Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories | Annotated Tale

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Why does the raven feed on carrion?

The Story of Noah and the Raven.

The Rumanian story about the raven is more or less the well-known story of the raven in Noah's ark as told in the Bible. But it has not reached the people in that simple ungarnished form. It has been embellished with legends. Those found among the Rumanian peasants agree in the main with those told by oriental writers and found in "historiated" Bible's--that great treasure-house of legendary Biblical lore and the depository of many of the legends of the past.

It is important to see how stories, the literary origin of which cannot be doubted, have penetrated among the people and have become actual popular legends. We can almost trace the way which they have come. And this lends a special value to such popular Biblical legends.

The story runs as follows:

THE raven was originally a bird with white feathers. When Noah sent out the raven to find out how things were in the world, the raven espied the carcase of a horse floating on the waters which had begun to subside. Forgetting his errand, the raven settled on the carcase and started eating, and he continued eating for three days and three nights. He could not get satisfied; only at the dawn of the fourth morning did he remember the errand on which he had been sent, and started on his return. When Noah saw him at some distance, he cried, "Why hast thou tarried so long, and what is thy message, and how does the world without look?"

               The raven, unabashed, replied, "I do not know anything about the world and how things are going; I only know that I was very hungry, and finding the dead body of a horse, I sat down and ate, and now that I have had my fill, I have come back."

               When Noah heard this answer from the raven, he grew very angry, and said, "Mayest thou turn as black as my heart is within me," for his heart had turned black from anger and fury. And from that minute the raven's feathers turned as black as coal. And Noah went on saying, "As thou hast fed on carrion, so shalt thou feed henceforth only on the dead bodies of animals and beasts."

               And in order that the ravens should not multiply too quickly, it was ordained that they should lay their eggs in December and not hatch them until February, for only then, when the frost is so strong that even the stones burst, does the shell of the raven's eggs split, and the young are able to come out and be fed by their parents, for they are unable to hatch them unless they are aided also by a hard frost, which causes the shells to break. Otherwise, if they had laid their eggs in the summer and hatched them in the summer, like other birds, they would grow so numerous that people would not have been able to defend themselves from the raven.

               Moreover, the raven, when sent by Noah, saw only the peaks of the mountains, and those have remained to this very day the real haunt of the bird. They only nest in very high crags and peaks of mountains, and never in villages.


Thus far the legend, which occurs in many variants. The raven, whose peculiar appearance is well known, has become the bird of oracle par excellence. There are a large number of treatises on the augury of the raven, notably in the Arabic literature, some of which are traced back to Indian originals. As for the part which the raven has played in Northern mythology, it is sufficient to mention the ravens of Odin, not to speak of the Biblical legend according to which the raven fed the prophet Elijah. (Another interpretation of the word in the Bible changes the raven into Arabians, who fed the prophet in his hiding-place.) There are some Rumanian popular beliefs connected with the raven which I will mention here.

               If two or three ravens fly over a village and croak, it is a sure sign that there will be death in the village.

               If two ravens, one coming from the north and one coming from the south, meet over the roof of a house, it is a sure sign of the death of one of the inmates of the house.

               It is an old saying that if ravens are seen flying in a great number in one direction, it is a sure sign of plague or some death among beasts and men.

               If ravens croak over a flock of sheep, the shepherds keep a double watch, for they believe the ravens foretell an inroad by wolves or other wild beasts.

               If a raven, meeting a herd of cattle, croaks, the Rumanian responds, "May it be on thy head, thy feathers and thy bones," for he believes that one of his animals will die and become food for the raven.

               And, if one raven is seen flying over the head of a man and continues to do so for a while, it is a sign of the death of that man.

               It is generally assumed that the ravens fly in pairs, and the appearance of one alone is therefore ominous.

               These few examples will suffice. They stamp the raven as the bird of ill-omen.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Why does the raven feed on carrion?
Tale Author/Editor: Gaster, Moses
Book Title: Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories
Book Author/Editor: Gaster, Moses
Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1915
Country of Origin: Romania
Classification: unclassified

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