Wolves, Ravens and the Hooded One

Wolves and ravens. Romanticized, vilified and deified, these intriguing creatures reflect our dreams and shadows like few others. One source of their fame in popular imagination began in ancient Scandinavia, where reverence for wolves and ravens was not only pragmatic, such as the symbiotic relationship in which the animals led hunters to prey and shared in the spoils; but also pantheistic, by connecting to and identifying with the animals as helpers, shamanic totems, and messengers of the gods.

Enter Odin, the Allfather in the Norse pantheon. A deity par excellence, Odin is the one-eyed, all-seeing god of war, magic and wisdom. He is a complex and enigmatic figure, associated with poetry and inspiration, madness and battle fury. He hungers for knowledge. A notorious shapeshifter, he is known as a trickster who might grant favor to a devoted follower only to vanish when most needed. Odin is a patron of shamans, poets and magicians who, in their search for truth and pattern, endure grueling trials of hardship and isolation.

Wolves and ravens are Odin’s familiars, of a sort.

Among the many names attributed to Odin is Raven God. The connection between Odin and ravens is deep and ancient, existing before the Viking Age. A god of death and war, Odin was naturally associated with these carrion birds, the beneficiaries of sacrifices and battlefields, and harbingers of the god’s favor. In keeping with Odin’s intellectual nature, ravens are also extremely intelligent. Two of these birds, Hugin (thought) and Munin (desire), fly over the land and tell him of all they see and hear.

In traditional animal lore, crows and ravens are given the honor of belonging to both the seen and unseen realms. They are creatures of the hinterlands, mysterious, powerful and devious. That these birds tend to accompany death also makes them ominous, both feared and revered by their presence on the carcasses of animals, the condemned, or fallen warriors. They are omens, symbols of the implacability of death, and bringers of information from the other side.

Odin is also accompanied by two wolves, Geri and Freki (both meaning “ravenous” or “greedy one”). He gives his wolves all of his food, and drinks only wine. The wolves are said to roam over battlefields, devouring carnage. As the ruler and bestower of battle madness, Odin is the patron god of berserkers and warrior shamans called úlfheðnar (wolf-hides), who underwent powerful initiations in the wilds, living like wolves, to reach a state of possession and thereby acquire the beasts’ strength, fearlessness, and fury—much to the terror and dismay of their enemies.

On the flip side, Odin is the enemy of Fenrir, a monstrous wolf sired by Loki, a wily and ambivalent trickster god. When Fenrir grows out of control, the gods are compelled to chain the wolf using deception, a stunt that comes with a great sacrifice. Fenrir will break free at Ragnarok, the fall of the cosmos, and devour everything in his path, including Odin. Another story tells of Fenrir’s sons Skoll (One Who Mocks) and Hati (One Who Hates), wargs that chase the sun and moon through the sky in hopes of devouring them. At Ragnarok, they will catch their prey, and the sky and earth will darken and collapse.

The wolf, with its ferocious and apocalyptic reputation in Norse mythology, its prowess and grace in nature, and a distinctive howl that puts a primordial chill on the flesh, is an exemplary metaphor, an antagonist in many a dark tale, and a patron of warriors.

Given the frequent appearance of wolves and ravens in mythology, legends, folk and fairy tales throughout the ages, and their remarkable natural traits, it’s easy to see why they are so common in works of fantasy. Battle prowess, cunning, guile, mystery, trickery and darkness—imagery and metaphors abound. My own work is no exception; a love of Northern European mythology and the grim and sublime traits of wolves and ravens inspire me to no end.

In the Chronicles of Ealiron, an ancient hierarchy of wizards holds the raven as the highest level of attainment in the magical arts. The wolf takes on its spookier characteristics in the lore of the Old One, a goddess of life, death, and transformation. In her darkest aspect, the Destroyer, she appears in the shape of a wolf. Water Dark, a novella that takes place in the world of Ealiron, delves deeply into the shadowy, fickle nature of this being, who commands a high price for being summoned, good or ill.

Lorth of Ostarin, the driving force in the Chronicles of Ealiron, is an assassin raised by a wizard. He has the eyes of a wolf and an affinity for ravens, which, being the opportunistic creatures they are, tend to follow him around in much the same way they follow wolves, and for the same reason: to clean up the mess. Lorth and his grim companions also appear in “The Om Tree,” a short story told by an ancient tree that gets its best gossip from—you guessed it—ravens.

