Harry Potter has indisputably become an important part of our modern mythos about witches, wizards, and magical know-how. We’ve discussed the series a lot on this blog, but as I was randomly thinking the other day, what exactly prompted Rowling’s choice in animal companions for her young magic users? Creatures like toads and cats have long since been staples of witchiness in the current pop media consciousness (although as far as cats go, Hermione’s fluffy ball of grump Crookshanks isn’t exactly the stereotype), and rats kind of fit in by virtue of so many people having an aversion to them. But owls? From where I stood, owls seemed like a random choice. Rowling has stated that she chose the creatures because they’re “traditionally associated with magic” and just because she likes them—both valid points—but in my pop culture experience, owls aren’t the go-to bird for shorthand magical implication. No, that honor goes to ravens. Still, this got me thinking further: what are the symbolic differences between owls and ravens when it comes to magic? Surprisingly, their purpose in folklore and their general symbolism are quite similar.
When considering Harry Potter, the first owls that come to mind are probably Harry’s owl Hedwig or Ron’s owl Pigwidgeon. Both Hedwig and Pigwidgeon are dependable owls that try their best (to varying degrees of success), but neither of them, or any of the owls in the series for that matter, feel like they have any sort of magic or are foreboding omens themselves—unless you’re getting a Howler, I guess. Other creatures in the Harry Potter ‘verse, such as dragons or snakes, maintain this sort of magical allure to them, but owls always just come off as cute little pets. Given that students are possibly choosing an owl as a pet at age eleven, that makes sense; save the mental scarring for when you actually get to Hogwarts.
Generally speaking, the owl seems to have two main symbolic purposes in magic and folklore: a representation of wisdom and a representation of death. In Greek mythology, the goddess of wisdom Athena is typically shown accompanied by an owl, and in some pagan beliefs the owl is a symbol of the crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, representing perfect knowledge based on experience. As the crone also deals with mortality and facing the end of things, it’s not too surprising that death goes hand in hand with the owl. In Welsh mythology Bloudeuwedd ends up killing her immortal husband Lleu when he tells her the secrets to his immortality, and is punished by being changed into an owl. Due to the owl’s nocturnal nature, many cultures believe that owls are an omen of terrible things to come, be it bad luck, death, or even a warning of the devil itself.
Owls in pop culture, though, tend not to take these darker tones. While they are sometimes used to emphasize how scary things can get at night, they typically take the role that Owl from Winnie the Pooh does: a smart, maybe know-it-all character who bestows wisdom onto their friends. The darker things are definitely left to the raven in the public eye. In fact, while not necessarily “geeky”, I’d be willing to bet that the first thing that springs to most of your minds when ravens come up is Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem The Raven. Though Poe’s writing in general had darker themes, I would say the connotations for ravens made it easier to implement as an antagonist in the poem—something like “quoth the cockatiel” wouldn’t really have the same feeling. As opposed to our more dour interpretations of the creature, in Greek mythology ravens were envoys of Apollo, trusted for their honesty and keen insight, and some Native American tribes even consider ravens heroic and symbols of good luck. All the while, in Celtic mythology, the raven is related closely to the complex goddess figure Morríghan who is considered both a goddess of war as well as being a goddess of fate, death, and cattle, depending on which texts you read from.
While ravens, too, are associated with premonitions of death or illness, they differ from owls in that ravens are almost always intrinsically linked with the supernatural. They are said to pick up shiny items so that they may divine the secrets of the world, and are just generally more attuned with magic. This is why, I think, they’re more often used in popular media whenever magic is mentioned. If a scene is supposed to invoke some sort of otherworldly hesitance, then a raven or two (or crows, since they’re also closely related) may be flying in the background, cawing. Yet even if an audience isn’t really familiar with the magical symbolism of ravens, they’re probably more likely to be used when mentioning witches just because of the aesthetic—and since aesthetic sells, this is the implicit meaning that seems to stick in the mainstream consciousness.
