A raven cried out as I was getting into my car one morning this week, followed quickly by responses from the pair of crows that live in the neighborhood. As I looked up, a half dozen ravens swooped low over the parking lot with a noticeably larger brown bird flying peacefully among them. I’m not an avid bird-watcher, but I have a decent ability to recognize and identify different bird species. This bird, however, wasn’t immediately recognizable to me. I had caught a glimpse of its head and was able to see the sharp, hooked beak typical of birds of prey. The grace and power of its flight was also clearly that of a raptor. I’d seen enough to get an overall feel for its color (brown with shimmers of gold when in bright sun).
A bird-watching acquaintance was able to identify the bird based on my description and the silhouette I’d captured in a quick snap with my cell phone. “What you saw is almost never seen in this part of the country,” she stated. She told me then that it was an immature golden eagle that I’d spotted. In between mumblings of “hate you”, “blind luck”, and “not fair”, she said asked if I had any idea of how many people she knew who had spotted either a golden or bald eagle within a hundred mile area of where we sat. “I can count them on one hand,” she stated. She then showed me with an upraised middle finger how many she knew who had seen both species in this region (see The Easter Eagle). Call it a psychic vibe, but something tells me that I might have upset her.
Another acquaintance who was with us immediately decided that it must be some sort of sign. I sighed and silently dreaded the inevitable search for meaning that would follow. I think too often people assign unnecessary importance to things that catch their attention or appear in some way to be unusual. In the case of my acquaintance, she assumed that spotting these birds together must automatically hold significance, since “you like ravens, don’t you?”. Um, yes, I do. In fact, they are an important symbol of my spiritual work. However, they are also a common bird, one that I see nearly every day. Unless popping up in an extremely odd place or doing something extremely extraordinary, I don’t consider them to be omens. I explained this but went unheard. By the end of the conversation, the acquaintance had convinced herself that the eagle among the ravens was a sign of impending war, that I was going to be under attack from some powerful, predatory force, and that there is a darkness coming soon.
Um, sure, I’ll polish up my armor and sharpen my sword momentarily. I’ll light a fire and throw up some protective wards as well. Just give me a minute to wipe away the tears of laughter. I’ll concede her last point as an accurate foretelling, since it was said in late afternoon on a cloudy winter day and darkness really did come shortly afterward. However, ten out of ten people could have accurately made that prediction. Lest I sound too cynical, let me explain: I do think that the universe does sometimes give us signs and that the gods do occasionally speak through omens. I also believe that omens can only be deciphered by the people for whom they were intended. Too often, things that are interesting, unusual, or attention-grabbing get mislabeled as omens, because someone wants to make them more meaningful (or is simply thinking wishfully). Experiences can have intrinsic meaning of their own without heralding some future event.
I have no trouble assigning significance to sighting an eagle flying with ravens. The rarity of the event gives it significance. Stretching the experience into some warning of pending conflict because someone else says it is so? Not going to happen. Natural phenomenon are just that; to be an omen something more is required. My personal criteria: an omen is an extraordinary event recognizable as such when it happens, has a markedly different feeling to it than normal experience, communicates something that is either important or revelatory in its nature, and does not require additional meaning to be added later. Seeing an eagle flying with ravens is not an omen by my definition. It meets the first point perhaps (it was extraordinary), but fails on the remaining points. Now if the birds had all landed on my car and whistled “Flight of the Valkyries” in three part harmony, I might consider that an omen of a coming war.* Now that would be a proper omen.
*More likely, I might consider having a CAT scan in the very near future if a chorus of birds started performing Wagner.