Dark Wings, Dark Words: A Feast for Crows

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A raven with a message tied to its leg from the episode “Fire and Blood” ©HBO via Wikia.

Samwell Tarly returns to Castle Black now knowing without question that the white walkers are on the move and an impending threat. In a powerful, yet incredibly understated way, Maester Aemon tells Sam tells to make sure the ravens are fed since they fly tonight. Bran is sleeping and in his dream he sees a three-eyed raven. And, Jon Snow, well, in Ygritte’s words, he is a “crow” — just like all the other men who have taken the black, peering down at the wildlings from a high wall and delivering death. The crow and raven symbols appear repeatedly throughout Game of Thrones – each time with different and tantalizingly mysterious meanings.

George RR Martin has frequently noted the debt he owes Tolkein. Often, he mentions how he draws from the epic fantasy genre and builds on that great tradition. It’s important to note, however, that Tolkein draws from the so-called “Dark Ages” (Early Middle Ages) to create Middle Earth. In fact, his goal was to bring the magical religious beliefs of early medieval people to life. Many elements of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, ranging from Bilbo Baggins’ house to the Crebain crows, all stem from early medieval life and myth. And, this is the tradition that George RR Martin builds upon. One notable myth George RR Martin employs throughout the series is the raven and the crow.

In the Early Middle Ages, people associated ravens and crows with death. Ravens, crows, jays, rooks, and others are all part of the crow family; crows and ravens, however, feed on carrion. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports ravens tearing hunks of flesh off the dead soldiers lying on the battlefield after the battle of Brunanburgh in 937 AD. The Anglo-Saxon poem Elene recounts, “The ravens screamed aloft, black and greedy for corpses… The raven rejoiced in the work.” And, the Anglo-Saxon poem “Judith” speaks of “the dark raven, the bird greedy for slaughter”1

Given the strong association between battles and birds feeding on the bodies of the dead, is it any wonder that George RR Martin named his fourth novel A Feast for Crows? It’s during this novel we start to see the devastating effects of war as the War of the Five Kings is finally winding down. The concept of crows feasting on dead soldiers was likely based in reality. Crows and ravens followed marching armies, probably having learned this was a sure sign of future food. The bird’s behavior became entrenched in mythology. Celtic goddesses of war, Babd and Morrigu, turned themselves into crows and ravens when they followed the armies on the march. Presumably, this myth arose because these carrion eaters frequently followed armies like a dark shadow of doom overhead. It’s fitting that the pacifist Martin would choose a title (A Feast for Crows) that would reinforce the negative aspects of war and not glorify it.

Early Germanic tribes saw the flight patterns of birds as omens. Tribal wizards noted if birds flew in flocks or were alone, were in a tree or on the ground, and what point in the lunar cycle or seasons they appeared.2 When wizards saw omens, they believed they were “pattern-pointers in the flow of events.” Historian Brian Bates writes, “They likened the sequential unfolding of events to the flowing of a stream, with ripples from each event. No event was repeated in exactly the same way. The wizard could open up to the pattern of the flow of events by observing the ripples. When he heard the birdsong, or saw the flight pattern of birds, he believed he could follow the ripple into future time and foresee events yet to happen.”3

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The three-eyed raven that haunts Bran’s dreams may be an omen of death. ©HBO linked via Wikia.

To the wizards, events ebbed and flowed like a river. Birds could detect these fluctuations. Typically, when a bird chirped a message, it was an evil omen of impending death. Only wizards, however, could interpret the songs of birds – as an early medieval king came to regret.

After the seventh century Northumbrian king Edwin turned his back on “the old religion” and converted to Christianity, he no longer had wizards to interpret the meaning behind an ill-omen that the crow’s song proclaimed. En route to a church, which Edwin hastily built after his recent conversion, he encountered a crow perched in a tree who “sang with an evil omen” – something that would have terrified most seventh century people.

