Since ancient times, humankind has hearkened to the call of the raven. (Corvus corax) The raven’s vocal prowess, agency, intelligence, and prodigious flying ability has caused this god-like bird to be revered as a prophetic intermediary between the heavenly domain above and the earth below. In this paper, I will explore the practices of augury in indigenous Earth -based religions that believe in the raven as a divine messenger, using examples from centuries old Tibetan augury texts and also relating a story of raven prophecy from the history of the Coeur d’Alene tribe of North America.
In addition, I will provide a brief comparative analysis of the raven’s vocalizations from a western musical perspective. By examining the animist religious tradition of raven augury through the lens of western art music, my hypothesis is that the sound vibration of the raven’s call acts as a catalyst to enhance the receptivity of the auger’s intuitive sensibilities. The raven’s unique bird song, replete with the power of music, awakens in the consciousness of the diviner a sacred interconnectedness with the natural world, a heightened awareness that enables him or her to understand the language of the raven and to translate its prophecy.
The Language of Birds
It is written in the Qu’ran that God gave Solomon the gift to understand the language of animals and birds.
Solomon was David’s heir, and he said: O men, we have been taught the speech of birds, and we have been granted of all things. Surely this is manifest grace.
(Holy Qur’an, Surah 27, verses 15-16)
“The practice of taking directions, counsels, omens, and divinations from birds, known as ornithomanteia, has been described as one of the oldest scientific practices in the world” (Goldhahn 2019, preface). Throughout the ages, raven augury has provided knowledge of the future to those priests and tribal leaders and who could understand bird language, impacting the lives and decision-making processes of the people who live in their respective communities.
From a scientific viewpoint, ravens have been observed not only accurately mimicking words that they have heard humans speak, but actually using those words in the proper context. Konrad Lorenz, the founder of modern ethology, wrote in his book King Solomon’s Ring “a corvine…will utter its human words independently of song and it is undeniable that these sounds may occasionally have a definite thought association” (Lorenz 2002, 84). It follows that the call of the raven, which stands out prominently in the soundscape of the wild, has been perceived as a divine prognostication for thousands of years.
Tibetan Raven Augury
The practice of raven augury has been a guiding element of Tibetan religious life even before the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century. “In Tibet and the eastern Himalayas, ravens are mediums of prescience, messengers relating other wise unknowable information, usually temporal in nature, to the humans who pointedly endeavor to understand them” (Mortensen 2009, 425) Professor Mortensen’s dissertation, “Raven Augury in Tibet, Northwest Yunnan, Inner Asia, and Circumpolar Regions; A Study in Comparative Folklore and Religion,” is a definitive source of information. He often cites the Berthold Laufer article “Bird Divination among the Tibetans (Notes on Document Pelliot No. 3530, with a Study of Tibetan Phonology of the Ninth Century)” and refers the reader to it, stating that “it remains the seminal study of Asian augury.”
In the early 1900s, a Tibetan book roll was found by M. Pelliot, “the volumes of the ancient Kanjur edition discovered by him in the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas (Ts'ien fu tung) of Kan-su…dating at the latest from the tenth, and more probably even from the ninth century” (Laufer 1914, 2). Document Pelliot No. 3530 contains a table of divination which interprets the sounds of raven prognostication.
The sound Ihong Ihong foretells a lucky omen. The sound thag thag forebodes an omen of middle quality. The sound krag krag foretells the coming of a person from a distance. The sound krog krog announces the arrival of a friend. The sound ’iu ’iu is an augury of any future event.
It can be inferred from the descriptions in the Tibetan table of divination that the sound of the raven is forceful, repetitive, and somewhat percussive. The Cornell Lab website, All About Birds, states that “…most commonly heard is the classic gurgling croak, rising in pitch and seeming to come from the back of the throat…It’s much deeper and more musical than a crow’s simple, scratchy caw. It’s audible for more than a mile.” It is the voice of a bird that commands attention, clearly distinct from the other bird songs heard in the surrounding soundscape.
