Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Thursday, 11 November 2010

NIGHT-RAVENS - OR WHAT'S IN A NAME?


The terrifying nattravnen or night-raven of southern Swedish folklore (Richard Svensson)


What, if anything, is a mysterious winged creature known as the night-raven?

The answer to this question depends upon whether you are investigating it from an ornithological, cryptozoological, or zoomythological standpoint - because three entirely different creatures all share this same intriguing name.

In Norway, the nattravn ('night-raven') is simply a name given to the European nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus or goatsucker. End of story.

Conversely, the night-raven that appears in English literature is a much more diffuse subject. It was a certain William Shakespeare who penned the following tantalising lines: “The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;” (3 King Henry VI, V.vi.47), and “I had as lief have heard the night-raven, come what plague could have come after it.” (Much Ado About Nothing, II.iii.81). Equally, in his The Faerie Queene (II.vii.23), Edmund Spenser wrote: “And after him the owles and night ravens flew, the hateful messengers of heavy tidings,”. And according to John Lyly in his play Sappho and Phaon (1584), the owl’s shriek and the night-raven’s croak were fatal. But what is the night-raven, this ill-omened bird that appears in such esteemed works of literature yet is singularly absent from any comparably notable ornithological tome?

Several identities have been offered, including the nightingale (even though its famously musical, uplifting song hardly corresponds to the night-raven’s hoarse croak of doom), the afore-mentioned European nightjar, the bittern, various species of owl, and even the night heron (curiously, the latter’s scientific name is indeed Nycticorax – ‘night crow’ – although it shares no resemblance with any corvine bird). However, as elucidated by Edward Armstrong in The Folklore of Birds (1958), it is most likely that the night-raven is of mythological rather than ornithological status, deriving from Norse legends in which the raven is identified with Odin who in turn became identified with the Wild Hunt tradition, featuring spectral hunters riding through the sky at night with a pack of howling dogs – which in literature are extensively associated with the night-raven.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating member of the night-raven trio, however, is the mythological nattravnen ('night-raven') of southern Sweden. I first learnt of this extraordinary entity from Swedish cryptozoological artist Richard Svensson, whose wonderful illustration of it heads my present blog. On 2 October 2008, in response to a request of mine for information concerning it, I received the following detailed account from Richard, who kindly permitted me to publish it if I so wished, and which I am therefore delighted to do here, for the very first time anywhere:

"Nattravnen is found in the folklore of Sweden’s two southernmost regions, Skåne and Blekinge. It’s not very well known in general Swedish folklore, and it’s not considered a mystery beast per se, like the Lake Storsjö monster, for example. It’s called Nattravnen in Skåne and Leharven in Blekinge. The name “Nattravnen” is said to mean “the night raven”. Leharven is a more dubious name. “Le” is an old word for bodily joint (and I’ll get back to why that’s a part of its name). Nattravnen is seldom described in detail, but it is a bird-like monster, sometimes said to be dark in colour, but without any feathers. It belongs to a special group of monsters called “grimmar”. Grimmar are supernatural animals that cannot be killed by any normal weapons. They are either ghosts of animals or beasts created by sorcery.

"Nattravnen flies around during the night and is said to devour any lonely wanderer on the roads. But the monster was also dangerous in another way. If you looked up just as it passed the moon or when its body was illuminated by the moon rays, you would be able to see the skeleton (and its joints) through the creature’s thin hide. This was a very bad thing and the sight would render you horrible pains. Mostly you would fall terribly ill and vomit blood or get blood in your urine for at least a week.

"There is an old story from Blekinge concerning Lake Halen, where in old times a flying monster lived. This creature is not actually identified as Leharven, but it appears to have many similar traits. According to legend it resembled a vulture, but without any feathers. When returning to the lake it would not perch in a tree, but dive down under the water and disappear. In the 1970’s a local school adopted the creature as their mascot and dubbed it “Halengamen”, “the Halen Vulture”.

"If I’m not totally mistaken this aquatic connection rings a bell concerning the African “Kongamato”. And the feature about getting ill from watching the flying beast also seems familiar, from something in the West Indies, perhaps.

