I have been visited by black birds—call them black birds, ravens, crows, rooks: they are all relatively the same—and they have been pursuing me for some time now.
It began a few years ago when my wife and I returned home to find what we thought was a crow in the street in front of our house, pecking and tearing away at a squirrel carcass. “I hate crows,” my wife said. “They’re huge and gross!” And it was huge…I had never noticed before how big crows are, which probably meant that it was actually a raven—the bigger of the two species, although in the same family: Corvidae. Ravens grow to be 2 feet in length, have a wingspan approaching 4 feet, and weigh 2 to 3 pounds. Crows are somewhat smaller at about 18 inches in length with a wingspan of less than 3 feet. And it was gross…its razor beak was tearing the carcass easily. Since then, we’ve had murders of crows in our yard and solitary ravens in the garden and other occasional black-bird visitors here and there…each time I remembered the raven and its carrion.
A few days later, I was driving to see a client and the person in the car with me noted a black bird perched at the tippy top of a tree, both hanging over the road we were to travel. “Don’t go under that tree!” she shouted. “A black bird is a harbinger of bad things!” I said that I thought walking under a ladder was bad luck. “It is, but so is a black bird!” she said. We laughed it off and had a successful visit to the client. I think I don’t believe in harbingers of bad luck or in most superstitions like that.
But one day after work, I was greeted by four crows above the parking lot calling at me…even for a non-superstitious person, it was a bit unnerving: four black birds sitting in the girders calling out in staccato barks. I had no idea what they were trying to tell me, but I stood for a minute and watched and listened and wondered. On the ride home that night, two black birds were perched in a different tree above a different road; I drove home below them and wondered if any of this could really mean anything.
A month later, I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the summer solstice. Everywhere around the town I found pictures and paintings and even stuffed animals of ravens. I dined in an elegant restaurant—Kol—where on the wall was painted the head of a raven. I began to think about harbingers. The following morning I asked the tour guide whom we’d engaged: “Why are there images of ravens everywhere in all the stores and restaurants?” At first, he said that he didn’t know…he thought, and thought so long that I thought he didn’t have a better answer. Then the answer occurred to him, “Oh the black birds! They are the ravens of Odin, Iceland’s mythologic god. They fly over the world and collect information for Odin. Huginn is ‘thought’ and Muninn is ‘memory.’”
I liked this idea better than the “harbinger of bad things” idea: black birds flying over the world to provide thought and memory. I enjoy my thoughts and treasure my memories and like to experience them as if they were ravens, coming and going, from here and there, mixing reality with myth.