What bird symbolizes sadness?

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The bird that is most commonly associated with sadness is the raven. Ravens are seen as ominous birds and are often depicted in art and literature as symbols of grief, loss, and death.

Throughout history and across cultures, birds have been used as symbols to represent human emotions, characteristics, and connections to the spiritual world. While some birds symbolize positive traits like love and peace, other avian symbols evoke darker and more somber meanings. One bird that is strongly linked with sadness, loss, and mourning is the raven.

With its jet black plumage and harsh, croaking call, the raven possesses an ominous air that lends itself well to symbolizing grief, death, and misfortune. By examining the raven’s portrayal in mythology, folklore, art, and literature, it becomes clear why this intelligent bird is so often associated with human sorrow.

Ravens in Mythology and Folklore

In many ancient mythologies and folkloric traditions, the raven served as a messenger of the gods and an attendant to forces of darkness and death.

Greek and Roman Mythology

In Greek mythology, ravens were associated with Apollo, the god of prophecy. Apollo was sometimes depicted with a raven perched on his hand. The bird’s presence signified the god’s role as a prophetic deity. In the mythology of the Roman Empire, which heavily incorporated Greek legends, the connection between ravens and prophecy endured.

Ravens also had ties to darker Roman gods. They were sacred to Saturn, the god of time and agriculture, and Apollo’s counterpart as a bringer of ill omen. The raven also served as an attendant to Orcus, the Roman god of death.

Norse Mythology

Ravens held a significant place in Norse legends. Huginn and Muninn were a pair of ravens that flew around the world observing all things and reporting back to the powerful god Odin. Given their surveillance of the world and ties to Odin, a deity heavily associated with wisdom and prophecy, the implication was that ravens were intelligent purveyors of knowledge like their god.

Despite their wisdom, Huginn and Muninn still symbolized the darker side of prophecy. Odin was said to fear that one day the ravens would not return to him, portending disaster.

Native American Traditions

Among many Native American tribes, the raven features prominently in cultural mythology and as a key figure in ceremonial rituals. The raven often takes on the role of a trickster god and is a common character in creation stories. For example, the Tlingit and Haida in particular portray the raven as a cunning, mischievous demiurge that shaped the world.

While portrayed as clever, the raven’s motives are not always clear. They have an aura of mystery and darkness about them. This enigmatic quality lends itself to the raven symbolizing the unknown, fear, and anticipation of negative events.

Irish and Welsh Folklore

In the folklore of the ancient Celts, especially Ireland and Wales, raven symbolism reflected death and conflict. Warriors were compared to ravens, as both were carrion feeders revelling in violence and slaughter. Seeing or hearing a raven on the eve of battle portended bloody outcomes.

They were considered an ill omen, and their presence could signify that a person was marked for death. Ravens flying overhead and croaking eerily were thought to predict doom and the loss of life.

Ravens in Art

The raven appears frequently in visual art as a symbol of mortality and sorrow. Here are some examples of artworks that incorporate the raven motif:

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe solidified the raven as a symbol of grief and loss in his famous narrative poem “The Raven.” Published in 1845, it depicts a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover. The raven seems to taunt the protagonist with its constant repetition of the words “nevermore,” driving home the hopeless finality of his lost love Lenore.

Joseph Wright of Derby Paintings

The 18th century painter Joseph Wright frequently featured ravens in his works depicting tragedies and nightmares. Paintings like “Girard Desargues’s Nightmare” and “Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight” include ravens overhead, suggesting the calamities portrayed are harbingers of death.

Charles Burchfield Watercolors

20th century American artist Charles Burchfield painted several macabre watercolors featuring ravens. The birds lurk in barren trees and gloomy landscapes, mysteriously observing bleak scenes. Examples include titles like “The Coming of the Crows,” “Fear of Crows,” and “Crow Vortex.”

Raven and Skull by Marlene Seven Bremner

Contemporary artist Marlene Seven Bremner frequently paints ravens alongside skulls and bones. Her dark monochromatic painting “Raven and Skull” emphasizes the raven’s association with crossing over into the afterlife. The raven perches ominously on the cranium, waiting to consume the deceased.

