Pre-production: culture

Science and technology alone do not provide the basis for an artwork. Art is created within a cultural context and corvids have long been symbolic to us.

Birds and humans have co-evolved and in the process, they’ve beceom symbolic to us. They’ve been a source of food, entertainment, messengers, tricksters, omens, and even status symbols within various cultures.

I’m not alone in my fascination with birds. Artists across time and the world have documented birds in art for centuries. So, where does my work fit in this picture?

Australian Indigenous culture

Australian raven – wandyu, waagan
Little crow – wagura
‘many crows’ – waagan-galang
‘cry like a crow’ – waangarra

–  Wiradjuri language dictionary

The cultural focus of Eye of the Corvus: Messengers of Truth has to date been trying to find stories of corvids within the stories of Aboriginal culture – particularly the Central and Western areas of NSW – those of the Wiradjuri, Wailwan, Kamilaroi and the immediate surrounding areas. I’ve found documentation of these stories in Western Australia and Victoria, but having spoken to several Wiradjuri elders over the past year, with extensive Indigenous cultural knowledge, I’m yet to find a ‘crow’ story that isn’t localised to one family or is contemporary i.e. crows stealing golf balls and hiding them in hollow trees. I’m hopeful this is simply a matter of finding the right community of knowledge. I’d love to hear from anyone who might have these stories.

It appears generally understood the crow or raven is culturally significant in Indigenous culture, such as their sacred role as spirit messengers, Dreamtime stories of how crows became black (three version of the story here #1, #2, #3), and having a yin and yang relationship with cockatoos – interesting as I watch the two interact in my chicken pen each afternoon at feed time…something I’d hardly describe as harmonious.

Contemporary Australian culture

While considered sacred to Aboriginal people, crows have been considered fair game by white Australian land managers since colonisation. (Note the link here references the house crow, which is the non-native crow and considered a pest species. The language in this post is consistent with how many feel about our native corvids, many of them excluded from the protection afforded other native species.) I spent time in my childhood, growing up on a farm, assisting with crow poisoning programs, as they were considered barbaric killers of new-born lambs. I can’t remember anyone in my immediate circle who liked them. Unfortunately, I know people who still shoot them today simply because they don’t like the sound they make.

Despite human impact on the environment in Australia and how little they’re valued, Australian corvids appear to have thrived, even adapting to our man-made environments.

Norse mythology

“May ravens cleave your heart asunder”
– Poetic Edda

I’ve also been looking at the place of corvids in Icelandic culture, as significant in their ‘indigenous’ ancient Norse mythology as it is here in Aboriginal culture. Norse god, Odin is sometimes referred to as the Raven God, as his ravens Huginn and Muninn flew around the world gathering information, relaying it to Odin. Again, this role of being ‘messengers’ arises. They were also seen as instruments of divine punishment. Perhaps, this violent association with pagan gods is the origin of the Christianised, western world’s fear and dislike for the birds?

There’s also been a nod to corvids in Celtic mythology and English history, something I’ve had an interest in since my teens. After all, this is part of my heritage, along with some Germanic/Teutonic and Jewish history, where there’s some thought the raven (in the story of Noah and Ark) comes to represent the ‘mixture’ of good and evil.

However, modern Iceland appears to have a similar attitude towards the raven, the emblem of the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, as we do in Australia. So much so, the bird is now listed as vulnerable on the Icelandic Red List of Birds.

Popular culture

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!”
– Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

More contemporary, popular culture (and I use this loosely to start with) has its fair share of corvid references and symbolism too – from references to ravens in Shakespeare’s Othello and Macbeth, Edgar Allan Poe’s supposedly Charles Dicken’s inspired The Raven – which has been the inspiration for adaptations and parodies over decades, to J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit (1937), George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and the subsequent TV series, Game of the Thrones. All depicting complex, intelligent creatures who might be viewed as indeed, a mix of of good and evil.

So, with all this storytelling over centuries, where are we today? In an increasingly secular society not given to omens from the gods, can we trust in what the messengers of truth might tell us about the world we live in?

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