Early Christian officials considered these types of messages idolatry. To prove to superstitious parishioners the bird’s song meant nothing, Edwin’s bishop killed the bird. To Christian thinking, God would have stopped the bishop from killing the bird if the bird truly was a messenger. Most of the parishioners, however, would have seen this event far differently. They believed that if the bird was magical, it would have believed that even if the bird was a magical creature with foresight it would have come anyway. Since Edwin had gotten rid of all his wizards, nobody existed to interpret the bird’s warning for him. Perhaps, to the early medieval mind, this act led to his doom. Ultimately, Edwin died in battle in 633AD; however, it is unclear how much time passed between the crow incident and his death.4

Not surprisingly, omens like the bird who sang to King Edwin scared the average person. People wore amulets of protection and had a more fatalistic attitude towards omens than the wizards. The average person believed an omen would happen, not that it could happen.

In Game of Thrones, before his father dies, Bran has a recurring dream of a three-eyed raven. In Season 1 (the Game of Thrones novel), Bran dreams he tries to shoot the raven with an arrow. The raven lands on the head of a statue of the Stark family sigil, the direwolf; kahhs once; and then leads Bran into his family’s crypt.

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After his father’s capture,  Robb calls the Stark  bannermen to come and  march South to fight against Tywin Lannister.  This  image shows all the ravens leaving Winterfell carrying messages that call the bannermen. Those tiny black dots are the ravens. ©HBO linked via Wikia.

In Game of Thrones, the Westerosi maesters use ravens like carrier pigeons – to relay messages between the castles and cities of the Seven Kingdoms. The ravens are a smarter breed of raven, exceptionally intelligent, that are trained to carry the messages. Most ravens can be trained to fly back to the castle from which they came. A few special birds, however, can be taught to fly to a castle that is not their own. Given the larger epic fantasty tradition, and its debt to the Dark Ages, it fits nicely that Martin made the Westerosi mail system use ravens and not carrier pigeons.

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Norse god Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin on each shoulder. Source: 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

In Norse mythology, ravens served as magical messengers, who carried messages between this world and the world of the dead (the Otherworld). Odin, the Norse god of wizards, had two ravens: one named “Memory” and the other “Thought.” Memory and Thought flew over the world and returned to Odin by second breakfast. Each bird perched on one of Odin’s shoulders and whispered every tidbit of news it saw or heard on its flight.5

Early medieval people saw birds as messengers between their world and the Otherworld. Interestingly, at Castle Black, the ravens are messengers between the Wall, which arguably symbolically represents a barrier between the world of death (whitewalkers) and Westeros. Ravens and crows hide are watchful animals – not unlike squirrels, they hide stashes of food and often bury decoy “food” in the ground to trick others. They are watchful birds: it seems appropriate that those who watch from on high, like the men in black on the Wall, would be compared to these creatures.

 

  1. Brian Bates The Real Middle Earth p. 145 []
  2. The Real Middle Earth p. 146 []
  3. The Real Middle Earth p. 147 []
  4. From the Life of St. Gregory in The Real Middle Earth p. 152 []
  5. Snorri Sturluson in The Real Middle Earth p. 147 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "Songs of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

5 Comments

  • Reply January 4, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    You probably know that there’s a legend that if ravens ever leave the Tower of London it will fall. Mind you, the ravens there have their wings clipped, so they don’t really have a level playing field.

    • Reply May 22, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I do actually. I’ve always been fascinated by that legend. I think when I was researching this article I found a short YouTube video with an interview with the man who looks after the ravens – I don’t remember the term for this.

  • Reply May 22, 2014

    C. B.

    Bran is also the name of a Celtic god and means “Raven”. There appears to be much overlap between the old religion of the north and Celtic mythology, as both seem to worship trees.

    • Reply May 22, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Oooh. Thank you for this! Great comment.

  • Reply May 23, 2014

    Grant

    There’s also Bran the Blessed from Welsh myths. Between that and other points in the stories that remind me of ancient stories about Welsh bards (I wonder if the stories of Taliesin had any influence on the ideas), I’d say it’s safe to say that the Celtic groups were a significant source of influence on Martin’s writings.

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