Wondrous animals abound in the tales of northern Europe: Fenrir, a malevolent wolf who devours the hand of one of the gods; Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse; and Jörmungand, the serpent that encircles the world and that ultimately kills Thor in the battle of Ragnarök, the defeat and death of the gods.
Perhaps because I have been studying crows and ravens for nearly forty years and feel they perch deservedly on the top branches of avian evolution, my favorite animals in the northern stories are two ravens, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory. Odin taught them how to speak and so every morning, they soar out into the world, returning at dusk to perch on his shoulders and advise him on what they have learned.
In my painting they appear to travel into both the past and the future. The knowledge they bring back to Odin gives him Awareness, but not, unfortunately, the power to change the course of events. In the universe of the northern gods, as well in our own world, nothing– not even our gods– is more powerful than Fate.
Mandalas, Monks and Ravens
All through the night the storm exhales clouds
of snow. At dawn a cloister of ravens in their
feathered cassocks pace like monks and croak
their corvid versions of Gregorian chant until
I and the two dogs emerge into the meadow from
a grove of cedars. Then they drift up into the
bare branches of the oaks to watch the dogs
chase each other in circles around the crow-footed snow.
For the past twenty winters Tibetan monks in maroon
and saffron robes have flown from the other
side of the world to spend two weeks in our small
town in California to bring Enlightenment.
In a former church they hunch for days above
a felt-covered table to craft a symbolic wheel out
of grains of colored sand. They rub slender metal
cones from which fall tiny flakes of stone: salmon
pink, ebony, tangerine, cerulean blue, fluorescent
green and rose in an ever-widening circle that
reflects the cosmic forces of the universe concentrated
into a single point of consciousness in our
little town on the Western edge of North America.
A few blocks away from the church in the warmth and laughter
of a restaurant my friend Alessya and I ignore the clatter
of plates and silverware and watch the falling snow bury
the last remnants of January. Two ravens regard us from the
cornice of the hotel across the street as we nibble at the
remnants of our fish and chips except for French fries she
doesn’t want to eat. Instead she offers them to me
because “your smelly dogs will probably like them.”
Hours later daylight darkens and the snow stops falling.
The dogs sleep at home in bliss by the wood stove.
Ravens watch from high oak branches as I trudge
through drifts into the center of the meadow to
slowly craft a circle of Alessya’s soggy fries—
amber-colored spokes in a cold white wheel.
The birds wait until I disappear into the dusk beneath
the cedar boughs, then they drop one by one into
the circle of potatoes leaving me to wonder if the
monks from Tibet would be more amused by my
mandala or by the foolishness of a man attempting
to enlighten ravens, who—of all the creatures on
this wide earth– are least in need of it.
© J.M. Keating, 2018