The Norse gods haunt many worlds, not just Earth. In Outpost, Book One in The Fylking, Odin, in keeping with his nature, appears at strange times and in strange ways, leaving our protagonists to wonder what he is and whose side he’s on. He goes by many names: Hooded One, Wanderer, Magician. He is served by the Fylking, immortal, Viking-like warriors who take the shapes of wolves and ravens, among other things, though even they can’t guess his agenda. The Wolf Lords, Book Two, delves into the Fenrir Brotherhood, an ancient order of sorcerers who serve the Wolf Gods of the North, including, it is said, Loki himself. Fenrir is their patron, a force used in a variety of nasty ways that don’t always serve the ones who summon him.

Odin, of course, lurks in the shadows, watching and waiting.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

If you’d like to see something beautiful about the value of wolves in nature, watch this: How Wolves Change Rivers

And if ravens fascinate you, do check out the work of Bernd Heinrich, a naturalist who has done fantastic research on ravens in the wild:
Ravens in Winter
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds

Norse mythology? Here’s a good website, and it includes a reading list: Norse Mythology for Smart People

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Chronicles of Ealiron
The Fylking
Outpost
The Wolf Lords
Water Dark
The Eye of Odin

© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Eye of Odin

Eye of Odin, Cover Art

Three hundred years have passed since half of Earth froze, and the human race has settled other planets under the supervision and control of a military contractor that harnessed the powers of the higher mind. But when the daughter of a warrior clan who made her fortune in the contractor’s service discovers a dark secret beneath their dominion, she must learn to fight like the old gods.

This short story is woven into the Norse myth of Odin, the one-eyed, all-seeing god of war, magic and wisdom. He is a complex figure, associated with poetry and inspiration, madness and battle fury. He is also a shapeshifter and considered fickle, not to be trusted.

No one knows whose side he’s on.

Excerpt

Violet Scott took a deep, uneasy breath as the gray-green orb of Asgard, the home of Odin Systems, appeared in the sentient darkness of space like a gaze. To calm herself, she mentally recited a tale that her grandfather, a professor of ancient Earth religions, had taught her as a child, about a Norse god who had sacrificed an eye to gain the wisdom of ages.

He is warrior, he is poet, he is mad. He is Odin, the Wanderer.

The lavender light behind her eyes turned incandescent white as she entered orbit. A gray shadow crossed it, a raven moving over a twilit cliff face. She brushed it off with a chill on her heart that crept down into her womb like a spider.

The center of the hexagram in her mind shimmered as a clairaudient voice filled the space around her. “Odin Systems Ministry, calling Fenrir One. Identify.”

“Valkyrie Scott,” she responded, carving her thought with a focused knife. “Warden of the Nightshade Outpost. Requesting permission to land.”

She held her mind in a state of receptivity, a controlled opening surrounded by a steely network of supposition. Sprays of stars arced over her ship, a Fenrir fighter, glistening and fell in the emptiness between worlds. The soft, warm interior of the hull surrounded her body like the guts of a wolf that had consumed her.

A long silence caused her to realize she had just unthinkingly given them the title of Valkyrie, which was no longer hers.

“Request authorized,” came the response finally, devoid of emotion. “Report to the Hall of Gladsheim.”

Violet eased back in her seat, spinning complex webs of geometry, the equations of a landing. She closed her eyes as the forces of entry gripped the hull and streamed over her mind in streaks of red, orange and nonlinear questions. A prickle raced up the right side of her spine.

He rules over his great Council of Twelve, in his Hall of Gladsheim.

Gladsheim. Not Valhalla, the hall in the east where the warriors were housed and trained; not Valaskjalf, the hall in the west that coldly ensconced the Systems Controls Tower. Not a good sign.

She focused on the Light with an iron hand. Light fueled her ship; Light from every sun, color and tree; Light, the foundation of the cosmos. She gazed through the center of the star, spiraling in as darkness closed a fist around her.

But she would not look into the Void. Not here, in sight of the Judges.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Short Story, 20 pages
Originally published in Aoife’s Kiss, Issue 35, December 2010

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© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The Hooded Crow

The Hooded Crow

There is an especially striking bird in the corvid family known as a Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix). They are found across Europe and in parts of the Middle East. Also called Hoodiecrows, Corbies or Grey Crows, they are ash gray with a black head and throat (hence the name), wings and tail. As with all crows and ravens, these birds are extremely intelligent and surrounded by myths and fairy tales.

