Constellations of Words

Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

the Raven

Urania’s Mirror1825

1. Clues to the meaning of this celestial feature
2. The fixed stars in this constellation
3. History_of_the_constellation

Clues to the meaning of this celestial feature

Apollo gave a feast to Jupiter and requiring water sent the raven with a cup (Crater) to fetch some. On his way the raven noticed a fig tree, and, resting there until the figs became ripe, feasted himself upon them until, remembering his errand and fearing the anger of Apollo, he picked up a snake (Hydra) and on his return gave as an excuse that the hydra had prevented him from filling the cup by having kept the spring from flowing, this being the cause of the delay. The god was not deceived by the lie and ordained in punishment that the raven should never drink so long as figs were not ripe. Apollo placed the raven (Corvus), cup (Crater) and snake (Hydra) in the heavens as a memorial, where the Water-snake guards the water from the everlastingly thirsty Raven. Corvus now sits within sight of the Cup of water, but he can never drink.

“Oppian gives another explanation–that it likes living in stony, waterless regions; and it requires little sagacity to perceive that such a mode of life proves, not that it is always thirsty, but that it is never thirsty.” [Birds and Beasts

Another myth tells us that Corvus, the raven, was given a task by Apollo of keeping a watchful eye on Apollo’s pregnant lover Coronis (her name might relate to crow or crown, one of the Hyades in Taurus is named Coronis). The raven reported back to Apollo the unwelcome news that she was having an affair with someone else. Apollo in anger cursed the raven, and its color changed from its former silver hue to the present black. Corona was killed by Apollo’s sister Artemis. The unborn child of Coronis and Apollo was rescued and raised as Asclepius who is identified with Ophiuchus

Folklore involving ravens and crows has intermingled over time. The word ‘crow’ might relate to a different constellation.

Corvus is from Latin corvus, Greek korax, related to Swedish korp, Old High German hraban, Old Norse hrafn. The words Corvus and Raven comes from the Indo-European root *ker ‘Echoic root, base of various derivatives indicating loud noises or birds’. Derivatives: ring (from Old English hringan, to resound, clink), retch (from Old English hraecan, to clear the throat, relating to the deep guttural croak of the raven), raven (from Old English hraefn, raven, from Germanic *hrabnaz, raven), corbel, corbina, cormorant (literally, raven of the sea), corvine, Corvus, coracoid (korakias, chough), screech (from Old Norse skraekja, to shreik, from Germanic *skrekjan). [Pokorny 1. ker– 567. Watkins] The names Ingram (from Teutonic angil, ‘angel’, and hram, hramn, is a collateral form of hraban, ‘raven’), Bertram (from beraht, ‘bright’, and hram, hramn, raven). Klein supplies the Indian word kos, ‘the distance within which a man’s shout can be heard’. A corbel is a likely place for a crow to perch, a bracket projecting from the face of a wall and generally used to support a cornice or arch. Ravens are found at the top of the highest peaks.

In Norse mythology, the omniscient god Odin had a pair of ravens, Hugin (mind) and Munin (memory). They flew around the world every day to learn of the day’s news and then returned to Odin []. They sat on each of the god Odin’s shoulders (maybe on the coracoid bones), and informed him of everything that happens in the world. There are examples from Germany, India, Siberia, Iceland, and elsewhere where people are advantaged by speaking with these birds or eavesdropping on the conversation of ravens [].

These characteristics imply that these birds have something to do with; news, journalism, information, gossip.

“The raven gets its name, corvus or corax, from the sound it makes in its throat, because it utters a croak” [

The word raven is related to retch, from Old English hraecan, to clear the throat. Polish kruk, ‘raven’, krakac, ‘croak (like a raven)’, English croak []. The onomatopoeic deep, guttural croak of the raven.

The myth above tells how Apollo sends the Raven to fetch water (Hydra) in the god’s cup (Crater). The procrastinating Raven got back late because he waited for some figs to ripen before returning. Ravens, crows, and rooks, go ‘kraa kraa’ []. The call of the crow is a nasal caw compared to the deep, guttural croak of the raven, although both species have extensive and varied vocal repertoires []. The cawing of the ravens or crows was heard as “Cras! Cras!” by Latin speakers, and was thought to mean “Tomorrow! Tomorrow!” We get the word procrastination, “postpone until the morrow”, from Latin cras

When Typhon came rushing toward Olympus, the gods fled in terror to Egypt where they disguised themselves as animals; Apollo (Phoebus) became a raven.

