Skip to content

“The crow, a cultural history”: Friendly or fatal: the crow, a cultural bird!


Nothing is more familiar than a raven… Although the European Common Raven, whose weight can exceed 2 kilos and whose wingspan can approach 2 metres, is no longer very common in our countryside.

And for good reason ! Since the High Middle Ages and the Christianization of Europe, this friend of men, messenger of the gods, deliverer of omens, has become the enemy of God for having preferred to delight in carrion at the exit of Noah’s ark rather than to announce dry land. The dove “did the job”, and everything becomes clear: the crow has become the bird of all the vilest behavior, and the dove, the messenger of hope.

In this very erudite essay, Michel Pastoureau, historian of colors and animals, traces the thread of our representations of the crow in European societies, from ancient Greece to Hitchcock, and his famous film The birds (1963), written, for the record, on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, from 1952.

And everything lights up! In a chronological and abundantly illustrated approach, the historian explains how the Raven becomes, for us Europeans, impious, pursued, caricatured as a messenger or companion of death – except for a few cultural enclaves, in Northern Europe and in the East. of France – Vosges, Jura, Alps.


There are two approaches to designating the qualities of this book.

First, the formal quality: beautiful writing, elegant and simple, very accessible; a beautiful matte coated paper; very beautiful and relevant illustrations from the iconographic archives, archaeological pieces, rare books – rich hours, psalters, bibles, from the finest collections.

And the intellectual approach: what a pleasure to see thus dissected our representations of this bird which was so familiar – become rare in the French countryside, and often confused with the crow, the rook, or the jackdaw (with the astonishing blue eyes!).

In fact, we learn a lot of things thanks to a clear and very documented analysis. And we understand why the crow has such a bad image today – Christianity having chosen (with a few exceptions) to make it a fatal and bad-omen bird – to fight the divination that was made of it by the peoples of the north, Angles and Saxons.

In this cultural aspect, we must not fail to underline the persistence of these negative representations, in cinema (fantasy, horror and “gore”), music, painting, literature and poetry – the romantics having made the harbinger of death and despair.

And for the record, the designation of “raven” for a whistleblower (we remember the GrĂ©gory affair in 1984) originates from the fact that during a hunt, where the hunted animal (often a fox ) escaped his pursuers, the flight of the crow followed his escape, denouncing to the hunters the direction of the fugitive!!


There is no ornithological description – no “natural” history – of the crow in this beautiful book. As brief as it was, it would have been welcome. Also note, but this is not a reservation strictly speaking, the author does not address in these pages the question of the representation of the crow in cultures overseas or “outside the Urals”, American, Asian, African etc. .


I recently finished the column of Jimmy Bluefeather (, an “initiatory” novel where it is a question of going back to basics and remembering of the totem raven of the Tlingit, one of the first peoples of the west coast of Alaska. The main character invites his grandson to look at a crow’s feather: “Turn the feather the right way and you will see a light, a little day in the night, a little blue in the dark.” The whole cultural history of the crow rests in this ambiguity. Black for some, a very beautiful deep blue under certain lights for others.

The Raven was above all a victim of his intelligence which defies, at all times, humans. The exegesis of the Bible and the Gospels made by the Fathers of the Church for centuries delivers a real analysis of the transformation of his image into an evil bird. As Michel Pastoureau says it in conclusion, the common raven demonstrates an intelligence that is sometimes superior to the great apes. If, of course, the intellectual foundations of an unjust condemnation are “dismantled” with erudition, for many of us, it remains, by deep cultural impregnation, “a bird of misfortune”. This does not make it any less a useful and fascinating book!


– “Celebrated by ancient mythologies, venerated by the peoples of Northern Europe, the raven depreciated at the same time as the religion of Christ spread, of which it remained a rival in certain regions until advanced dates.” P.80

– “For our bird, it is a pity that La Fontaine’s fable, due to its immense circulation, has eclipsed all other sources, both ancient and modern, and imposed the laughable image of a boastful and narrow-minded crow. This does not correspond in any way to ancient traditions, nor to the real behavior of the bird, nor does it correspond to the most recent investigations into animal intelligence: all highlight the very extensive cognitive capacities of the crow.” (P.109


Michael Pastoureau is a historian specializing in symbolism, particularly animal. His thesis, defended in 1972, focused on The medieval heraldic bestiary. Professor and Director of Studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, he directed the chair of history of Western symbolism there. Heraldry, colors, animals and their symbolism hold a large place in his very fertile literary work, translated into thirty languages. On the animal theme, and in the same collection at Le Seuil as The crowMichel Pastoureau has published a book on The wolf and one on The bull.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.