"There’s also a folktale about a giant vulture sweeping down and grabbing an oxen in an area of Blekinge called Jämshög. The name is said to be derived from “Gamshög” =”Vulture’s Peak”, a hill where the creature is said to have been observed seen sitting. This tale is generally considered as a tall-tale, with no real etymological verification to the name of Jämshög. It’s still interesting as a Swedish counterpart of the American “Thunderbird” tales.

"I’ve done two illustrations of Nattravnen, where I’ve chosen to depict it as very pterodactyl-like."

From a Norwegian goatsucker and a corvid of Odin to a monstrous Swedish neo-pterodactyl - who would ever have guessed that a name as innocuous as 'night-raven' could have conjured forth such a dramatic diversity of creatures real and imaginary?

3 comments:

  1. The anecdote about the moonlight backlit revealing it's skeleton reminds me of an almost identical scene in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World", where one of the characters sees a pterodactyle fly across the moon, which illuminates its body, showing it's skeleton. Maybe this is yet another literatic reference to the night raven?

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  2. An interesting post! Folklore from a part of my country that I rarely visit. But Mr Svensson’s interpretation of le to mean joint seems to be driven by an agenda.

    Le is a dialect form of led, which of course means joint – but as any Swede knows, it also means loathsome. (Etymologically it is the cousin of English loath.) For example, we call the Devil den lede (the loathsome one), lekatt (loathsome cat) is a word for stoat, etc. When le shows up in a monster name, it obviously means loathsome and has nothing to do with joints.

    Svensson’s agenda seems to be to make this creature into a pterosaur, and that’s why he twists the Swedish language so. However, I think it is very far-fetched that someone in naming a pterosaur would emphasize its joints, of all things, so I hope we can all agree to drop this ”joint-raven” idea altogether.

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  3. I've just received the following fascinating email regarding the Swedish night-raven tradition:

    Hi.
    My name is Håkan Lindh, and I just read your article abort the Night-Raven. As I myself live in “Night-Raven county“, I thought I should add a few details.
    The creature is also known from my region, Halland, that is along the westcoast north of Skåne. Both Skåne,Halland and Blekinge were Danish up till the eighteenth century, so the folklore here differs sometimes from the rest of the country.
    In Halland it is spelled Nattram, ”ram” being an older form for raven that is still in use in Danish. Here the creature is a part of beliefs related to ghosts. The story goes that if a person got murdered and buried in a hidden grave, you needed to put a stake through him just to keep him from start haunting. The harder the wood the better, since the stake would hold him until it rotted away. But when it was gone, the dead person would reappear as Nattram, searching for his murderer. Sometimes he was described as not looking like a bird at all, but a skeleton with a black cape, or a human skeleton with wings. But usually he was heard but not seen, making loud noise. To meet him was bad, you could get sick if he came too close. But he could never touch the ground, so if you heard the noise you just had to lay flat on your face, then the Nattram could not harm you.
    The same belief about a spirit being unable to touch the ground was said about the Wild Hunt and spectral armies that were believed to exist too. If you lay down when they approached you, you were safe from harm.
    Sweden has a few other ghostly animals, like Kyrkogrimmen, and Gloson. The last is my personal favourite: a spectral sow with red glowing eyes and flames in her mouth, her back as sharp as a razor...and if you met her she'd try to slice you open by running between your legs! She is sometimes also described as an aspect of a murder-victim, but other times she is her own. She was often seen during the annual ritual of Årsgång, when an aspiring magician went on a quest for visions and power. He had walked nine years in a row on special nights to a well, or a churchyard, or other places of power, and on these walks he met supernatural beings as a kind of trial. Gloson were sometimes one of them.
    But beside sea monsters and lake monsters, this country has hardly anything in folklore that could hide cryptids. Sad but true.
    Äring och fred.
    Håkan
    PS
    The staking of murder-victims was not entirely a story. Our only bog-body, the medevial man from Bocksten, had been staked three times when buried in the bog, once through the heart.

    Thanks very much, Håkan, for sending this very welcome addition to the night-raven story!

    All the best, Karl

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