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Crows and ravens are closely related birds of the family Corvus. In myth and legend the distinction is not always clear. Ravens, however, being bigger and more ominous looking, occur more frequently than crows.
(Above: Kyōsai - Crow on a Snowy Plum Branch)
A raven is sometimes seen as a bad omen, a representative of evil powers, as a mediate step between life and death, or even as a ghost of a dead individual, possibly a murdered one. But it can also be a vehicle of magic in a good sense. By the ancient Greeks, a raven was seen as a messenger of Apollo and a symbol of good luck. The Greeks also provide a story as to why the raven is black. According to legend, ravens where originally white, but Apollo, in fury over his lover's unfaithfulness, discovered by a raven he had sent for spying, scorched it and turned its feathers black.
Ravens occur on several occasions in Jewish and Christian traditions. They are mentioned numerous times in the Torah and the Bible, and in Talmud it is described how the raven was one of only three species that copulated on Noah's Ark. Allegedly, ravens also protected the dead body of the executed Vincent of Saragossa (later St. Vincent) from being devoured by wild animals before his followers could take care of his body.
The Qur'an also mentions a raven or crow in Surah Al-Ma'ida. The bird teaches Cain how to bury the body of the dead Abel. In 5:31 it says: "Then Allah sent a crow, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the dead body of his brother. 'Woe to me!' said he. 'Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?' Then he became full of regrets."
In Germanic-Norse culture, the god Odin is often shown with two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory), who served as his eyes and ears. They were sent out every morning to gather news.
It would be possible to continue like this. The legends of Celts, Ameroindians, Hindus, Chinese, etc. – they all feature ravens or crows in various roles. But let's return to where we started: a picture by Kyōsai. What is the role of crows or ravens in Japanese tradition?
In Japan there are two species of real crows, Carrion Crows and Jungle Crows. Both are very big and exist in large numbers, the former mainly in rural areas and the latter in cities. Although crows are a problem, they are useful, catching rats and other rodents. But crows occur in Japanese mythology as well, as far back in time as one can go, in the very dawn of Japanese culture.
In Kojiki, the oldest Japanese record, the creation myth of Shintoism and Japan, we meet Yatagarasu [八咫烏], the Great Crow. He is one of the first 3 gods in the creation myth of Shintoism. He was also sent to earth to guide Jimmu, the legendary first emperor.
In this triptych by Adachi Ginkô from 1891, we see the Emperor Jimmu, or Jinmu, watching the Great Crow in the sky. (Jimmu is the standing man with a bow.)
The other important occurrence of crows in Japanese legend has to do with Tengu.
Here is a triptych from 1863 by Kyōsai: Yoshitsune Training with the Tengu Sōjōbō.
Tengu is a type of Japanese folkloristic figure, a kind of kami (Shintogod) or yōkai. They are something in between birds and humans. Early portrayed with a beak, they nowadays usually have more human features with a long nose.
Sōjōbō is the King of Tengu. Allegedly he resides at Mount Kurama outside Kyoto. According to legend, he taught swordsmanship, magic and strategy to Minamoto no Yoshitsune (also known as Ushiwakamaru).
Minamoto no Yoshitsune is a historical person who really existed. He probably lived between 1159 and 1189, was the leader of the Minamoto clan, and is one of history's most famous samurai heroes.
Below, we have a triptych by Utagawa Kunitsuna from 1859: Ushiwakamaru training with the tengu. The man in red to the right is Sōjōbō, the king of Tengu.
Tengu come in two forms, the Crow Tengu [烏天狗], and the Yamabushi Tengu [山伏天狗]. Tengu have many supernatural abilities, such as shape-shifting, teleportation, and to appear in people's dreams. They protect Dharma, the Buddhist law, and punish priests and samurai guilty of vanity or arrogance. Below, we have Tengu and a Buddhist Monk, a painting by Kawanabe Kyōsai.
The oldest form of Tengu is the Crow Tengu. Originally it had a man's body but the head of a crow. It was basically evil. Today it serves more as a messenger of Yamabushi Tengu, who are fallen and punished priests and mountain ascetics (who become Tengu after their death), with the looks and robes of those, although they always have a long nose and sometimes wings.
(This article is partly based on material previously published in Meriondho Leo and in my e-book “The Promethean Fire”.)