Aside from my own family members, I was fortunate enough to have had two additional mentors to guide my practices. The second one, whose name was Maria, was the mother of a friend I had made while studying the Mayan temples and rain forests in Guatemala when I was 19. I was there for only a month or so, and I fell in love with the people, the history, the nature and the culture…. and especially the food….. ( I didn’t particularly enjoy having to shake out shoes, bedding, towels and clothing for black widows each day, but that’s another story for another time 😉 ).
But Maria welcomed me when I came back into the states. I remember the day clearly as though it were yesterday. Fresh off a plane and jet lagged, the cab pulled up to a small cottage on a back road three towns over from my own parents’ house. The town itself was named for the Mahopac Indians, which I found rather ironic once I learned this, but thought it was even more ironic that a “Powerful witch” lived in this town, (and so close to where I’d grown up) on a secluded dirt road in a cottage that could best be described as the one from Hanzel and Gretel (minus all the candy). A variety of wild, colorful late summer blooms lined the path to the large, oak front door, and the chimney was billowing smoke. It was early fall, and while in the day it was still warm and beautiful, the sunset brought with it the chill of the approaching season.
At the time, I think I was too tired to fully appreciate my surroundings, or make note of the wind chimes that hung at each and every window, particularly the ones made of bone, or that the flowers lining the walk way had actually been herbs. My initial plan was to go home and sleep for two days, but Maria had given explicit directions to go straight from the air port to her house. Knowing her now, I know it was her way of judging just how serious I was about my path. Physical fatigue and mental exhaustion was no match for determination and dire commitment as far as she was concerned. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity that I knew would not be there if I’d passed it up for two days of sleep, So I went.
The entire way there I’d wondered who this woman was that my friend called “Mother”. She must have been amazing. I pictured her in my mind’s eye as some kind of magnificent Goddess, dressed in black with long, flowing black hair, her wrists and fingers covered in gold. But when the door opened, An older, but beautiful and very well-kept woman with short, bottle-dyed auburn hair and glasses greeted me.
She wasn’t warm or terribly friendly. She didn’t ask to make sure I was who I said I was, nor did she ask me about my flight. She simply said, “Come in.”
My flight instincts kicked in but my curiosity got the best of me (I am, after all a Sagittarius) and I followed her inside. I was confused, really. She looked nothing like I’d imagined, heck, she didn’t even look like a witch! She wore Chanel No. 5 Perfume and some sort of purple velvet designer label jump-suit….. even her glasses were designer! Her makeup was flawless and her nails were perfectly manicured. Had she opened the door wearing cross bones, I might not have been so perplexed.
I followed her down a short hall and into the living room, rolling my suit case behind me and clutching a couple of books I’d purchased in the “New Age” section of the local book store before I left the country. We entered the first room to the left from the hallway, which was the living room. Her furniture was beautiful and floral. Her walls were covered in book shelves packed with books that had writing and symbols on the spine I didn’t recognize, small statuary and tribal masks. Then I saw the fire place, with a human skull resting atop the mantle. I stopped short and my eyes locked onto it.
“Is that thing real?” I asked. I probably sounded horrified, and maybe I was…a little. But I distinctly remember feeling shock and amazement at the same time, followed by the thought that maybe this was her previous student. The skull was old, and it had carvings, tiles and gems embedded at the top of it. I sat for a moment quietly watching it watching me watching it, until she broke the awkward silence with, “So, you are a witch?” while looking over at the books I held. I nodded. I just couldn’t speak. I was still busy staring at the skull. Who the hell has one of those in their home???
Then what she said next, broke my dazed concentration. “No, you’re NOT!” She sounded accusatory. I looked at her confused, but a bit too scared to challenge her. I didn’t know why, so few people actually make me nervous.
“I’m not?” I finally asked.
She shook her head. “Prove it to me.”
I was really confused now, and thought to myself that maybe I should have followed my first instinct to run. All the thoughts in my head turned into a jumbled mess as I scrambled to figure out just how I was supposed to prove this, when finally, I looked at her, pointed to the skull on the mantle and said, “Your friend there, he was a medicine man.”
Her eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open a little. Then she gained her composure, put her hands on her hips and said, “How do you know that?”
I shrugged my shoulders, looked at the skull and said, “Because he told me. He also told me you call him ‘Max’ “. I looked back at her and her mouth was open again.
