Watch out for Ravens!

For the second Weird Classics post, I want to turn again to our good friend Pliny the Elder, for what he has to say about ravens.

“The raven lays, at most, but five eggs. It is a vulgar belief, that they couple, or else lay, by means of the beak; and that, consequently, if a pregnant woman happens to eat a raven’s egg, she will be delivered by the mouth.” (Pliny. Nat. 10.15)

The ancients were no strangers to unusual ideas about birds, eggs, and pregnancy. If we remember Helen of Troy, she was said to be hatched from an egg as her mother, Leda, was visited by Zeus taking the form of a swan. Here in Pliny we find a different interpretation of birds interfering with pregnancy. He suggests that there is a belief that pregnant women who eat eggs from a raven will then give birth through their mouths, rather than by the usual channels. Pliny then assures the reader that Aristotle sees no more merit in this theory than in the similar story about the ibis, as it is told in Egypt.

Birds eggs and human pregnancies were often linked in terms of augury and good-luck charms. We are told that Julia Augusta, in her pregnancy, did the following:

“When pregnant in her early youth of Tiberius Caesar, by Nero, was particularly desirous that her offspring should be a son, and accordingly employed the following mode of divination, which was then much in use among young women: she carried an egg in her bosom, taking care, whenever she was obliged to put it down, to give it to her nurse to warm in her own, that there might be no interruption in the heat: it is stated that the result promised by this mode of augury was not falsified” (Plin. Nat. 10.76)

Ovid gives us an interesting poetic take on why ravens appear the way they do:

“O, chattering raven! White of yore.
For, long ago the ravens were not black –
white-feathered, snow-white as the geese that guard
with watchful cries the Capitol: as white
as swans that haunt the streams. Disgrace reversed
the raven’s hue from white to black, because
offense was given by his chattering tongue.”
(Ov. Met. 2.531)

The poem tells a little story about a chatty raven, and how his gossiping got Phoebus into a spot of bother. As a punishment the bird was turned from white feathers to black, so that it was “forbade forever more to perch among the favoured birds whose plumes are white.”

Ravens are also rather tricky omens. They were thought to have an understanding of the augury they performed, and were often cited as croaking ominously in scenes of danger. It seems that ravens were given quite a lot of credit as being intelligent creatures!

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