Hard stop

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wake of the Flood

With falling blackbirds and starlings leaving a lasting impression on my psyche this week, I decided to do a bit of research on the raven or crow in relation to various cultures, folk tales and mythologies. My first stop was the old testament.

"Our Rabbis taught: Three copulated in the ark, and they were all punished—the dog, the raven, and Ham. The dog was doomed to be tied, the raven expectorates [his seed into his mate's mouth], and Ham was smitten in his skin." {Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108b}

So if I am reading this right, the raven was the first animal nailed for having illicit sex and oral sex to boot. Interesting.

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the ground." (Genesis 8:6-8). 

From the Torah from Dixie website: Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains that initially, Noah was intent on sending the raven to search for dry land. However, the raven was hovering around the ark instead. Why did it refuse to go on the expedition? According to the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 108b), the raven refused to go because it was concerned for the preservation of its species. It challenged Noah along these lines: "I am hated because seven of the clean species were taken in the ark, while only two of the unclean (of which the raven is considered; see Leviticus 11:15.) were granted refuge. Yet you choose to send me out!" It reasoned that were harm to come to it during a reconnaissance flight, there would only be the female left of its kind. (According to the Maharal of Prague, one of the seminal figures of Jewish thought of the last five centuries, Noah did not actually speak with the raven, rather he intuited from the raven’s refusal to leave that it was instinctively concerned for the preservation of its kind.)

The Talmud states that the raven gave a second reason for refusing to go: "Or perhaps you need my wife!" To which Noah replied, "Wicked one! Relations with my wife are forbidden in the ark, all the moreso with a female of a prohibited species!"

Which might be the first biblical suggestion of a little inter special hokey pokey.

Dixie goes on: The Ohr Hachaim, the classic 18th century Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar, explains that those who accuse someone of a blemish, possess that blemish themselves. Thus, Noah inferred from the raven’s accusation that it had had relations with its mate while on the ark, something that all creatures were forbidden to engage in during the flood (see Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 108b). Because of this indiscretion, Noah wasn’t sending the raven on any mission, rather he was kicking it off the boat! This explanation comports with the Torah’s reference to the dove’s actually searching for dry land, while no such reason is proffered for the raven’s departure. The Torah further relates that Noah took the dove back in, but no similar action is stated concerning the raven. Apparently, it was evicted from the ark for bad behavior!

According to a fascinating midrash, Noah answers the raven’s concern for self-preservation by castigating it, saying that it serves no purpose, and is therefore expendable. However, G-d interjects and remonstrates Noah that indeed, the raven does have a purpose--it was prepared for another mission, during the days of Elijah the prophet. To reproach the people and their wicked King Ahab, Elijah decreed a drought upon the land, whereupon no rain fell. G-d instructs Elijah to journey to the desert: "It shall be that you will drink from the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to supply you with food there." Thereafter, ravens brought Elijah nourishment. (I Kings 17:4-6).

This, then, is the meaning of the Torah’s statement that Noah’s raven "kept going and returning until the drying of the waters." The raven’s calling was ultimately fulfilled when the rains "dried up" during Elijah’s era.

But why was it crucial that ravens were sent to assist Elijah? Our tradition informs us that the raven is an intrinsically unkind creature. According to the Be’er HaTorah, a classic commentary, it would not have been in consonance with its nature for the raven to announce good tidings to the ark’s inhabitants that the flood waters had receded. However, it would be entirely appropriate for the raven to facilitate Elijah’s bringing a famine to the people by sustaining him. Thus, cruel creatures assisted in Elijah’s "cruelty".

The Yalkut Lekach Tov, a contemporary digest of insights on the weekly Torah portion, offers a different explanation as to why ravens were Elijah’s sustainers. There are two possible reactions toward one who sins: (1) destroy him (this was Noah’s approach in kicking out the raven) or (2) win him over. The Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a) describes how Rabbi Zeira went out of his way to champion the cause of a group of ruffians, befriending them in order to get them to change their ways. These lowlifes were basically dismissed by the community, but the rabbi was their advocate, praying for mercy on their behalf. When he died, they mourned him exceedingly and repented.

Elijah didn’t utilize this approach. Instead, he exhibited a more stringent posture toward the people. Hashem arranged it so that the "cruel" ravens would come to Elijah’s rescue. Elijah would be able to take note that even "wicked" creatures can do good, reasoning that if ravens could provide help to another, surely there is good within the sinners of the Jewish people. If the raven could be compassionate, all the moreso should he be compassionate. Only the raven could powerfully demonstrate to Elijah the importance of being merciful towards the wicked. Hence, the raven is Hashem’s tool for rebuking the prophet and hinting to him to "lighten up" on the people. 

The raven felt that because it was in the "unclean" group it had been wrongly singled out for its insignificance. For its moral shortcomings Noah was willing to expel it from the ark. Whether in dealings with family, friends, teachers, students, and even strangers, we need to recognize that everybody has a purpose. We are not to summarily dismiss those who don’t meet our expectations. We don’t kick them out of the boat. The raven teaches us to be merciful, patient, and forgiving toward others. Even if they do wrong, we must love them, reach out to them, and be compassionate to them. Everybody is important. The raven reminds us of the famous saying of our sages (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:3): "Do not be scornful of any person, and do not be disdainful of any thing, for you have no person without his hour and you have no thing without its place."


From the Bible Encyclopedia:

In Job 38:41, we have this mention of the raven,
"Who provideth for the raven his prey,
When his young ones cry unto God,
And wander for lack of food?"
The answer to this question is in Ps 147:9:
"He giveth to the beast his food,
And to the young ravens which cry."