She pointed at my books and said, “Those, throw them into the fire, right now!”
She was serious, and I didn’t dare challenge her. I’d decided upon that very request that I didn’t like this woman (mostly because Sagittarians don’t like being told what to do) but that I would go ahead and toss them into her fire (I could always pick up other copies later on).
I walked up to the fire place, held out the books and hesitated. Then, one by one, I tossed them into the flames.
I was startled by the sudden and loud “Cras! Cras!” sound of something at my side. I jumped away and looked over, and beneath one of the book shelves was a large iron cage and in it, the biggest black bird I’d ever seen in my life. It was a raven.
…..and then she said from behind me… “Now, you are a witch. Let’s get to work.”
I’d cast away my dislike for the woman right then and there and knew with certainty that not only was she the real deal, but she was classy and she was bad-ass.
I also had my first few crash-course lessons in witchcraft: The first, is that not all witches are tree-hugging hippies, some of them wear designer labels, eye liner and Chanel No. 5. The second, books meant absolutely nothing without practical, hands-on experience, thirdly, witches don’t often choose their familiars, their familiars choose them, and lastly, you haven’t known magick until you’ve looked into the hollow eyes of a human skull or the knowing darkness in the eyes of a Raven. At best, your own mortality is set firmly in your mind.
Maria’s father was an archaeologist, who brought his daughters with him on his travels. The girls passed their time while he worked by learning the culture and magick from varying tribes. By day, she was a dog groomer, running her own successful business in a high-end town. In secret, she was probably to this very day one of the most powerful practitioners I have ever met (aside from my first mentor, and great-aunt). How she came upon the raven, I’ll never know, except that he had chosen her and that one of his wings were so damaged that he would never fly again, and this was how she’d “found” him. But what she taught me about these birds, as well as crows, has never escaped my mind.
Firstly, the Raven is not the crow. Although they come from the same Corvinus family, these are two different birds, who each bring about their own meanings and lore.
Native Americans had great respect for this bird.
Black, to Native Americans, is a color of magickal power, and only to be feared if misused. Ravens symbolize the void – the mystery of that which is not yet formed. Ravens are also symbolic of the Black Hole in Space, which draws in all energy toward itself and releases it in new forms. The iridescent blue and green that can be seen in the glossy black feathers of the raven represents the constant change of forms and shapes that emerge from the vast blackness of the void. In Native American and many other tribal traditions, the Raven is the guardian of both ceremonial magick and healing circles and is also the patron of smoke signals. Of course, the context of the bird’s meaning can change significantly from culture to culture, how the bird appears to you (through visions or dreams) and what is presently transpiring in your life when the Raven makes its appearance to you in person. Ravens are also thought to be the guardians of graveyards and of the dead. Both crows and ravens have appeared in a number of different mythologies throughout the ages. In some cases these black-feathered birds are considered an omen of bad tidings, such as in Welsh folklore, the raven is an omen of death. If the raven makes a choking sound, it is a portent of the death rattle. A crying raven on a church steeple will “overlook” the next house where death will occur. A raven could smell death and would hover over the area where the next victim dwelt, including animals.but in other cultures and traditions they represent a message from the Gods or from Death or the Spirit World itself. Several southwestern tribes heralded the Raven as the bringer of light that escaped from the darkness of the cosmos. Thus, they associate this bird with creation because it brought light where there
was none. Other tribes looked upon this bird as a trickster or even a shape-shifter because of its high intelligence and ability to adapt to different situations.
Even today Native Americans say they are good signs and counter the effects of bad spirits, such as the owl. They are a sign that danger has passed and will bring good luck.
To invoke the Raven as a bird of prophecy, you can use the old English rhyme used to interpret omens by the number of ravens, crows, or rooks seen in a flock:
One for bad news,
Two for mirth.
Three is a wedding,
Four is a birth.
Five is for riches,
Six is a thief.
Seven, a journey,
Eight is for grief.
Nine is a secret,
Ten is for sorrow.
Eleven is for love,
Twelve – joy for tomorrow.
In most parts of the world the raven is considered a prophet and a bad omen. The Arabs call it Abu Zajir which means “Father of Omens.” In Ireland it was once domesticated for use in divination practices and the term “Raven’s Knowledge” was applied to the human gift of second sight.
