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Why the Raven is Black

Here’s an interesting tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story details how a chattery raven thinks he will be rewarded by tattling to Apollo Phoebus about how his lover, Coronis, was unfaithful. In a blind rage, Apollo kills Coronis and subsequently regrets it. Angry at the raven for meddling, he turns the white raven black. The crow did try to warn him!

This is taken from the incredible Perseus Digital Library of Tufts University. Here’s the verse.


High in her graceful chariot through the air, translucent, wends the goddess, glorious child of Saturn, with her peacocks many-hued: her peacocks, by the death of Argus limped, so gay were made when black as midnight turned thy wings, O chattering raven! white of yore. For, long ago the ravens were not black— their plumage then was white as any dove— white-feathered, snow-white as the geese that guard with watchful cries the Capitol: as white as swans that haunt the streams. Disgrace reversed the raven's hue from white to black, because offense was given by his chattering tongue.

O glorious Phoebus! dutiful to thee, Coronis of Larissa, fairest maid of all Aemonia, was a grateful charm, a joy to thee whilst faithful to thy love,— while none defamed her chastity. But when the Raven, bird of Phoebus, learned the Nymph had been unfaithful, mischief-bent that bird, spreading his white wings, hastened to impart the sad news to his master. After him the prattling Crow followed with flapping wings, eager to learn what caused the Raven's haste.

Concealing nothing, with his busy tongue the Raven gave the scandal to that bird: and unto him the prattling Crow replied; “A fruitless errand has befooled thy wits! Take timely warning of my fateful cries: consider what I was and what I am: was justice done? 'Twas my fidelity that caused my downfall. For, it came to pass, within a basket, fashioned of small twigs, Minerva had enclosed that spawn; begot without a mother, Ericthonius; which to the wardship of three virgins, born of double-natured Cecrops, she consigned with this injunction, ‘Look ye not therein, nor learn the secret.’— “But I saw their deeds while hidden in the leaves of a great tree two of the sisters, Herse and Pandrosos, observed the charge, but scoffing at their fears, the third, Aglauros, with her nimble hands untied the knotted cords, and there disclosed a serpent and an infant. This I told Minerva; but in turn, she took away her long protection, and degraded me beneath the boding Owl.—My punishment should warn the birds how many dangers they incur from chattering tongues. “Not my desire impelled me to report to her, nor did I crave protection; which, if thou wilt ask Minerva, though enraged she must confirm. And when is told to thee what lately fame established, thou wilt not despise the Crow. “Begot by Coronaeus, who was lord of all the land of Phocis, I was once a royal virgin, sought by suitors rich and powerful. But beauty proved the cause of my misfortune; for it came to pass, as I was slowly walking on the sands that skirt the merge of ocean, where was oft my wont to roam, the god of Ocean gazed impassioned, and with honied words implored my love—but finding that I paid no heed, and all his words despised, he fumed with rage and followed me. “I fled from that sea-shore, to fields of shifting sands that all my steps delayed: and in despair upon the Gods and all mankind I called for aid, but I was quite alone and helpless. Presently the chaste Minerva, me, a virgin, heard and me assistance gave: for as my arms implored the Heavens, downy feathers grew from out the flesh; and as I tried to cast my mantle from my shoulders, wings appeared upon my tender sides; and as I strove to beat my naked bosom with my hands, nor hands remained nor naked breast to beat. “I ran, and as I sped the sands no more delayed me; I was soaring from the ground; and as I winged the air, Minerva chose me for a life-companion; but alas, although my life was blameless, fate or chance deprived me of Minerva's loving aid; for soon Nictimene succeeded me to her protection and deserved esteem.— it happened in this way,—Nictimene committed the most wicked crimes, for which Minerva changed her to the bird of night— and ever since has claimed her as her own instead of me; and this despite the deed for which she shuns the glorious light of day, and conscious of her crime conceals her shame in the dark night—Minerva's Owl now called. All the glad birds of day, indignant shun, and chase her from the skies.”

But now replied the Raven to the Crow, that talked so much, “A mischief fall upon your prating head for this detention of my flight. Your words and warnings I despise.” With which retort he winged upon his journey, swiftly thence in haste, despite the warning to inform his patron, Phoebus, how he saw the fair Coronis with a lad of Thessaly.

And when Apollo, Phoebus, heard the tale the busy Raven made such haste to tell, he dropped his plectrum and his laurel wreath, and his bright countenance went white with rage. He seized his trusted arms, and having bent his certain bow, pierced with a deadly shaft that bosom which so often he had pressed against his own.

Coronis moaned in pain,— and as she drew the keen shaft from the wound, her snow-white limbs were bathed in purple blood: and thus she wailed, “Ah, Phoebus! punishment is justly mine! but wherefore didst thou not await the hour of birth? for by my death an innocent is slain.” This said, her soul expired with her life-blood, and death congealed her drooping form.

Sadly the love-lore God repents his jealous deed; regrets too late his ready credence to the Raven's tale. Mourning his thoughtless deed, blaming himself, he vents his rage upon the talking bird; he hates his bow, the string, his own right hand, the fateful arrow. As a last resource, and thus to overcome her destiny, he strove to cherish her beloved form; for vain were all his medicinal arts.

But when he saw upraised the funeral pyre, where wreathed in flames her body should be burnt, the sorrow of his heart welled forth in sighs; but tearless orbed, for no celestial face may tide of woe bedew. So grieves the poor dam, when, swinging from his right the flashing ax, the butcher with a sounding blow divides the hollow temples of her sucking calf.

Yet, after Phoebus poured the fragrant myrrh, sweet perfumes on her breast, that now once more against his own he pressed, and after all the prematurely hastened rites were done, he would not suffer the offspring of his loins to mingle with her ashes, but he plucked from out the flames, forth from the mother's thighs his child, unborn, and carried to the cave of double-natured Chiron.

Then to him he called the silly raven, high in hopes of large requital due for all his words; but, angry with his meddling ways, the God turned the white feathers of that bird to black and then forbade forever more to perch among the favoured birds whose plumes are white.

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