Both these quotations point out the fact that the young are peculiarly noisy. In Prov 30:17 it is indicated that the ravens, as well as eagles, vultures and hawks, found the eye of prey the vulnerable point, and so attacked it first. The Hebrew `orebh means "black," and for this reason was applied to the raven, so the reference to the locks of the bridegroom in the Song of Solomon becomes clear (Song 5:11). The raven is one of the birds indicated to prey upon the ruins of Edom (Isa 34:11). The last reference is found in Lk 12:24: "Consider the ravens, that they sow not, neither reap; which have no store-chamber nor barn; and God feedeth them." 


The Raven in the Quran:

Surah 5:27-31

[27] Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to Allah): it was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter: "Be sure I will slay thee." "Surely," said the former, "Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous.

[28] "If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds.

[29] "For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the Companions of the Fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong."

[30] The (selfish) soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother: he murdered him, and became (himself) one of the lost ones.

[31] Then Allah sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. "Woe is me!" said he; "Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?" Then he became full of regrets.


A raven's tale from British Columbia:

    Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire. Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden. People lived in darkness, without fire and without fresh water.

    Gray Eagle had a beautiful daughter, and Raven fell in love with her. In the beginning, Raven was a snow-white bird, and as a such, he pleased Gray Eagle's daughter. She invited him to her father's longhouse.

    When Raven saw the Sun, Moon and stars, and fresh water hanging on the sides of Eagle's lodge, he knew what he should do. He watched for his chance to seize them when no one was looking. He stole all of them, and a brand of fire also, and flew out of the longhouse through the smoke hole. As soon as Raven got outside he hung the Sun up in the sky. It made so much light that he was able to fly far out to an island in the middle of the ocean. When the Sun set, he fastened the Moon up in the sky and hung the stars around in different places. By this new light he kept on flying, carrying with him the fresh water and the brand of fire he had stolen.

    He flew back over the land. When he had reached the right place, he dropped all the water he had stolen. It fell to the ground and there became the source of all the fresh-water streams and lakes in the world. Then Raven flew on, holding the brand of fire in his bill. The smoke from the fire blew back over his white feathers and made them black. When his bill began to burn, he had to drop the firebrand. It struck rocks and hid itself within them. That is why, if you strike two stones together, sparks of fire will drop out.

    Raven's feathers never became white again after they were blackened by the smoke from the firebrand. That is why Raven is now a black bird. 


In Norse mythology Odin had the two ravens Huginn and Muninn sitting on either shoulder, serving as his eyes and ears - Huginn being referred to as thought and Muninn as memory. Every day the ravens fly out from Hliðskjálf and bring Odin news from Midgard.


In the flood story of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian myth which predates the bible, Utnapishtim releases a dove and a raven to find land, however, the dove merely circles and returns. Only then does Utnapishtim send forth the raven, who does not return. Utnapishtim extrapolates from this that the raven has found land, which is why it hasn't returned.


From Wicki: According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, in classical Greek mythology, when the crow told the god Apollo that his lover Coronis was cheating on him with a mortal, he became very angry, and part of that anger was directed at the crow, whose feathers he turned from white to black.

In Hinduism, it is believed that people who died will take food and offerings through a variety of crows called "Bali kākka". Every year people whose parents or relatives died will offer food to crows as well as cows on the Śrāddha day. A battle between crows and owls is said to have inspired the final bloody night of the Mahabarata war.

In the Story of Bhusunda, a chapter of the Yoga Vasistha, a very old sage in the form of a crow, Bhusunda, recalls a succession of epochs in the earth's history, as described in Hindu cosmology. He survived several destructions, living on a wish-fulfilling tree on Mount Meru.

In Buddhism, the Dharmapala (protector of the Dharma) Mahakala is represented by a crow in one of his physical/earthly forms. Avalokiteśvara/Chenrezig, who is reincarnated on Earth as the Dalai Lama, is often closely associated with the crow because it is said that when the first Dalai Lama was born, robbers attacked the family home. The parents fled and were unable to get to the infant Lama in time. When they returned the next morning expecting the worst, they found their home untouched, and a pair of crows were caring for the Dalai Lama. It is believed that crows heralded the birth of the First, Seventh, Eighth, Twelfth and Fourteenth Lamas, the latter being the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Crows are mentioned often in Buddhism, especially Tibetan disciplines.

In Chinese mythology, the world originally had ten suns embodied as ten crows, which rose in the sky one at a time. When all ten decided to rise at once, the effect was devastating to crops, so the gods sent their greatest archer Houyi, who shot down nine crows and spared only one. Having a "crow beak" is a symbolic expression that one is being a jinx.

In Korean mythology, it is known as Samjokgo (hangul: 삼족오; hanja: 三足烏). During the period of the Goguryeo Kingdom, the Samjogo was a highly regarded symbol of power, thought superior to both the dragon and the Korean phoenix.

The three-legged bird was one of several emblems under consideration to replace the phoenix in the Korean seal of state when its revision was considered in 2008. The Samjogo is considered a symbol of Goguryeo(or Koguryo).


Raven was a trickster in Pacific Northwest Native American lore. He was a lover of chaos, a shape changer and a glutton and was constantly being thwarted by Mouse Woman. She always sought to restore order and maintain balance.


Carlos Castaneda turned himself into a crow after smoking the sacred datura in the Don Juan books.


I read something interesting about the Raven and Crow being referred to as twilight animals. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, proposed a structuralist theory that suggests that Coyote and Crow obtained mythic status because they are mediator animals between life and death.

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