The raven is a symbol for solitude and an attribute of several saints whom ravens fed in the wilderness, including St. Anthony Abbot, St. Paul the Hermit, and St. Benedict. Now, although the raven itself was considered unclean by many, in the Bible, God sent ravens to feed Elijah the Tishbite by the brook Cherith during a long drought (1 Kings 17:6; Leviticus 11:15; the Book of Deuteronomy 14:14). The raven has long been a symbol of divine providence (Psalm 147:9; Job 38:41). Many Christians remember God’s command to consider the sparrow and the lilies, but the words, “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them,” are seldom brought to mind (Luke 12:24). In the Song of Solomon, the Beloved’s locks are “black as a raven” (Song 5:11).
The raven symbolizes filial gratitude and affection, wisdom, hope, longevity, death, and fertility. In alchemy, it represents change and the advanced soul dying to this world.
Like the larger raven, the symbolic crow is associated with the sun, longevity, beginnings, death, change, bad luck, prophecy, and Christian solitude. It, too, is considered a messenger of the gods. Among ancient Greeks and Romans there were some who considered the crow a bad omen and the raven a good one.
White or albino crows were so prized that fowlers tried to change the color of their baby crows by soaking them in various deadly formulas. Among the Celts, the white crow was the emblem of the heroine, Branwen. Her heroic brother, Bran, was pictured as a raven. In North America, the Kiowas taught that the white crow turned black from eating snake eyes.
The crow is associated with motherly love and spiritual strength. It was believed that fairies turned into crows in order to cause trouble. In heraldry, a crow was used to indicate a dark person such as a Moor or a Saracen. In Egypt, two crows, like two doves, were an emblem of monogamy.
Raven’s element is air, and she is a messenger spirit, which Native American shamans use to project their magic over great distances. Because they fly high toward the heavens, they can take prayers from the people to the heavens and, in turn, bring back messages from the spiritual realm.
In Earth Magick, these birds’ feathers are used in spells, ceremonies and rituals to promote change. They are often used as a catalyst to help focus concentration while carrying out spells and wishes. Since these birds’ element is air, as are their feathers. Depending upon which bird the feather came, as well as its place of discovery is a determining factor in how you would use its feather in magick. About a year ago I was feeling a little blue and missing my father who passed in 2008. I took a drive out to the property where he kept his business, which also happened to be on the property my grandfather lived. I was saddened by the ruins that were once my grandfather’s house. The whole face of the house had collapsed among the trees and other fauna that had grown in and around it, exposing a closet with clothing still hung. I walked to the back of the property where my father spent most of his time. I stood quietly reflecting on the times we had, how much I still loved him, and how terribly I was missing him at that moment. He had always been my protector.
It began to rain, hard. While it was overcast most of the day, I certainly wasn’t expecting the sky to open up. A part of me wanted to believe that it was his way of telling me he missed me too, and just as I was turning to walk back to my car, I noticed a large black feather. It was his gift of continued protection to me, and today that feather is part of my smudging fan. The only other feather that makes up my smudging fan is a giant Hawk feather. You see, a pigeon feather is not as helpful in creating a defense than a feather that came from a bird of prey, or a bird who is seen as opportunistic or connected to the spirit world. Follow my drift? 😉
The raven was Maria’s protector. Between the bird and the skull, she had open access and a revolving door to the spirit world, of which she worked intensely with (this experience was also my first taste in Necromancy). She never asked of the bird what it did not freely give. After all, the bird chose her. And so if she needed one of his feathers, she would patiently wait for him to shed one. I have taken the same consideration into my own practices. I will NOT purchase feathers, because the chances of the bird who gave them paying for them with their life by a horrible, unjust death is very likely. Instead, like Maria, I wait patiently until I happen upon one (in my case, usually several). Last year I had a red-tailed hawk enjoy its fresh kill on my outside altar. It left a few feathers behind when it flew away, (a fair exchange in my book–not to mention profoundly symbolic that the Gods have just blessed and made sacred the space in which I honor and worship them–just as whenever I take something of nature I give something back, as that is the unspoken law of the Earth). Today, I have roughly two hundred feathers from crows, ravens, hawks and other birds in my collection, cruelty free, and you can too, by getting yourself in out there in the great out-doors and looking. All kinds of natural, wondrous gifts abound!
Photo Credit: http://daarnautova.tumblr.com