Heh. Far be it for me not to give homage to such a beautiful, mysterious creature. In Outpost, Book One in The Fylking, the hooded crow shows up as a harbinger of the gods, leaving our protagonists mystified as to what it’s up to.

In The Riven God, Book Four in the Chronicles of Ealiron, an immortal being with a thirst for vengeance and a sense of humor gains the help of a mortal warrior to open the gates for his feathered, otherworldly devotees, thereby changing the course of a war.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The Ubiquitous Corvid

Nightshade in Flight

A raven landed on the rock, released a deep-throated cry then rose into the air and wheeled away, blending with the night. The priestess watched his form against the stars until she could not see him anymore. Then she picked up the knife. ~ From The Riven God

I live in the woods, and my vegetable garden is fenced in to keep the wildlife from eating it. For two years now, some creature has maintained a tunnel to my well-stocked compost pile despite my best efforts to thwart it. I’ve never seen this mysterious sapper; it comes in the night. Amazingly, it doesn’t bother anything in the garden, so I concluded the compost is a good first line of defense. The beastie doesn’t bother to venture beyond it.

Edgar Watching over my garden with the patience of a plastic thing is a big black corvid. A puzzling ornament, he is big enough to be a raven but has the beak of a crow. He stands in a stately pose. I dubbed him Edgar. He doesn’t deter night raiders, blue jays, cabbage moths or mice. But he is good company.

In traditional animal lore, crows and ravens were given the honor of belonging to both the seen and the unseen realms. They are creatures of the hinterlands, mysterious, powerful and devious. This is a natural association given their intelligence, which is formidable. That these birds tend to accompany death also makes them ominous, both feared and revered by their ubiquitous presence on the carcasses of animals, the condemned, or fallen warriors. They are omens, heralds of death and bringers of information from the other side.

Winter Moon Raven, by F.T. McKinstryThe Vikings had great respect for ravens, and a symbiotic relationship with them similar to that of wolves, as the birds led them to prey and shared in the spoils. The Norse god Odin, the one-eyed, all-seeing god of war, magic and wisdom, keeps two ravens named Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) which fly over the land and whisper to him of all they see and hear.

These birds fascinate me to no end and they have found a special place in my work, both visual and literary. I have dedicated an art gallery to them, given their names to high-ranking wizards’ orders and made characters of them in their own right. One such character is a raven called Nightshade, who plays a major role in The Riven God, Book Four in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

Nightshade, by F.T. McKinstryNightshade is no ordinary raven, if any raven can be called that. Marked by a single white feather in her tail, she is a messenger kept by wizards for times when their powers of otherworldly communication do not serve. She does this on her own terms, however. Nightshade finds someone lost at sea without the help or instruction of her keepers; she disappears for days at a time on mysterious errands; has been known to hang about with war gods telling them who knows what; and even appears to one startled wizard as a warrior lost to memory.

In the following excerpt, an exiled princess lost at sea meets Nightshade for the first time.

She jumped as the squawking repeated outside. Gasping with pain, she pushed herself up and crept to the gaping crack between the hull and what used to be the cabin hatch. Clouds drifted across a hazy sky. The diluted orb of the sun shone like an eye shrouded by age.

A raven fluttered into view and alit on the broken mast.

“You,” Rhinne rasped. Something like this had awaked her earlier. The bird preened its glossy black feathers. It had one white feather in its tail. What was it doing out here? Rhinne pushed herself through the crack like a timid cat and scanned the horizon in every direction.

No land. Nothing.

The bird took off and flew out of sight. Rhinne had no clear references by which to mark the direction of its flight.

She lowered herself back into the cabin. Trust the water. She abruptly broke into laughter. She slammed her fists down and then shoved her face in her hands, laughing like a wild thing, tugging at her hair and rocking forward, clutching at her salt encrusted clothes. This was absurd. She had just died following the advice of a delusion and now a raven was harassing her. She was nothing but a weak, stupid creature that had been crushed by a bigger, stronger, smarter creature. So it was.

Three days passed.

In the clutches of hunger and thirst, rocking in the cycles of day and night and the swells and movements of the sea, Rhinne decided she was not dead, but living and stranded somewhere in the Sea of Derinth. At night, the gibbous moon told her that over a week had passed since her departure from Tromb. It rained once, giving her a brief respite from thirst. But her throat ached and every part of her body wept with too much noise.

She had seen the raven twice more; once at sunset the first day and again the day after, in the evening. She had not seen it since. Wherever it had come from, it undoubtedly knew she would die and planned to feast on her remains. She thought long and hard on how she might turn the tables, capture and eat it herself.

