Ravens at the Tower of London
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
"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.'"
~ Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven, 1845
Guess who? It's the raven! Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem, "The Raven," published today in 1845, paints the raven in a foreboding sinister light. However, ravens are one of the most intelligent animals, and have been observed playing by sliding down roofs, playing "keep away" with other animals, and making toys out of sticks, pinecones, and rocks! They also can imitate human speech, use a variety of "hand" signals with their beak, and roam around in teenage gangs!
The Raven's Dance
Ravens are one of the most intelligent of birds and figure prominently in the folklore of many cultures.
Some famous ravens are residents at the Tower of London. Their presence is traditionally believed to protect The Crown and the Tower; a superstition holds that "if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it." The earliest known reference to captive ravens at the Tower is an illustration from 1883.
Historically, wild ravens were common throughout Britain, even in towns, the Tower being within their natural range. When they were exterminated from much of their traditional range, including London, they could only exist at the Tower in captivity and with official support. The Tower ravens are tended to by an official Ravenmaster. Local legend puts the origin of the captive raven population at the time of King Charles II (reigned 1660–85).
The earliest legend that connects the Tower with a raven is the Welsh tale of the War against the Irish leader Matholwch who had mistreated the princess Branwen. Branwen's brother Brân the Blessed (King of the Britons) ordered his followers to cut off his head and bury it beneath The White Hill (upon which the Tower now stands) facing out towards France as a talisman to protect Britain from foreign invasion!
Brân is the modern Welsh word for raven and the magical and protective qualities of ravens are attested throughout Celtic mythology. The knowledge that Brân's head was buried beneath the White Hill would have served as protective reassurance in the Celtic tradition, just as modern ideas about the presence of ravens does.
For more about the Tower of London's special ravens, click the 1883 illustration. And to see the dance performed by the Tay Dancers scroll below!