The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Sunday, 24 August 2008

27. Quick-sighted, sagacious, and bold

Alfred Newton, F.R.S., Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, University of Cambridge, had a fascination for ravens, sorry, the Raven. The introduction to his article in volume 20 of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica is a splendid flight of impassioned prose:

RAVEN (Anglo-Saxon Hraefn, Icelandic Hrafn, Danish Ravn, Dutch Raaf, German Rabe), the largest of the Birds of the Order Passeres ; and, as already shown (ORNITHOLOGY, vol. xvii. p. 49), probably the most highly developed of all Birds.

Quick-sighted, sagacious, and bold, it must have followed the prehistoric fisher and hunter, and generally without molestation from them, to prey on the refuse of their spoils, just as it now waits, with the same intent, on the movements of their successors ; while it must have likewise attended the earliest herdsmen, who could not have regarded it with equal indifference, since its now notorious character for attacking and putting to death a weakly animal was doubtless in those days manifested. Yet the Raven is no mere dependant upon man, being always able to get a living for itself ; and moreover a sentiment of veneration or superstition has from very remote ages and among many races of men attached to it - a sentiment so strong as often to overcome the feeling of distrust not to say of hatred which its deeds inspired, and, though rapidly decreasing, even to survive in some places until the present day. There is no need to dwell on the association of this bird with well-known characters of history sacred or profane - Noah or Elijah, Odin or Flokki, the last of whom by its means discovered Iceland. The Raven is even said to have played its part in the mythology of the Red Indian ; and none can wonder that all this should be so, since, wherever it occurs and more especially wherever it is numerous, as in ancient times and in thinly peopled countries it must have been, its size, appearance, and fearless habits would be sure to attract especial attention. Nor has this attention wholly ceased with the advance of enlightenment, for both in prose and verse, from the time of Shakespeare to that of Poe and Dickens, the Raven has often figured, and generaly without the amount of misrepresentation which is the fate of most animals which celebrated writers condescend to notice. Notwithstanding all this, however, the Raven has now fallen upon evil days. The superstitious reverence with which it was once regarded has all but vanished and has been very generally succeeded by persecution, which in many districts has produced actual extirpation, so that it is threatened with extinction, save in the wildest and most unpeopled districts.

The editors of the 11th edition of Britannica cut this down considerably, to :

RAVEN (O.E.' hrcefn, Icel. hrafn, Dan. ravn, Du. Raaf, Ger. Rabe), the largest of the birds of the order Passeres, and a member of the family Corvidae, probably the most highly developed of all birds. Quick-sighted, sagacious and bold, the raven preys on the spoils of fishers and hunters, as also on weakly animals among flocks and herds. A sentiment of veneration or superstition has from remote ages and among many races attached to it. The raven is associated with various characters of history, sacred or profane - Noah and Elijah, Odin and Flokki, the last of whom by its means discovered Iceland. It is said to have played its part in the mythology of the Red Indian; and it has often figured in prose and verse, from the time of Shakespeare to that of Poe and Dickens. Superstition has been generally succeeded by persecution, which in many districts has produced extirpation.

(Source: Love to Know website)

The work of later editors in taking some of the essence of the original pieces from the ninth edition has to be admired for its efficiency and practicality, but the over-riding necessity for concision loses much of the depth of meaning and poetry of the earlier compositions. Perhaps a dark glimmering of the professor's insights are preserved in this excerpt from the current edition of Britannica:

Long before it was immortalized in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem "The Raven," the common raven was a near-universal symbol of dark prophecy—of death, pestilence, and disease—though its cleverness and fearless habits also won it a degree of admiration, as evidenced in its noble heraldic roles in the mythology of some peoples.


To close, Professor Newton's footnote, entirely omitted from later editions, pleading against the persecution of the bird, and bringing in his own experience with a degree of modest forthrightness that ought to have served as a lesson for our old friend Professor Pettigrew, and which leaves us with the delightful image of the dear old bird-fancier excitedly rummaging through Raven vomit on some lost and lonely moor :

That all lovers of nature should take what steps they can to arrest this sad fate is a belief which the present writer fully holds. Without attempting to deny the loss which in some cases is inflicted upon the rearers of cattle by Ravens, it is an enormous mistake to suppose that the neighbourhood of a pair of these birds is inevitably detrimental. On this point he can speak from experience. For many years he had an intimate knowledge of a pair occupying an inland locality surrounded by valuable flocks of sheep, and abounding in rabbits and game, and had ample opportunities, which he never neglected, of repeatedly examining the pellets of bones and exuviae that these, like all other carnivorous birds, cast up. He thus found that this pair of Ravens fed almost exclusively on moles. Soon after he moved from the neighbourhood in which they lived the unreasoning zeal of a gamekeeper (against, it is believed, the orders of his master) put an end to this interesting couple - the last of their species which inhabited the county.

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