Richard Hale is a tattoo enthusiast who studies and researches tattoo symbolism, meanings, and history.
The raven is a dark, elegant bird that translates nicely into a tattoo. Like most animal designs, the raven is usually deeply symbolic to the wearer. It can be designed in many different ways to convey your personal meaning and suit your personality.
In this article, I will discuss raven tattoo designs and their symbolism. In the end, I hope that you are able to find ideas and inspiration for your next tattoo.
The History of Raven Symbolism in Various Cultures
- The raven is a common fixture in ancient and modern literature. In most books, the raven was a dark character and often linked to death.
- Many ancient cultures believed that the magical raven carried powerful secrets. In some mythologies, this bird is thought to be a creature that can't keep a secret.
- The raven is the first bird mentioned in the Bible. Later, Noah releases a raven after the flood to see if the waters have receded. According to the Law of Moses, it is forbidden to eat ravens.
- In the Quran's story of Cain and Abel, it is a raven who teaches Cain how to bury his brother.
- The raven is also associated to the Celtic culture. This is one reason why you will see raven tattoos in Celtic art. The Celts were no strangers to war and saw ravens eating the dead on the battlefield. They viewed the raven as a symbol of war and death.
- However, the Celtic raven tattoo also represents protection, magic, and prophecy. This is primarily because they believed that this bird had magical powers.
- Native Americans believed that the raven brought light to the earth and that it was a symbol of balance, of the dance between good and bad.
- In Greek and Roman mythology, the raven is linked to Apollo and Athena. Since it flies high in the sky, it has attributes of the sun and wisdom.
- In Viking or Norse mythology, Odin is referred to as the "raven-god" because of his association with Huginn (an Old Norse word for "thought") and Muninn ("memory"), the two ravens that perch on his shoulders. These two fly around the world and bring information back to whisper in his ear.
- Odin also had two wolf familiars, Geri and Freki. Ravens are often called Wolf-Birds because they often form friendly symbiotic relationships with wolves. Many old stories of the Tlingit and Inuit, two Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, told about wily ravens who played tricks on both wolves and humans.
The raven is a symbol of intelligence and wisdom. This tattoo can represent both the good and bad in its wearer.
What Do Raven Tattoos Represent?
Common associations with ravens are:
- Protection (because they watch over events)
- Magic (usually dark, Pagan, or otherworldly)
- Future (their bird's-eye-view gives them a kind of omniscience)
- Secrets (for the same reason they can see the future)
- Death (not as a cause of death, but perhaps as an omen)
- Light (Native Americans believed they brought light to earth)
- Shadows (literally and psychologically; ravens represent the unconscious, unknown side of a personality)
- Inner Self (Jung associated ravens with the parts of our psyches that we refuse to see)
- War (they arrive to help clean up the battlefield)
- Prophecy (because of their all-seeing vantage)
- Memory (they represent the shadows of all the people and events of the past)
- Misery or Pain (perhaps because of their association with war and death)
- Intelligence or Wisdom (of course, ravens are extremely intelligent creatures)
- Thought (they draw our attention to unconscious thoughts, memories, and desires)
Why Are Ravens Called Wolf-Birds?
Ravens are called Wolf-Birds because they often form friendly symbiotic relationships with wolves.
- Ravens don't usually move in flocks; instead, they live with a mate. Conversely, the "lone wolf" would prefer to belong to a pack. Despite these differences, these two species form close relationships.
- Ravens follow wolves so that they can scavenge the leftovers of the hunt.
- In return, the ravens alert wolves to dangers and lead them to prey.
- In the wild, ravens and wolves are often seen together and sometimes they play. The ravens tease the wolves and the wolf pups chase the ravens playfully.
Why Are Ravens Associated With Death?
Many people think of death when they think about the raven, as this bird has been a longtime symbol of darkness, death, and mystery. Where does the association between the raven and death originate?
As a carrion bird, one who scavenges instead of hunts, they are associated with death. Also, in towns in medieval times, ravaged by plague and war and littered with bodies, it was not uncommon to see these creatures scavenging on the decaying bodies. Therefore, they became associated with death.
The funny thing about associations is that we confuse them with causation. In other words, because the birds would show up to help clean up the battlefield, so to speak, mourning and traumatized people began to believe that the presence of ravens caused the battle, not the other way around.
Despite this, the raven can also represent some extremely positive attributes.
Raven Tattoo Designs
On its own, this bird can make an extraordinary design. The raven can be portrayed in various postures, like flying with its wings open or crouched on a perch. There's no wrong way to do it. But of course, pairing the raven with other objects helps underline and convey its meaning.