In Laufer’s translation of the Kakajariti, there are also general instructions about how to interpret crow and raven sounds when traveling, presumably on foot, through the countryside of Tibet. (It is important to note, as stated in Mortensen’s dissertation, that the translation of the Tibetan term pho rog can also be used for both crow and raven.) One example is “When, during a journey, a crow flapping its wings sounds its voice, a great accident will befall one.” In another example, “When, during a journey, a crow perching on the cranium of a corpse sounds its notes, it is a prognostication of death” (Laufer 1914,15-16).
The practice of Tibetan augury still continues to this day. “Turning our attention to the modern folk culture of Tibet, crow augury and its manuals are still an influence” (Ai 2014, 336). However, like the traditions of many religious folk cultures around the world, this knowledge is in danger of becoming lost. Some devotees passionately seek to rekindle the ancient Tibetan practices. To give a sense of this, the film “Tibet, the Path to Wisdom” a 2018 documentary by filmmaker Hamid Sardar, bears witness to a wandering nun on a pilgrimage in search of a vanishing Tibetan spiritual tradition, traveling alone on foot through the vast and sacred landscape of the Himalayan foothills. The opening scene of the trailer depicts the nun in the midst of the mountainous landscape with many large birds flying overhead. The lone traveler might have heard a raven sounding a call emphatically through the open spaces, perhaps sending a message from the higher realms to lead to the pilgrim on her way.
Raven Prophesy to the Coeur D’Alene tribe
The indigenous circumpolar religions of North America have many myths and legends in their oral traditions honoring Raven as a god/creator and trickster, but also as a sacred messenger. “One of the more dominant roles of birds in Native American cosmologies is that of advisors or messengers” (Chandler 2017, 48). Regarding divination in general, anthropologist Barbara Tedlock wrote that diviners “excel in insight, imagination, fluency in language, and knowledge of cultural traditions” (Tedlock 2001, 191). This was certainly true of Chief Circling Raven of the Skitwish tribe. “Chief Circling Raven of the Coeur D’Alene tribe (Skitswish) was beloved by the Bird People, especially Raven and Crow, because he understood corvid languages and utilized the birds as advisors and strategists” (Feher-Elston 2005, 173).
A written account by Chief Joseph Seltice (1885-1949) tells of the Raven message prophesied by Circling Raven which was information vital to the survival of their tribal nation.“The eighteenth-century chief Circling Raven is said to have prophesied the coming of the Black Robes and to have organized his people to prepare for this event” (Miller 1992, 586). Circling Raven died before the arrival of the “Black Robes” but he had passed down the ability to understand the raven language to his son Twisted Earth. For sixty years Twisted Earth waited for the coming of the “Black Robes” foretold by his father, observing all of the rituals and singing the songs that he had been taught. Finally, the prophecy of Circling Raven came to fruition on June 2, 1842 when the black-robed Jesuit priest, Pierre-Jean De Smet, arrived at Twisted Earth’s lodge where the modern city of Coeur d’aAlene is located today. Another Jesuit priest, Father Joset, was sympathetic to the cause of the “red man” and labored ceaselessly to reduce further bloodshed, helping the Coeur D’Alene tribe negotiate a peaceful treaty with the U. S. Government in 1858.
Fortunately, there are present day Native Americans who still understand the raven language through their tribal lineage. As Gomes wrote in his article for the journal Ethnobiology Letters in reference to reclaiming the native knowledge of birds, “When the stories, songs, and chants are no longer passed down, the knowledge and wisdom encoded in those stories disappears” (Gomes 2020, introduction). In the book Ravensong, Catherine Feher-Elston documented her telephone interview with shaman Medicine Grizzly Bear (Seneca/Cherokee) in Spokane, Washington. After relating several stories of his magical encounters with the raven, he concluded the conversation in this way; “I call the Raven, I sing the Raven song. I make prayers to Raven, and Raven answers” (Feher-Elston 2005, 173).
A Musical Analysis
The augur perceives the prophetic message of the raven as it emanates a vibratory transmission into the soundscape in a way similar to how we listen to music. Music moves us emotionally. To quote Albert Einstein, “ If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” Lilting birdsongs, like beautiful music, have a positive effect on our mood.