It had also occurred to her that the bleak creature served Ragnvald or Dore, and was giving them reports as to her whereabouts. Unfortunately, she had no bow or arrows, not even a knife. And a raven would not be easily ensnared.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Hooded crows also play a part in The Riven God. No one sees them coming, not even the one who summons them. But that’s another tale.

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.

The War God Sleeps

The Temple of Math

Loneliness and a quest for knowledge will drive a person to many things. Combine this with the vision of a shaman, and an age of ignorance ends on the edge of a sword.

Excerpt

Loneliness remained one mystery that defied Sethren’s mind, despite his understanding of structure and formlessness. The space between the lines had become a wellspring of loneliness, an opaque impression only water seemed to penetrate. He often wondered if his father, a hermit whom the folk in the villages thought mad, living as he did on the wild edges of their simple existences, felt lonely. But then, his father lived half of his conscious life elsewhere. Perhaps the ones he spoke to there, the ones who told him things, kept him company.

According to him, loneliness had driven the War God to abandon the world. An entity who caused death by reaching through the lines into the darkness that created them knew the solitude of the Mother; and after so many turns of a world from life to death to life, so many spirals in so many eons, he could no longer bear it. So the War God grew sad and went to sleep.

The hermit spoke of a temple in the north, at the base of Math’s Eye, the mountain range that protected the realm. He said the War God slept there, beneath five points, five lines and a raven’s eye. So said the old tales. So said the mad. No one else spoke of such things.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“The War God Sleeps” is included in Wizards, Woods and Gods, a collection of twelve dark fantasy tales exploring the mysteries of the Otherworld through tree and animal lore, magic, cosmos, love, war and mysticism.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Gods and Cats

Love is whole. Love cannot be divided from itself. Love knows all paths, where even gods and cats are blind. – From The Old One’s Domain

The greater a wizard’s power, the bigger his problems—and the higher the price he pays for not attending to them.

Order of Raven, by F.T. McKinstry

Standard for the Order of Raven

Urien of Eyeroth belongs to the highest order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchical order of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. He has the ability to shapeshift into flora, fauna, earth, or fog. He can cast an apparition or merge with the minds of gods. He knows the Dark Tongue, a primeval language spoken by the votaries of the Old One.

He also has a broken heart. And it has driven him to make some lousy decisions.

Excerpt

Raven at Night, by F.T. McKinstryUrien of Eyeroth, a Master of the Eye of the Order of Raven, hurried along the winding forest path beneath a sky shrouded in midnight. Restless wind stirred the trees, and the air smelled of rain and moldering leaves. The light from his torch painted the barren forest in shades of his own reflection, black-haired, gray-eyed and pale for want of a touch. He pulled his cloak close, unable to determine which made him more uncomfortable: the dreary woods or the new moon settling onto his heart like a cloud of moths.

Earlier, he had been ensconced in a comfortable chamber high in the citadel of Eyrie, home of the Keepers of the Eye, reading a text on the principles of structure and formlessness. He had not wanted to leave when the sun descended into the mists, and dusk cloaked the land in damp, unpleasant cold. But he had agreed, under the hollow gaze of the high priestess Wilima, to look into the Void.

He had to ignore his unease that something bad would happen if he did not.

Water Dark, a tale of desire and deception told on a fairy-tale landscape of arcane texts, herbal lore, visions and disasters at the hands of the powerful.
 
© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Nature as Muse: Creepy and Crawly

An interesting thing about nature is that its humbler critters are every bit as awesome as high profile creatures such as wolves or cats. Watch things up close and the web of interconnection becomes enormous and beautifully complex. For this reason, I am captivated by the creepy crawly side of life. I would not kill a snake or knock down a hornet’s nest. I warn the frogs in the pond to avoid the cats if they know what’s good for them. I don’t mind the big spider in the kitchen window; she looks after things. And the earthworms in my compost pile are magnificent.

As all these things have their place in the woods, they also creep into my stories as actual creatures, similes or metaphors. I enjoy painting them, too. In this post we’ll visit the wise frog, conscientious spider, sneaky snake, elegant fish and crafty raven.

Frog

‘Tis not where water is a frog will be, but where a frog is water will be. ~ Traditional

Frog Medicine, by F.T. McKinstryFrogs are a staple of fairy tales. Witches tend to traffic with them; a handy, unattractive shape for a handsome prince or worse, an ingredient in a simmering cauldron. Of themselves, frogs have an otherworldly air, dwelling on the borders of earth and water, calling for rain.

