When Raven Placed The Stars In The Sky— stories of the Spirit World
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Raven occupies a fascinating niche in the stories of many peoples. The Tlingit people of Alaska, for instance, say that Raven placed the stars in the sky. In their stories, all the stars once belonged to a great heavenly chief who kept them tied up in a sack for his own amusement. One day, Raven turned himself into a pine needle and was accidentally swallowed by the chief’s daughter when she came to a spring to drink. Raven was later reborn as the chief’s grandson and was given the stars to play with. At the first opportunity, Raven latched onto the bag of stars and took flight. As he soared across the heavens, he scattered the stars in his wake. And thus we have them in all their sparkling extravagance, lighting the night sky, glittering beacons for wilderness travelers.
Norse mythology places the two ravens Huginn and Muninnon the shoulders of the god Odin, who sends them out to patrol the world, bringing back news and gossip. In the book of Genesis, Noah sends Raven out to reconnoiter as the floodwaters recede. True to his nature as a trickster, Raven never returns. Perhaps that is why ravens seem so often to be chuckling to themselves, because their ancestor put one over on Noah.
Many Native American peoples say that when Raven speaks, he speaks of mystery, that he delivers a message from the spirit world. The most terrifying manifestation of Raven among any peoples is the Cherokee Raven Mocker, who steals the lives of dying men and devours their hearts in order to add to his own lifespan.
Raven occupies an important place in Cherokee mythology. When Sam Houston ran away from home as a teenager, he was adopted by the Cherokee leader Oolooteka and given the name Colonneh, the Raven.
The Celts identified Raven with death, particularly death in battle. Raven also possessed the gift of prophecy. There is even a legend that King Arthur was transformed into a raven after his death.
Some years ago, while on an extended wilderness backpacking trek, I found myself perched atop a boulder far up on a cliff overlooking the Upper Missouri River in Montana. I had parted from my companions and scaled those heights on that July day in order to better experience a line of thunderstorms roaring in from the west and in hopes of meeting a mountain lion. I was not fated to meet the one whom the Navaho call Nashdoitsoh, Mountain Lion, Guardian of the Mountains, but I did meet Raven. His message to me sounded only like a solemn “Grok”. To this day, I am clueless as to what kernel of wisdom was concealed in his strange language.
Raven is a much more solitary bird than his nearest relative the crow, whose raucous laughter echoes throughout the cornfields and woodlots of rural areas. Crows tend to congregate in heavily populated rookeries. According to Barry Lopez in his book Desert Notes, many fall victim to an infection that causes them to go blind, tumble off their roosts, and die.
Raven sticks to himself. He has been driven out of many populated areas but loves wilderness. He can be found throughout the Mountain West, the Pacific Northwest, the southwestern deserts and throughout the taiga and tundra of the Far North. He earns his living as a scavenger or just as often by raiding the nests of other birds, like seagulls. Shellfish, eggs, insects, berries, even small animals are on his menu.
Raven is famous for his penchant for mischief. Many Native American stories portray him as a trickster, much like Coyote or the Cherokee character the Great Rabbit. While working as a National Park Service ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, I came upon more than one campsite that had been decimated by Raven. Campers’ belongings were scattered all over the ground, food items looted, every inch of the campsite vandalized. Raven seems to take joy in such activities. Generally, I would find him prancing about delightedly amid the wreckage with all the grace of a ballerina, yet somehow reminding me of the Looney Toons magpies “Heckle and Jeckle.”
My old friend James P. McMullen, author of The Cry of the Panther, who hangs out in the Everglades, once explained to me that the phrase “Nom yofara on” connects one with the animal that he is spiritually nearest to on the food chain. On one shimmering Colorado morning, I decided to try it with a half dozen ravens who were perched in the branches of a cottonwood tree over my campsite. The lot of them immediately flew into a panic, scrambling from their branch and fervently cursing as they soared away into the tree line. I concluded that I am not nearest to Raven on the food chain. Over the years since, I have met with greater success when calling in hawks.
Recently while on my daily walk near our daughter’s home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I overheard a familiar, mournful “Grok” from high among the branches of a long dead hardwood tree. Sure enough, my old friend Raven was delivering yet another of his mysterious messages. I wish I knew what it is that he is so eager to share with me.