The Raven – Dissected. Part 1: The Mythological Muse
“To have a raven’s knowledge” – Irish Proverb
Since my initial encounters with the common raven at the Grand Canyon, I have experienced a sort of “frequency illusion”: ravens started popping up in stories I read, movies I watched, and as soon as I’d forget about them, someone would point one out. This taste of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon led me to research corvids, turning them into my current subject for drawings and designs. It has become my obsession to dissect these moments of connection to the common raven.
My previous artwork dealt with a wider net of connections via research. For example, I would trace or draw out cracks from a dried creek bed in conjunction with a topographical diagram of a city plan, comparing the visual similarities of the “uncontrolled” and the “controlled.” Lately my bridges between art and life pull closer to home. Each drawing or design is like a road—they accumulate and construct a map specific to me, outlining a more personal story.
Gathering information and making connections has long been a large part of my creative process. My new series of work deals with animals and my encounters with them. I see myself as a sort of hunter. I’ve always been fascinated by the way some hunters, in pursuit of their art, learn everything there is to know about the animal they pursue. Some have expressed pain and grief at the kill shot. A Wyoming hunter wrote “A successful hunt was not defined by the kill. It was not defined by whether or not an animal’s blood was spilled on any one particular outing that fall. Success was defined by our connection to the animal, as big or as small the relationship we had developed with them.” The only difference between me and a hunter is that the hunter severs that connection with the kill, while I leave mine open, to come and go at will.
I’ve decided to divide the connections with ravens I’m processing into three sections: The Good, The Bad, and The Mythological Muse.
Part 1: The Mythological Muse
I’m not the only one to take notice in the common raven. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote extensively about ravens and coyotes as “mediators” between the world of the living and the dead. He made his own connections to the great myths built up around these powerful creatures. Both Raven’s and Coyotes eat carrion. As Levi-Strauss put it, “Like beasts of prey, they eat meat; like herbivores, they don’t catch their food.” He drew connections between agriculture and hunting and life and death. Agriculture relates to producing life, he suggested, while hunting produces death. He then connected herbivores and beasts of prey. You can see how the raven and coyote ended up in the middle, somehow between life and death.
“To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish proverb that means “to have a seer’s supernatural powers.” Ravens, in some cultures, are considered one of the oldest and wisest of animals. It was said that the Norse God Odin had a pair of ravens as messengers. His raven’s names were Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory or mind), and they would fly around earth daily, returning at night to report on what they had seen. In the stories, Odin and his ravens are bound together in a shamanic manner.
The mythology of the Pacific Northwest describes two ravens, often indistinguishable from each other. One is the creator, responsible for bringing the world into the light from the darkness, and a provider to mankind. The other is said to be childish, always selfish, and cunning.
Ravens are used as symbols throughout history. They play roles in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian middle ages, Greek and Roman mythology, and more. They obviously made a lasting impression on humankind. Edgar Allen Poe will for ever more haunt us with his image of the raven tap tap tapping upon his chamber door.
As I work on a piece of art or design, I process the information I gather and draw my own conclusions and connections. My current muse, the raven, comes and goes as it pleases. Despite the stories that speak of the raven as a ghostly omen, I’m always pleased to see my winged companion again. The history of the raven reminds me to focus, to channel my thoughts and memories while I work, in a way similar to automatic drawing. But to me it’s not just about the meditative trance-like process of drawing, it’s also about regaining control of the line work via editing…creating two opposing concepts much like the raven’s mythological personality. The next post and the second part of my process is Part 2: The Bad.
For more information regarding the topics discussed above check out some of the websites I refer to in my process of information gathering. Enjoy!