Far be it for me to create a witch and not mention a frog. The following verse is uttered by a girl in trouble, and it summons a very special frog (hint: it’s not a prince).

These things three, your garden needs
To make the dark and light the same.
Slis, a frog,
Gea, the spring and
Retch, the oldest wizard’s name. – “The Trouble with Tansy,” Wizards, Woods and Gods

Spider

“If anyone wanted ter find out some stuff, all they’d have ter do would be ter follow the spiders. That’d lead ‘em right! That’s all I’m sayin’.” ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Spider Web, by F.T. McKinstryI have a great deal of respect for spiders. They are good at what they do and they are elegant about it. A common human phobia is named after them as a result. It’s a primordial thing. I wouldn’t harm a spider out of hand, but if one got on me I would scream like the girl I am and not be ashamed.

A well-placed spider will demand one’s immediate attention. Lorth of Ostarin, a protagonist in The Chronicles of Ealiron, bears a scar from a spider bite that nearly killed him. Being an assassin, he appreciates hunters and creatures of the dark side. Perhaps this is why a wisewoman dragged him out of the swamp and saved his life.

He had not known the face of his own death before that, though he knew death in every part of his nature, being the hand that so often dealt it. Now, the spider bite lived in his body as a presence just below the surface of thought. It sensed the nature of events around him, and intensified when anything came along to which he needed to attend.The Hunter’s Rede

Snake

I’m a tiger when I want love, but I’m a snake if we disagree. ~ Jethro Tull

Ribbon Snake, by F.T. McKinstryI once kept a ribbon snake named Kali. I knew she was female because she gave birth shortly after I acquired her. Extraordinary creature; smooth as silk, silent, patient, and breathtakingly fast when she wanted to be. She ate live goldfish.

In myths and legends the snake is an ambivalent being, portrayed as both wicked and wise. It is associated with the Otherworld, as it can vanish into hidden places and replace its skin, a symbol of rebirth. In the following excerpt, the snake provides a visual for a dark place that serves as the Otherworld for a time.

Water rose, echoing in a hollow space. Black and slick as the gullet of a snake, the jaws of the cavern enveloped a small light, a candle in the vastness of mortal despair. A soul flowed out as the sea flowed in, driven by the unnatural wrath of the storm.The Gray Isles

Fish

Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.
~ William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Fish Kingdom, by F.T. McKinstryI’m an aquarium geek. If you ever want to discover firsthand how smart nature is, try setting up a tank with fishes and live plants and keep them thriving. In the natural world, there is a balance between them, a symbiotic relationship that depends on countless variables difficult to replicate. I don’t look at my pond in quite the same way anymore. I am in awe of it.

Fishes make lovely impressions. A sensitive, calm, and sinuous creature reflecting the qualities of water itself, a fish is hidden beneath the surface, ruling the depths. In the following excerpt, one of my characters is transforming into a creature of the sea—and becoming personally familiar with the nature of fishes.

Like a fish startled by a vibration in the water, his nocturnal senses flitted into edged focus, sidelong, obscure, and hunted.The Gray Isles

Raven

I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech. ~ Taliesin

Winter Moon Raven, by F.T. McKinstryA raven is not exactly creepy or crawly, unless you consider that birds evolved from reptiles. But like the snake or the spider, the raven gets points for being emotionally controversial. Mythology and literature abound with raven lore, associating these birds with wolves, death and trickery. Dark, mysterious and incredibly intelligent, the raven is also linked with healing and initiation, processes that tend to usher mortals into the void.

The raven holds a special place in my universe: the symbol for the highest Order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchy of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. The following excerpt involves a mysterious wizard of this order. Folks say he can turn back time, talk to apple trees and change himself into a wolf or a snowstorm.

Tansel’s home faded quickly behind as she hurried after the Raven of Muin. He had said something to Mushroom in a weird tongue that somehow convinced the cat to stay close. Tansel had a harder time keeping up. With remarkable agility for one so old, the wizard moved through the forest like something wild, graceful, and alert to the presence of predators. He took no path or common road. His presence had all the physical immediacy of a dream, reminding Tansel that he had appeared from thin air in the center of her garden.The Winged Hunter

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Nature as Muse: Warm and Furry
Nature as Muse: Root and Stone
Nature as Muse: Water and Sky

© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.