- If a tattoo represents death, it might be combined with a skull, a clock or timepiece, or a bloody arrow. It is not uncommon to see raven tattoo designs with blood.
- If meant to signify the death of a loved one, that person's name or the date they died might be inked, as well.
- They can also be done in Celtic or tribal style. Although tribal tattoos have little symbolic significance, the Celtic raven is associated with war, magic, and misery.
- The bird from Edgar Allan Poe's classic epic horror poem, "The Raven," is a common design. The poet's face or the word "nevermore" might be incorporated, on a banner or on book's spine.
- To accentuate the wisdom and prescience of the symbolism, the raven might be paired with an open eyeball, crystal balls, or a full moon.
Which Birds Are Mistaken for Ravens?
Ravens are often mistaken for other types of black birds including grackles, starlings, and blackbirds, but they're most often confused with crows.
What's the Difference Between a Raven and a Crow Tattoo?
Although these two birds are often mistaken for one another, there are many visible differences between crows and ravens, and you'll want to make sure you get these details right in your design.
- Beak: A crow's beak is shorter; a raven's beak is longer and slightly bent or curved. They both have bristles at the base of their beaks, but the raven's are longer and thicker.
- Neck feathers: The crow's are smooth, the raven's are shaggy.
- Tail feathers: A crow's tail is shaped like a fan, and the raven's is wedge-shaped.
- Wings: Crows have short primary wing feathers, and ravens have long ones. This means raven's wings should be inked with longer "fingers."
Raven or Crow Feather Tattoos
Instead of inking the entire creature, many opt for a single black feather as a tattoo design. The single raven feather represents the same things the raven does, so if you want a simpler design, consider getting a feather tattoo.
Where Is the Ideal Spot for a Raven Tattoo?
Because of the amount of detail that can be put into a single feather, detailed raven tattoos are usually placed on larger areas: the back, chest, shoulder, sleeve, arm, or forearm.
Smaller, less detailed ravens might be placed anywhere.
Of course, it's most common for ravens to be inked in black ink (and lots of it), but variations abound, including shades of blue and purple.
If a Raven Could Talk, What Would It Say?
"Nevermore" isn't the only thing a raven can say. They can learn to talk, even better than a parrot can. Not only can they imitate voices, both male and female, but they can accurately imitate a number of other sounds including sirens, screams, flushing toilets, and barking dogs. Although ravensong sounds more like croaking, ravens are classified as the largest songbird.
Toms on February 23, 2020:
My first tattoo is Raven this really helped me out with research
Tony on June 27, 2019:
Excellent article! Waaaay better than the zodiac web search ones...
MavericK on May 07, 2019:
WereSloth on May 04, 2017:
Ron Burgundy on December 10, 2012:
Great Odin's Raven!
Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on September 05, 2012:
Eric, thanks for your comment and adding to this page. Your right. The raven was actually very symbolic in Norse myths and legend. I actually saved the story for my Viking tattoo article, but it is certainly associated to Norse mythology. Appreciate the addition.
Eric on September 02, 2012:
One thing that wasn't mentioned in the article was the raven in norse mythology. Odin, leader of the Norse gods, owned two pet ravens named hugin and munin who were his eyes in the mortal realm and as a result, ravens were seen by Vikings as a reminder that Odin was watching over and protecting them, as well as a symbol of divine wisdom.
Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on August 05, 2012:
Thank you all for taking the time to comment, vote, and for your kind words. I knew the Raven could talk a little, but they are truly intelligent birds. The symbolism dates back centuries, very cool to research on this one. Appreciate all of you reading it.
BeyondMax from Sydney, Australia on August 03, 2012:
Love these creepy guys, even if they are giving me chills. LOL =)
Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on August 01, 2012:
Beautiful artistic work..
Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on August 01, 2012:
Have always been fascinated by ravens. Great tattoos.
Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on July 31, 2012:
Love these raven tattoos and the pictures were beautiful ! The Raven is one of my favorite Poe Story .
Vote up and more !!!
kjforce from Florida on July 30, 2012:
thelyricwriter...enjoyed this hub..basically I am a fan of Poe...and his famous writes...
My uncle had a pet Raven..whose tongue was split so he learned to speak..he was.very attached to my uncle, followed him everywhere..nice photos..and research..kudos..
Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on July 30, 2012:
Interesting that a lot of animal tattoo have cartoon variants, but not the raven. Voting this Up and Beautiful.
Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on July 30, 2012:
I would never get a tattoo, but some of these are very striking.