy or misfortune but when I view forest ravens in my garden I can’t see those “dark wings and dark words” as portrayed in the story.

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