Raven Summer begins with a raven beckoning to Liam to follow him. He flies a bit ahead, stops, calls to Liam - Jak jak! Jak jak! - and then flies a bit ahead again. Like this, the raven leads Liam to the abandoned baby. What is the symbolism of this loud, large beaked, black bird?
Ravens figure prominently in many legends from around the world.
Welsh: The Welsh hero, Bran, whose name means raven, was the holder of ancestral memories. He was said to be so intelligent that he had his head interred in the Sacred White Mount in London (where the Tower of London stands) - this is after being decapitated in a battle with Ireland and his head becoming an oracle! Ravens roost there and are said to be protecting Bran's wisdom.
Norse: The Norse God, Odin, was known as the Raven God. He was accompanied by two ravens: Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory), who he would send out into the world to deliver messages and gather information that they would report back to him. Odin's daughters, the Valkyres, were said to take the shape of ravens.
Native American: The raven is sometimes depicted as a trickster and sometimes as a messenger spirit. It symbolizes the void - the mystery which is not yet formed - and is the guardian of ceremonial magic and healing circles.
Chinese: The raven is a solar symbol in Chinese mythology. A three legged raven lives in the sun and is symbolic of the three phases of the sun: rising, noon, and setting.
Australian Aborigine: In this lore, the raven tried to steal fire from the seven sisters - the Pleides - and was charred black in the attempt.
Greek: In Greek mythology, ravens are the messengers of the sun gods, Helios and Apollo.
Scottish: The goddess of winter, Cailleach, is supposed to be able to take the form of a raven. A touch from her brings death.
Ravens are intelligent birds. In fact, they can actually learn to speak when kept and trained in captivity. This makes them the ultimate oracle in many legends, and they are often considered a messenger of important information. But they are also thought to be the custodians of secrets, perhaps because of their intelligence, and so they are both the keepers and givers of information. In this way, their meanings are contradictory; they are simultaneously one thing and its opposite.
This is precisely what David Almond creates in Raven Summer - a breathtaking and painful examination of the complicated contradictions within a human being. Perhaps the raven within us all.
Image above: Raven, by William B. Ritchie, 1984. Permanent Collection of the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador.
This article was originally published in February 2010, and has been updated for the
September 2011 paperback release.
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