The raven and the tower: an omen returns
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 ominous news. Christopher Skaife is in charge of the eight ravens in the Tower of London. Every morning he lets them out. With trimmed wings, they can’t go far. Before Christmas, only seven returned. Merlina, the “undisputed ruler of the roost”, vanished.
It is sad news, and also an ill omen for the country. A prophecy warns that when fewer than six ravens live at the Tower, disaster will strike the kingdom. The last time their number fell this low was during the Blitz.
Seeing omens in the behaviour of birds is a widespread belief.
The Romans took divination seriously. They employed augers, who read the will of the gods in the calls, movements and flight of birds. The Senate considered these readings closely.
In the ancient world, anything strange could be an omen. Comets, eclipses, earthquakes and blood rain were signs of divine anger. Ignoring an omen could be deadly.
The modern equivalent of ancient omens could be computer models, argues historian Esther Eidinow. Just like the riddles of the Greek oracle, computer forecasts need to be interpreted.
What about Merlina the raven? Her loss may not mean the fall of the UK, but ethnobiologist Felice Wyndham says the idea of fortune-telling birds is rooted in an awareness of environment. Migratory birds are affected by changing weather patterns, and we can use them to predict the future.
Are omens useful?
Bird’s eye view
Of course not. Omens were common when people did not understand natural phenomena. Trusting in good omens can lead to foolish choices; believing in bad ones can paralyse us. We should look at scientific evidence to make decisions.
We should listen to the world around us. Omens are not about ignoring evidence, but widening our awareness to include the wisdom of birds and their environment.
- Is it possible to predict the future?
- Research five superstitious beliefs about birds and create a poster to show your findings.
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 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.