As time passes, so too do our perception of ideas from the past. It may seem strange that owls, an animal whose symbolism seemed much more steeped in death and negative events, are now singing and dancing about the moon-a and the June-a and the spring-a, but I have a guess why that is. Simply put, owls are just cuter than ravens. Seriously, have you ever seen a barn owl? Adorable. Humans get attached to cute things, and want to see them do well in life, and even though I think ravens are cute, I don’t think the appeal is quite as large. Alternately, the shift could have come in due to farming culture. Owls are pretty helpful in that respect, gobbling up mice and other pests without bothering anything of important to the farmer, while ravens and crows think crops are pretty tasty sometimes. There’s also the off-chance that due to the hyper-religiousness of early American immigrants (the Puritans were no fun), media here has been built to give a negative name to the creatures and items more easily linked to witchcraft and paganism. Whatever it is ultimately, I still hope that one day we get some sort of raven character that’s based more on positive symbolism. Hell, even an owl character that’s an emo piece of shit would be a nice change.
In comparing the two, I think the strangest thing I found was the discrepancy in actual characters. What I mean is that you could maybe name a couple owl characters off the top of your head, but ravens? That’s a little more difficult. Looking through the internet, I couldn’t find any easy-to-find mentions of raven characters outside of the Poe poem. Even now I can only think of the Raven Queen from Critical Role, who is a deity of death, and Maleficent’s right hand man-raven, Diaval, who seems to be more on the spying side of things. Going back to Harry Potter, though we have an entire house named in part for ravens, Ravenclaw, there’s not much else to do with them. Finding the similarities between the two types of birds was quite interesting, and while there’s probably not enough evidence to support it, I do feel like ravens are much more related to female characters than owls are—again, a wide majority of the characters from Ravenclaw that the audience hears anything about, or become full members of the supporting cast, are women. So readers, I’d like to hear from you. Have you noticed anything about owls and ravens in your own time consuming whatever forms of media that you do? Or do you have any folkloric knowledge of the two? Make sure to drop a line in the comments!
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What about the Hobbit ?
I actually haven’t seen/read The Hobbit, so I’m not quite sure either….
Owls are also associated with Hekate in Greek myth, and one of the words for owl in ancient Greek, strix, is more or less synonymous with “witches” as well. Owls are also associated with the lilitu in Sumero-Babylonian myth, and also with the most famous instance of those creatures, i.e. Lilith of Hebrew tradition.
Gaulish tradition also associates ravens with the god Lugus. In medieval Wales, in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Bendigeidfran (“Bran the Blessed”) and his sister Branwen are also associated with ravens; her name means “white raven.” In a lot of Northwest Coast Native American mythologies, Raven stole the sun and plays a number of other trickster roles, and is even a creator god…some people I know refer to Seattle as “the city that Raven built,” actually! 😉
As for pop cultural magical ravens: what about the “Three-Eyed Raven/Blood Raven” in Game of Thrones/etc.? It is a male figure and is associated with pretty much exclusively male figures (Bryndan Rivers, Bran Stark…and of course, in Irish and Welsh, bran means “raven”!). And, have you ever seen Jim Henson’s The Storyteller? I highly recommend it…the European tales series of it starts with a raven every time…
Oooh, thanks for the mythology~! Also sounds like another good reason to move to Seattle, ha ha!
Does the Three-Eyed Raven become an actual character? I’ve hopped off the Game of Thrones boat and have admittedly never read any of the ASOIAF books, but in my time watching it seemed less like he was a character and more like…. a physical manifestation of an omen or some sort of symbolic representation of old magic still being a living, breathing thing. Though yes! It’s interesting that there the raven is exclusively linked to male characters!
I /haven’t/ seen (or heard of, tbh) The Storyteller, but it definitely sounds like something I should look into immediately. Thanks for the recommendation! 🙂
In the Sandman comics, Dream (i.e., the Sandman) always has a messenger raven as a companion. Since the main raven we get to know, Matthew, used to be human and retains a certain human naivety, he actually sort of represents, to me, at least, the reader’s perspective on events. When other ravens start showing up in the Dreaming in Vol. 9, then they definitely represent harbingers of death. The first Raven, Lucien, ends up taking a humanoid shape and becoming Dream’s librarian, keeper of every story that ever existed or was dreamt. So here we have representatives of the human reader, death, and knowledge, all in one story. Plus ravens match the dark aesthetic of Sandman much better than owls would. 😉
Come on, you can’t mention mythological ravens and forget about Hugin and Munin (Odin’s ravens in Norse myth)! It’s another example of ravens as spies. Their names mean ‘memory’ and ‘thought’, and in some versions they are Odin’s literal memories and thoughts.
One of them showed up in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, so there’s a high chance they’ll appear in the TV series.