Birdsong potency might be driven by principles similar to those that make music so effective in inducing emotional responses in humans: a combination of rhythms and pitches, the transitions between acoustic states, affecting emotion through creating expectations, anticipations, tension, tension release or surprise. (Rothenberg et al. 2013, abstract)
The powerful voice of the raven reverberates throughout religion, myth, and oral folklore traditions, but the call of the raven is not what is usually thought of as tuneful. “Although included in the songbird order, no members of the family Corvidae have pretty songs. All, however, are noisy and easily distinguished by their vocalizations” (McGowan 2001, 413). What one person considers to be noise, however, is music to another’s ears. The call of the raven is a musical language that can be understood by the diviner who, in a state of deep listening, attunes to a higher level of consciousness.
A discussion of the interrelationship of birdsong and soundscape in the context of music is not complete without first mentioning the quintessential work of French composer Olivier Messiaen. “Catalogue D’oiseau” is a piano cycle comprised of birdsong which he transcribed with pen in hand while traveling through the French countryside during the years from 1956 to 1958. “In his work birdsong becomes a fitting temporal vehicle for an exploration of nature’s divinity and the eternal, which Messiaen believed to be present in all of God’s creations” (Carter, p. 337).
The example below is from Book 1 “Le Chocard des Alpes,” In this piece, Messaien set the vocalization of the Grand Corbeau (common raven) to music while he was in the Alps listening to its “rauque et fèoce” (hoarse and fierce) call. For the piano left hand he indicated the musical suggestion grogné (to growl.) This audio extract is from the recording by the composer’s wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod.
An actual field recording of raven vocalizations, when seen on a sonograph, looks like pillars of sound, perfectly measured in powerful bursts separated by equal lengths of silence. Comparing it with the sonograph of a nightingale song below, the difference is striking.
Unlike the nightingale, a raven call features no melodic content, ornamentations, trills or flourishes. It is stark, repetitive, and insistent.
In a musical sense, the raven call is akin to Minimalist music as exemplified by the compositions of John Adams, Philip Glass and other contemporary composers beginning in the 1960s. Their innovative music marked a return to simplicity, utilizing short, repetitive rhythm patterns. “Minimalist music, as musicologist Susan McClary notes, seems to have no past or future tense, with the present –what is going on right here – seeming to unfold forever. There is not necessarily a felt need to “arrive anywhere” (Reich 2018).
Minimalism introduced a different way of listening to music. This mindful approach to hearing sounds just as they are in the present moment can be applied to listening to birds as well. Because the raven song does not fit easily within the parameters of western musical polyphony, in order to appreciate it, we must also to it listen in a new way.“As you know, the Raven speaks in two voices, one harsh and strident, and the other... a seductive bell-like croon which seems to come from the depths of the sea, or out of the cave where the winds are born. It is an irresistible sound, one of the loveliest sounds in the world” (Reid & Bringhurst 1996, 34).
Songbirds seem to sing for the pure joy of it and that is often their message to us. A wake-up call to be present and appreciate the wonder of nature, as it were. The sacred voice of the raven ringing through the landscape is more like the sounding of a temple bell, signaling a time for worship. “Ours is a world of sounds as well as sights and the sense of hearing is sometimes the more important means of experiencing it or interacting with it. Think of human speech itself, and our extraordinary (and universal) ability to decode meaning from different tones of voice. It is the voice, not the content, that often most moves us…” (Mynott 2021, 148).
The raven sounds a clarion call that occupies the space of liminality between heaven and earth, music and language. From the ancestral augurs of Tibet to the North American chiefs of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, diviners had a way of listening that discerned and translated the message of the raven to the people. In the era of the Anthropocene, the ancient tradition of augury has a place of value for us today. Listening deeply to the insistent music of the raven, not just with the physical ears, but with an intention from the soul as the diviner does, we might hear and understand a sacred call from nature itself. A sound that raises our consciousness to “enflame the desire to love the Earth as God’s earthly nest…” (Wallace 2018, preface). Raven is a compelling voice that still speaks to us beyond words.
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