The Raven

One hot Saturday morning, with a temperature of 91 and rising at 9:11am when I left, I set out in my pickup to see a 12-foot tall raven along Highway 63 in northeast Arkansas.  I simply had to see it for myself.

At Poe's home in Philadelphia!
In high school, I fell in love with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and my favorite poem was "The Raven." I read it over and over until I could recite it from memory with only 1 or 2 slip ups or pauses. Sadly, that astounding little feat never got me a high-paying job or impressed a raven-haired beauty enough to share her treasures with me so, with that absolute lack of reward and with the inevitable passage of time, the stanzas slipped away to some deep recess in my cranium. My fascination with ravens has lingered however. No, I'm not some fanatic Corvidologist nor do I have a collection of hundreds of little plastic, glass, or wooden ravens sitting upon shelves cluttering my home, but I have studied them and know a thing or two about them.

Raven statue outside Poe's home in Philadelphia.
Ravens have been both vilified and held in high esteem by various cultures throughout history. The raven is both the symbol of the sun and the symbol of a moonless night. She is the birth giving light in the center of our galaxy and the black hole in the center of the universe.

The raven has historically represented impurity, mortification, destruction, deceit, desolation and has been seen as an Omen; a bird of death, of mysticism and of magic. Ravens are carrion and the smell of death is so wonderful to them that when in passing over sheep and a tainted smell is perceptible, they cry and croak vehemently. It may be that in passing over a human habitation, if a sickly or cadaverous smell arises, they make it known by their cries, and so has risen the idea that the croaking of a raven is the premonition of death.

The first bird Noah sent out from the Ark to check on the receding flood waters was a raven. Noah got pissed at him for not coming back and sent out a dove who brought back the olive branch.

In Native American tradition, the raven is the guardian of both ceremonial magic and healing circles as well as the patron of smoke signals. Raven symbolizes the void - the mystery of that which is not yet formed. Ravens are symbolic of the Black Hole in Space, which draws in all energy toward itself and releases it in new forms. She is a messenger spirit, which Native American shamans use to project their magic over great distances. In many northwestern American Indian traditions, Raven is the Trickster, much like the Norse Loki. Observing ravens in nature, they are often seen stealing food from other animals, often working in pairs to distract the victim.

In the Norse shamanic tradition, ravens represent the powers of clairvoyance and telepathy, and they were guides for the dead.

In Beowulf, an Anglo Saxon poem, is written " . . . craving for carrion, the dark raven shall have its say, and tell the eagle how it fared at the feast, when, competing with the wolf, it laid bare the bones of corpses."

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lady Macbeth sees the raven as a herald of misfortune as it "croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan."

Tower of London Ravens from our trip
 to England in 2010.
In England, tombstones are sometimes called "ravenstones" and legend has it that failing to keep ravens at the Tower of London will mean the great White Tower will crumble and a terrible disaster shall befall England.

The Irish Celts associated the raven as the Chooser of the Slain as it flew over battlefields.

The Scottish Goddess of winter, The Cailleach, often appears as a raven. A touch from her brings death. 

Giving a child his first drink from the skull of a raven will give the child powers of prophecy and wisdom in the Hebrides and Scottish Highlanders associate ravens with the second sight.

With all of this somewhat interesting, yet ultimately totally useless trivia about ravens floating around in my head, you wouldn't really expect me to take a pass at laying eyeballs on a 12-foot raven now, would you?

The small town of Ravenden, Arkansas was established in 1883 along the banks of the Spring River. The original name was Ravenden Junction because of the large number of ravens found in the area and a proposed railway junction in the town, but when the railway plans fell through, “Junction” was dropped from the name.  The town has dwindled to about 511 residents and if the day I was there is any indication, the ravens have moved on as well.

For more than 100 years, Ravenden was a quiet little town with nothing at all to distinguish itself and most folks, even in Arkansas, had never heard of it. Then one fine day in 1991, members of the Ravenden Volunteer Fire Department were sitting around the coffee shop shooting the breeze and started talking about how New York City has the Statue of Liberty and St. Louis has the Gateway Arch. Bobby Clements proposed they build a big statue of a raven to represent Ravenden and seeing as how there was never much to do anyway, everyone decided it was a grand idea.
After holding a bingo party to raise funds, the group of volunteer firemen got to work on the statue. Enough money for concrete or steel wasn't available so using rebar wrapped in wire mesh, they created the skeleton of a bird and covered it with fiberglass.  And just like that, the town of Ravenden had something to crow about.

The proud 12-foot-tall raven in Ravendon.
In 1996, the raven statue was burned down by vandals. The criminals were never caught, but the community rallied behind the burned bird and replaced it with another one, also made of fiberglass. Unfortunately, just 2 weeks later, the evil-doers struck again and Raven 2 joined its predecessor in ashes.
Most towns would give up at this point and there would be nothing but a pair of charred claw stumps. Not the good folk of Ravendon though. Rising together once again and shouting "Nevermore!" the town vowed to create a more durable, fire-resistant model. This time they created a 12 foot tall Raven standing on top of a 2-foot-tall base, all made of concrete and stucco and covered in flame-retardant paint.  This latest version was constructed in 1996 and it endures to this day. Located near the intersection of US-63 and AR-90 in Ravenden, tourists don’t exactly flock to see it, but it does generate a lot of pride from the proud, persistent locals.

The Raven
Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!