The symbolism of ravens can be divided into three main categories: that of the evil spirit or harbinger of death, that of the trickster or thief, and that of the prophetic or wise spirit. The traditional English poem “One for bad news, Two for mirth” incorporates all three of these, reflecting the way that both Celtic and European cultures embrace a range of meanings for the symbolic raven.
Moreover, the original use of the poem as a simple way of divining the future based on everyday events, such as seeing a flock of crows, emphasises the raven’s prophetic powers. “
To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish proverb which means to have the power to see into the future, and the wisdom to understand what is being seen.
The interpretation of a raven as an evil spirit is actually largely a misconception based on Western culture’s negative associations with death. The raven is black, a colour generally associated with witches despite that fact that it is frequently a colour worn by members of the Church, such as nuns and Catholic priests.
The raven is also a carrion-eater, which is traditionally associated with uncleanliness.
This fact is likely one of the reasons for its association with death, because it was seen as significant that ravens were close by at the death of people and animals. Presumably they were just there for a meal.
The Trickster Raven
The raven as trickster is most often a part of allegorical myths that explain how things came to be. For example, there is an Australian myth in which a raven tries to steal fire from the people. It is burnt by the fire, and that is why ravens are black.
It may also come from some of the realities of ravens, such as the fact that they can mimic any sound they hear, and that they are attracted to shiny objects.
The Raven as Prophet
Lastly there is the interpretation of the raven as a proud, wise and prophetic symbol. Edgar Allen Poe’s raven is “stately” and “lordly,” even among the darker associations evoked by the poem. King Arthur is believed to live on as a raven, and the ravens Thought and Memory are key instruments of the Norse god Odin’s power.
Ravens are part of the divining and foreseeing arts of many cultures because of their power to give knowledge and understanding. All three of these meanings must be taken together to fully understand the meaning of ravens.