Friday, November 18, 2011

Crows Connection to Death


Crows for centuries have been closely connected with death. The main reason for this is crows feed on carrion-- the flesh of the dead. Because of this many cultures associate crows with death and dying. Some cultures in the past believed that crows were messengers of death. How this reputation came about is certainly understandable but is unfair.

If we look at examples in history around the world it becomes clear why so many cultures have a tradition of associating crows with death. In mans' early history bodies were not buried, it was a common sight to see crows feasting upon human corpses. 

For centuries crows during times of war have been observed following soldiers onto battle fields where they wait patiently for the battle to be over so they can feed upon the fallen. In medieval Western Europe during an outbreak of the Bubonic plague people noted crows feeding upon the victims’ stacked bodies.

Because of this association with death crows over time gained a bad reputation. But not all cultures viewed them in this light. 

Some Native American cultures see crows as a positive symbol because they believe the crow acts as a communicator or liaison between this world and the next. They are viewed as assisters that help the decease cross over. 

The Tibetans held a somewhat similar belief-- they once placed pieces of bodies on top of temples so that crows could carry them to the next life. 

The early Celtics viewed crows as the mediators between the human and spirit worlds. They believed that crows were oracles which god used to speak to them. This belief probably came about because crows can be trained to talk. So to some cultures crows are spiritual or supernatural in nature.

Over time this belief that crows were connected to death was used to teach lessons.

In the 13th century Talmud, a vast collection of Jewish laws, there is a story where a crow teaches Adam and Eve to bury the body of their son. Adam and Eve being confronted with this first dead body on earth after creation did not know what to do with it. The story states the crow then kills another crow and buries it in front of Adam and Eve as a demonstration.

In an early Buddhist tradition monks would sit in a graveyard and concentrate on decomposing bodies, again in a time before bodies were properly buried, later this was done through imagery and mediation. At one point during this guided meditation the monk would see the image of a crow feasting upon his own corpse. The idea behind this was to keep death always in the forefront.

In a similar western tradition the Benedictine monks founded by St. Benedict, who once claimed a crow saved his life by warning him about a piece of poisoned bread, believed death should be kept always before the living. 

The reason these two groups used the crow and its scavenging ways was to remind them that the presence of death is a part of the natural cycle of life. When we can see and understand the ephemerality of our lives we learn to appreciate life on a daily basis.

The false belief that crows bring death has resulted in a variety of myths and superstitions being passed down from one generation to the next. One of the most prevalent of these myths is about crows in graveyards. People say they hang out in them because of their connection to death. After all crows are big, black, and spooky. 

In reality crows just find graveyards an ideal habitat. There is a nice mowed expanse of lawn where they can easily spot earthworms to eat etc. There is abundant water with plenty of trees to keep watch from and graveyards are quiet which crows like. There is another myth about crows flocking together in graveyards; they do this for protection not for any supernatural reason.

The Greeks felt that crows were a bad omen often foretelling death. Because of this belief they would say to the birds, “Go on your way, and bring me good news.” One term used for a group of crows is “murder” this comes from Greek mythology as well. 

The Irish for generations believed that when a crow caws three times they are announcing the death of an individual. It was also believed if a crow flew in a house and couldn’t get out it was a bad omen.

Some superstitions state that a crow must fly into the house to foretell death. If the bird flies in a house in the morning the person will die in a better manner than if the crow flies in at dusk. If the crow is covered in mud or injured the person will have a long illness.

Today in our urban world, it is still almost impossible to avoid seeing crows along the highway picking at road kill. This could be the reason why so many myths and superstitions persist about the crow being a symbol of death. 

In reality crows are not to be feared, in fact when they are observed closely people note they are vibrant and alive. They are always doing something creative and they are very playful, which is an indicator they are intelligent. 

In a recent Nature episode entitled “A Murder of Crows” on PBS it was shown crows make tools that help them retrieve food. Recent research indicates they are among the brightest animals in the world.

What is amazing is that crows seem to understand their own mortality. When one of them dies people have observed the following phenomenon. They often fly around the deceased bird cawing; in fact they seem to hold their version of a crow funeral. They are seen landing and forming a circle around the deceased bird’s body. They stand still and silent for anywhere from a few minutes to over thirty minutes. 

The people who have witnessed this event state that it shocked them for it was obvious to them these crows were not just standing around.

1 comment:

Robert Frisbie said...

When my father passed, I had heard a crow across the street and thought, "why can't the bird be an eagle?". I thought of bad luck, what friends have said about crows associated with death, however after reading your post, it had given me peace of mind that my father had crossed over, and is now with my mother in heaven. Thank you.