Corvinus, winner of spoils and a name, aided in combat by a bird which hides beneath a bird’s exterior the godhead of Phoebus” [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD, p.67.]

The Corvinus Manilius refers to is Valerius Corvinus, a Roman politician. The story goes that he got the name ‘Corvinus’ when under attack by an enemy, a raven flew down from nowhere, perched upon Valerius’s helmet, and began to attack his foe. A title, referring to this incident, for Corvus, was “Pomptina, from the victory of Valerius when aided by a raven on the Pontine Marsh” [Allen, Star Names], the word ‘marsh’ is related to ‘maar’, a crater lake. There are a number of stories from different cultures about how ravens “aid in combat” with gods.

There are scientific studies on ravens and wolves associating in foraging strategy []. In the book Mind of the Raven, biologist Bernd Heinrich says ravens and wolves (Lupus) work in tandem: they rely on wolves to kill, and to open carcasses (which might be one of the reasons why wolves are described as ravenous?). Ravens have been reported to alert wolves to potential food sources and to danger. The Inuit believe ravens help them hunt caribou, polar bears and seals by dipping their wings in the right direction.

The name Bran, from Welsh Brân, from brân, raven, refers to gigantic Celtic god and ruler of Britain. After he was mortally wounded in battle his head was buried in London where it served as a protection against invaders [AHD]. Some believe the still-current practice of keeping ravens at the Tower of London is associated with this story of Bran []. Bran is an archetypal British Celtic hero, and it has been surmised that he is the root of the character known as the Fisher King from Arthurian romance [10]; Bron or Bran the Blessed. The raven brought the cup (Crater, also representing the Holy Grail) to Apollo. “Boron also says that it was the Rich Fisher, named Bron, who was the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, and that it was he who brought the Grail to Britain”. Hebrew Corban means a gift or votive offering for the god, also the name given to the Treasury of the Temple at Jerusalem [11]. Corbenic (also Carbonek and Corbin) is the name of the castle of the Holy Grail in the Lancelot-Grail cycle and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It is the domain of the Fisher King and the birth-place of Sir Galahad [12].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Corvus
Fixed Star Long 1900 Long 2000 Decl 2000 Lat 2000 RA Sp. Cl. Mag
Gienah (CRV) Gamma 09LIB20 10LIB44 -17.31 -14.29 12h15m B8 2.8
Minkar Epsilon 10LIB17 11LIB40 -22.36 -19.40 12h10m K3 3.2
Alchita Alpha 10LIB51 12LIB15 -24.44 -21.44 12h08m F2 4.2
Algorab Delta 12LIB04 13LIB27 -16.31 -12.11 12h29m A0 3.1
Kraz Beta 15LIB58 17LIB22 -23.22 -18.02 12h34m G4 2.8

The threefold constellationsHydraCorvusandCraterThe Witness of the Stars].

History of the constellation

from Star Names 1889, Richard H. Allen

Till, rising on my wings,

I was preferred

To be the chaste Minerva’s virgin bird.

— Joseph Addison’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Corvus, the Crow was the Raven in Chaucer’s time, and the Germans still have Rabe; but the French follow the Latins in Corbeau, as the Italians do in Corvo, and we in the Crow

Although now traversed by the 20th degree of south declination, 2000 years ago it lay equally on each side of the celestial equator. It contains only 15 naked-eye stars according to Argelander, — 26 according to Heis, — yet was a noted constellation with the Greeks and Romans, and always more or less associated with the Cup (Crater) and with the Hydra, on whose body it rests. Ovid said of this combination in his Fasti

Continuata loco tria sidera, Corvus et Anguis

Et medius Crater inter utrumque jacet;

but while always so drawn, the three constellations for a long time have been catalogued separately.

The Greeks called it Korae, Raven; and the Romans, Corvus. Manilius designating it as PhoeboSacerAles, and Ovid as PhoebeiusAles, mythology having made the bird sacred to Phoebus Apollo in connection with his prophetic functions, and because he assumed its shape during the conflict of the gods with the giants.

