The raven and the tower: an omen returns

“Nevermore”: Six ravens must be kept at the Tower of London, according to legend.

Are omens useful? As the queen of the ravens vanishes, a prophecy foretells the end of the United Kingdom. Some call this fantasy, but others say there is wisdom in listening to the birds.

The royal ravenmaster has some ominous news. Christopher Skaife is in charge of the eight ravens that live in the Tower of London. Every morning he lets them out to roam the castle grounds. With their trimmed wings, they can’t go far. But just before Christmas, only seven returned. Merlina, the “undisputed ruler of the roost”, had vanished.

Skaife says: “I do fear that she is not with us any more.” It is sad news for the ravenmaster and his unkindness of ravens, but it is also an ill omen for the country. A prophecy warns that when fewer than six ravens live at the Tower, disaster will strike and the kingdom will fall. The last time their number fell this low was during the Blitz.

It may sound far-fetched, but seeing omens in the behaviour of birds is a widespread belief. A major survey found 123 different cultures use 498 species to predict the future – from the early arrival of cuckoos in Wales promising a plentiful harvest, to the black-faced babblers of the Kalahari, who lead southern African hunters to their antelope prey.

The Romans, in particular, took divination extremely seriously. They employed specialised priests called augers, who read the will of the gods in the calls, movements and flight patterns of birds. The Senate considered these readings closely before any major decision, such as making new laws, declaring war or calling elections.

In the ancient world, anything strange or unexplained could be an omen. Comets, eclipses, earthquakes and blood rain were all signs of divine anger. And ignoring an omen could be deadly. According to the historian Suetonius, a soothsayer foresaw Julius Ceasar’s death before the end of the Ides of March. Caesar refused to leave Rome and was killed in the Senate.

Others have followed a good omen to victory. In 1066, Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky, a “wonderful sign from heaven” that the Duke of Normandy would conquer the English. The famous Bayeux Tapestry includes the first known picture of the comet, which is visible every 75-76 years. In 1222 it inspired another conqueror, Ghengis Khan, to head west and invade Europe.

The scientifically-minded say these are just coincidences. But research shows that people “who think of themselves as lucky actually are lucky,” says psychologist Mike Aitken, “because they are more willing to take advantage of opportunities."

The modern equivalent of ancient omens could be computer models, argues historian Esther Eidinow. Just like the riddles of the Greek oracle, computer forecasts of the economy or climate need to be interpreted. Eidinow says: “None of us knows how the future will develop and no model can tell us exactly.”

But what about Merlina the raven? Her disappearance may not mean the fall of the UK, but ethnobiologist Felice Wyndham says the idea of fortune-telling birds is rooted in an ancient awareness of our environment. Migratory birds like the cuckoo are affected by changing weather patterns, and we really can use them to predict the future.

Are omens useful?

Bird’s eye view

Some say, of course not. Omens were common in the ancient world because people did not understand natural phenomena and reached for supernatural explanations. Trusting in good omens can lead to foolish choices; believing in bad ones can paralyse us with fear and anxiety. Instead, we should look at scientific evidence to make decisions.

Others say we should listen to the world around us. Omens are not about ignoring the evidence, but widening our awareness to include the wisdom of the birds and their environment. Trusting our instincts in this way allows us to avoid dangers and take chances, without wasting time overthinking every decision.

You Decide

  1. Is it possible to predict the future?
  2. Is belief in bad luck compatible with a scientific point of view?

Activities

  1. Research five superstitious beliefs about birds and create a poster to show your findings.
  2. You are the government’s official auger. Write a report, explaining modern omens they should be aware of and what can be done to prevent disaster.

Some People Say...

“There is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.”

Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900), Irish poet and playwright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the belief in omens increases during times of crisis. In 207BC, as Hannibal invaded the Roman Empire, the Senate dealt with an unprecedented number of unfortunate events. Research in Germany shows that belief in astrology rose from 1918-1940 as the country faced economic ruin. Social scientists argue this magical thinking gives people a sense of control in a period of uncertainty.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether superstition is in decline. A traditional view is that since the 18th Century, scientific thought has advanced and magical thinking is slowly disappearing. Others argue that the popularity of New Age religion and conspiracy theories mean we need to recapture the spirit of the Enlightenment. However, some critics argue superstition never went away and that irrational beliefs are a fundamental part of being human.

Word Watch

Ravenmaster
One of the Yeoman Warders, more commonly known as Beefeaters, who live and work at the Tower of London. Christopher Skaife used to live in the Bloody Tower, but moved rooms because it was “too haunted”.
Unkindness of ravens
The collective noun for a group of ravens. Other evocatively named flocks include a mischief of magpies, a parliament of owls and a murder of crows.
The Blitz
This legend first appeared during the German bombing campaign of 1940-1941. The raids left one surviving bird called Gripp, until Winston Churchill ordered more ravens to be moved to the Tower.
Major survey
“Listen Carefully to the Birds” was a study carried out by the University of Oxford. It found that owls were the most commonly mentioned bird, associated with ghosts and death.
Augers
Augury, or “taking the auspices”, was an important ritual in Roman life. It literally meant “one who looks at birds”, and according to the legend, even the location of Rome was decided in this way.
Blood rain
A phenomenon caused by the aerial spores of microalgae. Red rain is mentioned in Homer’s Illiad, the Ango-Saxon Chronicle and the legends of King Arthur, always as a bad omen.
Soothsayer
The fortune-teller was called Spurinna and saw the future by reading the entrails of sacrificed animals. The Romans called this practice haruspicy.
Ides of March
The 74th day of the Roman calendar. The divination was made famous by Shakespeare’s play, in which the soothsayer warns Julius Caesar to “beware the Ides of March”.
Greek oracle
The most famous ancient oracle was at Delphi in central Greece, where a priestess possessed by the god Apollo answered questions in riddles.
Migratory birds
Scientists in India are using nano-technology to track the migration of the Pied Cuckoo, which is linked to the arrival of the monsoon. These birds can help researchers understand how climate change is affecting ecosystems on different sides of the planet.

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