Black birds circling the sky are a common Western motif. But if they’re flapping more than soaring, it’s not buzzards you spy, in all likelihood, but the ubiquitous raven, or its cousin the crow. These raucous avians are not shy about claiming their piece of the landscape, and their claim extends to the starry sky.
On a clear spring evening, find the Big Dipper high above, and follow the arc of the handle to the bright orangish star Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes. Extend the arc by swinging down to white Spica in the Y-shape of Virgo. Continue the curve a bit farther, above the southern horizon, and you’ll come to a small but distinctive and slightly goofy-looking box-shape of stars, and you’ll have found Corvus, the crow that flaps across the sky.
A simple box pattern can send the imagination in many directions; it may explain why this constellation represented a hand in India, a cart in China, a scorpion tail in Mexico, a crane in Brazil, an elephant in Cambodia, and a kangaroo in Australia. But the ancient Greeks saw a crow—and not just any.
Corvus, they said, was once the feathered pet of the sun god Apollo. If the bird seems an odd choice for so relatively cultured a deity, one must realize that way back then, Corvus had snowy white feathers and a lovely singing voice. But one day, Apollo sent Corvus off to fetch a bowl of water in order to make a sacrifice to Zeus, king of the gods. On the way to the spring, the silly bird noticed a tree bearing unripe figs, and feeling peckish, decided to stop and wait for the fruit to ripen, upon which it ate its fill. Because figs take much longer to ripen than paint takes to dry, by the time the fig-stuffed Corvus returned with the water, Apollo had gone off to fetch his own and was decidedly peeved. He saw through Corvus’s lame excuse that a snake had blocked its path, and promptly punished the naughty bird by turning its feathers black and its voice into a hoarse croak. And so the crow croaks still today.
Some Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest saw in the pattern not a crow but its relative the raven, who was seen as a trickster and mischief-maker in many of their myths. One story in particular tells of how, when the world was young, it was also dark and cold, because the Sky People kept the sun for themselves. Raven took matters into its own claws and flew up to the sky, and when the Sky People were otherwise occupied, sneaked into the dwelling where the sun was kept, grabbed it, and scrammed. Raven carried the sun down toward the Earth and placed it where all could enjoy its light and warmth. But its selfless act singed its feathers and it became a black bird as well.
Those with telescopes know Corvus today for the distant galaxy that lays just above the box: the famous Sombrero Galaxy, the edge-on spiral with the gigantic central bulge that makes it look like the stereotypical hat that Mexicans use to ward off the raven-toasting sun.
And it seems fitting at this season of renewal to fancy Raven carrying the solar orb in its claws among these twinkling stars. For this is the season when the sun climbs higher in the sky, returning light and warmth to the cold, dark, winter-weary Earth even as Raven did in the tales of the Pacific Northwest so long ago.
Enjoy the returning power of the sun, but take care that it does not singe your feathers as it did to Corvus on your treks through the greening landscape of spring!
Jim Manning is executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in San Francisco, California, but maintains Montana roots just "outside Bozeman."