{Page 180} Ovid, narrating in the Metamorphoses the story of Coronis, and of her unfaithfulness to Apollo, [Note by Allen: It may be noted here that Apollo and Coronis were even still more closely connected with astronomy in being the parents of Aesculapius, who afterwards became the Serpent-holder Ophiuchus] said that when the bird reported to his master this unwelcome news he was changed from his former silver hue to the present black, as Saxe concludes the story:

Then he turned upon the Raven,

“Wanton babbler! see thy fate !

Messenger of mine no longer,

Go to Hades with thy prate!

Weary Pluto with thy tattle!

Hither, monster, come not back;

And — to match thy disposition —

Henceforth be thy plumage black !”

This story gave rise to the stellar title GarrulusProditor. Another version of the legend appears in the Fasti viz., that the bird, being sent with a cup for water, loitered at a fig-tree till the fruit became ripe, and then returned to the god with a water-snake (adjacent Hydra) in his claws and a lie in his mouth, alleging the snake to have been the cause of his delay. In punishment he was forever fixed in the sky with the Cup (Crater) and the Snake (Hydra); and, we may infer, doomed to everlasting thirst by the guardianship of the Hydra over the Cup and its contents. From all this came other poetical names for our Corvus — AvisFicarius, the Fig Bird; and Emansor, one who stays beyond his time; and a belief, in early folklore, that this alone among birds did not carry water to its young.

Florus called it AvisSatyra, the Bird of the Satyrs, and Pomptina, from the victory of Valerius when aided by a raven on the Pontine Marsh.

This bird and an ass appear together on a coin of Mindaon, which is interpreted as a reference to the almost simultaneous setting of the constellations Corvus and Cancer, for the ass always has been associated with the latter in the Onoi, or Asini [Asellus Borealis, and Asellus Australis], of its stars.

The Raven of Rome and Greece became AlGhurab in Arabia; but in earlier days four of its stars were AlArshalSimakalAzal, the Throne of the Unarmed One, referring to the star Spica. These naturally have been considered beta (Kraz), gamma (Gienah), delta (Algorab), and eta; but Firuzabadi, as interpreted by Lach, said that they were theta, kappa, psi, and ; and the same stars were AlAjzalAsad, the Rump of the ancient Lion (Leo). Other early titles for the whole were AlAjmal {Page 181} the Camel, and AlHiba’, the Tent; this last generally qualified by Yamaniyyah, the Southern, to distinguish it from that in Auriga. Instead of Ajmal, Hyde quoted, from the Mudjisat, Ahmal, or Hamal, the Ram, but this does not seem probable here.

As these stars were utilized by the Arabs in forming their exaggerated Asad (lion), so also were they by the Hindus in the immense Prajapati, of which they marked the hand, — this title being duplicated for Orion, and much better known for that constellation. The head of the figure was marked by Citra, our Spica, and the thighs by the two Vicakhas, alpha and beta Libra; while the Anuradhas, delta, and pi Scorpio, formed Praja-pati’s standing-place. Incongruously enough, they considered Nishtya, or Svati, — our star Arcturus, — as the heart; but as this was far out of the proper place for that organ, Professor Whitney substituted iota, kappa, and lambda Virginis of the manzil and sieu

The Avesta mentions a stellar Raven, Eorosch; but how, if at all, this coincided with ours is unknown; although Hewitt thinks that our Corvus, under the title Vanant, marked the western quarter of the earliest Persian heavens.

Nor is the reason for the association of Corvus with Hydra evident, although there is a Euphratean myth, from far back of classical days, making it one of the monster ravens of the brood of Tiamat that Hydra represented; and upon a tablet appears a title that may be for Corvus as the GreatStormBird, or BirdoftheDesert, to which Tiamat gave sustenance: just as Aratos described Korae; pecking the folds of the Hydra. The prominent stars of Corvus have otherwise been identified with the Akkadian; Kurra, the Horse.

The Hebrews knew it as ‘Orebh, or Orev, the Raven; and the Chinese, as a portion of their great stellar division the RedBird, while its individual; stars were an ImperialChariot ruling, or riding upon, the wind.

In later days it has been likened to Noah’s Raven flying over the Deluge, or alighting on Hydra, as there was no dry land for a resting-place; or one of those that fed the prophet Elijah; but Julius Schiller combined its stars with those of Crater in his Ark of the Covenant

Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]