Ravens in Literature

Ravens commonly appear in works of literature as harbingers of misfortune and symbols of mortality. Here are examples of the raven symbol in literary works:

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

As mentioned earlier, Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem employs the raven as the macabre messenger of the narrator’s torment over his lost love. The poem was hugely popular upon release and helped cement the raven as shorthand for grief and doom.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Throughout the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, later adapted into the show Game of Thrones, ravens are used to deliver messages between characters. The ravens sometimes arrive bearing news of death, destruction, and misfortune, linking them with their traditional role as ill omens.

The Raven by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens wrote an essay titled “The Raven” in which he describes being tormented by a raven that follows him around and seems to verbally torment him. Dickens acknowledges how the raven’s croaking calls and ominous surveillance of him invoke its long-standing associations with grief and doom.

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater’s young adult Raven Cycle book series features a main group of characters who attend the fictional Aglionby Academy. The raven is the school’s mascot and represents omens, with students often interpreting sightings as signs of good or bad fortune.

Ravens as Symbols in Other Cultural Mediums

Beyond the visual and literary arts, ravens also symbolize grief and misfortune in other popular media:


In cartoons and comics, ravens are frequently portrayed as macabre companions or minions to more sinister characters, or as voices of doom providing commentary. Examples include the raven perched on the Evil Queen’s staff in Snow White, the constant raven companions of Disney villains like Maleficent and Hades, and the raven sidekick of DC Comics villain Trigon.


Ravens often make cameo appearances in TV shows at pivotal moments symbolizing danger or marking characters for a tragic fate. Hitchcock was famous for featuring ravens in his work. In Game of Thrones, ravens mark climatic events like a royal death or oncoming battle.


Many songs reference the raven’s baleful presence, like The Alan Parsons Project’s “The Raven” or “Raven” by The Stranglers. Lyrics may describe the raven’s croaking cry as a harbinger of misfortune and associate seeing one with being marked for death.


Some fashion labels have incorporated raven designs and Poe’s poem “The Raven” in their clothes as a nod to the raven’s macabre symbolism. This includes brands like KillStar, Dolls Kill, Widow, and Blackcraft Cult.

Why Ravens Symbolize Sadness: Their Behaviors and Characteristics

Beyond their representation in art and culture, ravens possess certain behaviors and characteristics that reinforce their association with sadness, loss, and ominous fortune telling.

Ominous Appearance

With inky black feathers and piercing eyes, ravens do have an ominous appearance that evokes a sense of unease in people. Their size and pure black coloration give them an intimidating, threatening presence. Ravens become even more menacing when congregating in large flocks.

Eerie Vocalizations

A raven’s harsh, cracking croaks and loud caws create a mysterious and creepy atmosphere. Their vocalizations sound like ominous pronouncements. When a raven starts calling in its unique voice, many people can’t help feeling a sense of dread fall over them.

Scavenging on Carrion

Ravens are scavengers that will readily feed on carrion and corpses they encounter. The sight of ravens swirling over a battlefield to pick at the dead or pecking at a carcass by the road associates them strongly with death in people’s minds.

Signalling Impending Doom

In history, ravens were viewed as heralding disasters like war or famine. When ravens abandoned the Tower of London long ago, people thought it signalled the kingdom’s ruin. Ravens crying near a sick or weak person were seen as a sign they would soon perish.

Representing the Unknown

With ravens being such intelligent and curious birds, they incite mystery and wariness when focused intently on a situation or person. Their probing makes people unsettled, wondering what ill fate the raven might be hinting at or pronouncing with its relentless gazes.


The raven has cemented itself as a cultural symbol and artistic motif representing grief, loss, and the ominous unknown. By serving as messengers of misfortune and attending to gods of death in mythology, inspiring dreary poetry and paintings related to human woe, behaving mysteriously as scavengers of carrion, and making eerie vocalizations, the raven has become shorthand for the darker experiences of the human condition associated with sadness. So if you’re looking for a bird to symbolize melancholy, anxiety, and anticipated misfortune, you’d be hard pressed to find one more appropriate than the mournful raven.

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