As the crow flies

Corvo 01

Historically, there are mainly two animals associated with Mercury: the ram and the cockerel. They’re shown on a Roman coin from 172-3, which depicts a circular temple to the god, and also on a silver dish from the 3rd century. Other animals linked to Him are the tortoise, the hawk, and perhaps even the hare (references here). Then there is a bird that seems to get his share of attention from modern devotees, but appears to be absent from ancient sources: the raven.

In a blogpost last year, Lykeia pointed out how it’s actually more closely associated with Apollo and there is nothing in pre-Christian material that ties that particular bird to Hermes. And while this may be true, my mind nonetheless keeps liking the raven with Him. Admissibly, this may be an unconscious interpretatio: Odin has been equated with Mercury and the same is true for Lugh, both of which are connected with ravens. There’s also my love for Lisbon, whose coat-of-arms depicts two of those birds, so my mind may therefore be resorting to stored references and subconsciously connecting things I like. But it may also be hinting at a valuable link and despite the lack of historical references.

Traditionally, the raven is a bird of omens and a guide of souls. Due to its colour and because it can feed on decaying flesh, it’s an animal with an otherworldly aura that implies death, the ability to move between worlds, to bring things from the other side or to take them took it. In this, there’s also an implication of knowledge, for in its liminal freedom to move from one realm to another, the raven can see and hear a multitude of things, some of which are outside the normal human experience. The connection with Mercury is obvious: He’s a psychopomp, a messenger of the Gods, and while Apollo is undoubtedly an oracular deity, it’s also true that Hermes was taught cruder forms of divination by his Delphic brother. As such, He is not without the ability to look into the future and, in any case, by moving freely between worlds and being a conveyer of information, He has access to otherwordly knowledge and the ability to pass it on. It’s not by accident that He’s a god of hermeneutics.

The raven is also known for being a highly intelligent bird: they’re crafty, able to solve problems, and have even been seen using tools to acquire food, from fishing with bread crumbs to using strips of vegetation to scope for underground insects. Experiences have also shown how they can change materials into a desired form so as to create a better tool. Again, this reminds me of Hermes/Mercury, who’s well known for His inventive skills and crafty ways, like when He stole Apollo’s cattle at a very early age. He’s a trickster and the same can be told of ravens, whose ability to steal and hide things is not unheard of.

But how can a black-feathered bird of carrion be linked to a god who, while being a psychopomp, is not Himself a deity of death or battle? The answer may have been given by Lykeia with regards to Apollo: “He [the raven] feasts on the old that we can become reborn as it were into something better.” It is, in other words, a bird of change and transformation, and while that may be rightly associated with Apollon Agyieus, it can also stand for a god of movement like Mercury: like life, He is not static, but ever moving. And if there’s an initiation element in change and transformation, keep in mind that the god can go in and out of the underworld. In his book on the Guide of Souls, Karl Kerény pointed out how that implies some form of initiatory preparation or recognition of Hermes’ friendly terms with Hades (2008, 65).

All of this tells me what others have already hinted at and mentioned: the raven is a very hermetic animal, able to stand as a bird of Hermes/Mercury. Of course, one may ask how can that be if it’s already taken by Apollo, but this is hardly an issue: just as gods can share functions, the same may happen with animals. The snake, for instance, is linked to Dionysus, Demeter, Asclepius, and Ares; the dog to both Artemis and Hekate. These things don’t usually work on exclusive terms.

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5 thoughts on “As the crow flies

  1. Meh Hermes and Apollon are close brothers, and share a number of things already, so what is one more thing 😀 Apollon may be a god associated with decay/rot (pytho) and the tomb, but Hermes is the psychopomp. They have a very unique relationship and it is of no mistake that they are called the closest of brothers. so why not!

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  3. I have long associated Hermes with crows (and to a lesser degree, ravens, mostly because crows are the ones I interact with most commonly) – due to all the reasons you cite here, plus some personal gnosis that came via a dream. This doesn’t supplant Apollon’s strong connection with them, though I have to say that personally, I more often encounter crows as Hermes omens than messages from Apollon. Maybe Hermes is just being more talkative to me.

    • For some reason, I sometimes get the impression He can be veeery talkative. Then again, that’s probably unexpected in a trickster and god of communication and crows can be veeery vocal.

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