World History

Crows in Japanese and Norse Mythology

Author: Elisha Kayne

Today, in cities across the world, crows are seen as a nuisance. While many appreciate their ability to clear populated areas of mice and other pests, many also complain about their habit of digging through garbage cans or stealing fruits and vegetables from backyard gardens. Yet, humanity has had a relationship with these dark feathered flying creatures since the beginning of civilization itself. Two of the most prominent examples of human cultures recognized the sacred significance of the crow can be found in Japanese and Norse mythology.




Yatagarasu is a raven from Japanese mythology.  His name means “eight span crow” because of its large size. The three-legged jungle crow is mentioned in multiple texts relating to Shinto and ancient Japanese history. Yatagarasu is particularly associated with the first Emperor of Japan, Jimmu who is said to have ruled around 660 BCE. Jimmu was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and her brother, the storm god Susanoo. While migrating to Yamato, the three-legged raven was sent down to earth as a heavenly guide to assist Jimmu in his campaign. The fact that Jimmu is a child of the Sun Goddess and the three-legged crow was sent as a messenger from the realm of the divine is significant. Depictions of three legged birds, men and other animals can be found among many ancient cultures who engaged in sun worship. The symbolism is so common in fact that these kinds of images have become known as a triskelion, and can be seen on coins from Pamphylia and among late stone age sculptures found in North Africa. Three legged men and triple spirals are also commonly seen in Iron Age Celtic art and even on the modern-day flags of the Isle of Mann and Sicily.


Huginn and Muninn

Interestingly, ravens in general have held special meaning in Celtic and Norse mythology as well. The European crow legend that is perhaps most familiar to modern society is Odin’s very own Huginn and Muninn. This pair of blackbirds are often portrayed sitting atop each shoulder of the one-eyed God, and are said in various accounts to be his messengers whom he bestowed with the gift of speech. Many artifacts have been found from the 5th and 6th century migration periods that depict a man on horseback with two birds flying nearby. They seem to play a similar role as Jimmu’s Yatagarasu, in the fact that these midnight hued creatures accompany Odin and the Germanic people as a whole on their journey towards a new land to call home.


Crow Symbolism in Other Eastern and Western Cultures

The deification of crows is also found in other examples. The Han dynasty’s sun crow Yangwu.  The three legged sun raven Samjogo of Korea. Celtic helmets crested with flying bronze crows from Romania. Even in today’s modern western world, there’s a superstitious belief that Ravens must live in the Tower of London for Britain to retain its crown. So, as Jubilee and Munin can attest, the sacred relationship between crow and man continues to live on, even into the 21st century.


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