Symbol of the Great Work: the Raven
Animals appear in great numbers in Greek mythology. Following Greek poets, sculptors, historians, and philosophers who expressed, and reflected upon, their myths and stories, we know Aphrodite’s chariot was pulled by swans, Hecate was the mistress of dogs and hounds, Poseidon, the master of horses, and Zeus, the great shape-shifter, was associated with the eagle, the bull, the snake, etc. As many comparative studies of mythology demonstrate, these symbolic relationships between animals and divinities are far from being arbitrary; they speak through deeply rooted human ways of relating to nature, and to divinity.
To approach the Gods and Goddesses, one can of course use offerings and perfumes, but magical images and symbols are also useful and fruitful to explore as ways to connect with, and invoke, divinities. Animal symbols can be used to this very end as representations on talismans, consecrated statues, and mental projections. Moreover, not only are these symbols allowing one to effectively approach a divinity, but they also belong to a larger hermetic language describing in lively fashion the dynamics of the Regeneration of the Soul.
The raven shares many important qualities in ancient mythologies across the globe. In the Greek and Roman tradition, it has mostly been a symbol of communication between the worlds, but also, as you will see below, of the darkness expressing the first steps of the Great Work.
Pindar and Ovid wrote on the raven. Pindar was a Greek poet from the 5th century BCE devoted to Apollo. Ovid, a Roman poet from the 1st century BCE, is one of the greatest authors of Western history as his works remained popular and influential in European culture from Antiquity to the late Renaissance. Pindar and Ovid told the myth of the raven through the story of Coronis. The first does so in his Pythian Odes, and the second, in his Metamorphoses.
The two accounts of the myth are fairly similar. The raven was once sacred to Apollo his master. In these times, according to the poets, the bird’s feathers were of a bright snow-white color. Coronis, a Thessalian princess, was Apollo lover. The raven caught a glimpse of her being unfaithful to the God by laying with another man. Wanting to serve Apollo well, and demonstrate his loyalty, the bird flew back to tell his master. Apollo, upon hearing the raven, went in an unusual rage. Angry at Coronis, he put his lyre and crown of laurels aside, bent his bow, and shot his lover.
Coronis, hit, slowly took the arrow off her heart, and as she was dying, told the God he should have waited for their child to be born before avenging her offence. Filled with sorrows and regrets for his love, Apollo tried every cure and every divine secret he knew to bring her back to life, but it was in vain. As the princess’ body burned on a pyre in her kingdom, Apollo finally managed to save the fruit of their union, the yet unborn child who would be known as Asklepios, the God of medicine.
Apollo took the child to the wise Chiron. He then looked at the raven, and as a punishment for his excessive zeal, turned the white of his plumage to darkness.
A STUDY IN SYMBOLISM;
Many symbolic elements appear in this short myth. Keeping our eyes on the raven, we know he was for Ovid Phoebeia ales, or bird of Apollo. Moreover, the raven was a messenger, and a white bird turned black. This latter characteristic is fruitful if considered in relation with the death, and burning, of Coronis, and the birth of Asklepios.
To these elements, we should also add that the raven appears in Mithraic cults where he was associated with Hermes. Korax, or raven, was the first of seven Mithraic initiations, and it was related to Mercury. It is the reason why, to this day, the Ecclesia Ogdoadica honours Hermes with the image of a raven on the floor of its Temples.
Birds in general, and especially those with dark plumage, were often used to represent the souls of mortals in ancient Greek poetry and art. Upon death, it was thought Chthonic Hermes would charm one
soul with his sacred wand. The soul would take the form of a dark bird, and follow Hermes in Hades, and beyond. The raven, as did the swift and volatile God, enabled passage between the worlds.
The raven appears in an interesting engraving from Salomon Trismosin ; Aureum Vellus , a 16th century alchemical text. The reader is presented with the image of a young man climbing a ladder to reach a bird hiding in a tree. What is notable is that there are many white birds in the tree, and a dark one, a raven. The latter is precisely the bird the young man is trying to reach for.
Why would the alchemist searching for the stone, or universal medicine, prefer the black bird to white ones? In Pindar’s and Ovid’s story, I argue, the raven is made black as a testimony of the death of Coronis, but also, of the birth of Asklepios. In the alchemical tradition, itself drawing from classical literature, the raven is the sign of the Magnum Opus, and more specifically, of the confirmation of being on the path of return. The raven is, in other words, the sign of Hermes as the master of magic and its cognates.
In ancient Greece, the Temenos was the space of a sanctuary where the divinities were honored. In Houses of the Aurum Solis, it is the name we give to the sacred space where rites (1st and 2nd Halls) of the Order are performed. On the floor of this space one finds, at the East, three steps. The first one, at ground level, is black; the second one, white; and the third and final one, red. Bear this in mind when reflecting upon the magical and hermetic symbolism of the raven, but also, of the spiritual process of regeneration as a whole.
In alchemical language, it is said that the raven appears in the alchemist’s vessel as a muddy, but secretly rich, dark substance. The appearance of this substance confirms the success of the first step of the Great Work: the calcination process. This first step is the putrefaction of the prima materia, or subject of the work, by a repeated and constant fire. It transforms the matter back to a dark earth as rich as the black soils of Egypt where, as mentioned in the Orphic Hymns, Apollo came from.
As stated in the Tabula Smaragdina, the power of the First Father, is made perfect when properly converted to earth. Even more so, it results in the separation of two spiritual principles from this initial darkness: the Mercury, and the Sulphur. These are sometimes represented by a unicorn, and an elk, or lion, and are said to be feminine and masculine. This separation takes place in one and the same vessel (one own being), meaning that both principles are in an ongoing intimate and dynamic relation throughout the production of the universal medicine. The road to adepthood is the proper harmonization of these principles, and the realization of one divine self.
The raven, as the creation of this initial dark and muddy substance; an idea which parallels, in some ways, the first few lines of the Poimandres when one sees an immense being of light producing a dark substance where the elements are slowly, and progressively, harmonized. Meditating on these passages, whether in relation to alchemical symbolism or not, is always fruitful for Theurgists.
Going back to the Aureum Vellus, why should the aspirant to the mysteries search for a black bird instead of white ones?
Well, simply ask the raven. Hermes is not only the God of secrets who seals and conceals, he is also the messenger of sacred discourses, and the volatile key to our works.