The following tale is the first in the series of tongue-in-beak stories I made up concerning the ancient relationship our species has had with the corvids-a group of birds whose most familiar members are crows, ravens and magpies. They’ve been here a lot longer than we have. The oldest corvid fossil known is 17 million years old from Mid-Miocene Europe. One of our most ancient ancestors, Australopithecus afarensis walked the Earth between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago.
And, these corvids are very smart.
This first story is about how Crow and Raven brought fire to Humans. The idea is not without precedence: the Native American story of Rainbow Crow also makes this claim, with a slightly different result for the corvid.
At the Very Dawn of Human History…
First Raven and First Crow had flown the skies of Earth for eons before First Human showed up. They didn’t know where these odd beings came from, and they didn’t care. The fact was, there they were. Skinny and hairless, no claws, pathetic flat little teeth, they were utterly defenseless. They could neither fly nor swim nor run fast. Raven and Crow wondered how they came to be so ill-equipped to survive in the world.
The cousins perched in a tree overlooking a band of humans huddled together below them. “They’re sitting ducks down there,” Raven said, his breath frosty in the frigid dawn light. “They’ve got exactly zero advantages, and no defenses. And they don’t know squat.” He pulled a tick from under a wingpit, spat it out.
“They’re pretty good with their hands,” Crow mused, “though they have not yet learned to adapt to this cold world. I do not know what it is they pack inside those huge heads, but it sure ain’t brains. We should lend a wing. You know, help them out a bit.”
Raven looked at his cousin and shook his head. ”Are you insane?” He stood up on his branch and unfurled his great wings. “Remember the old corvid proverb: No good deed goes unpunished. You mark my words, Cousin. The best policy is non-interference.”
“I am not interfering,” Crow said defensively, rising up to remain eye-to-eye with his cousin. “I am helping. And so should you, Cousin. How can you sit up here in your warm downy feathers, your stomach fattened by daily gluttony, due in large part to the abundantly wasteful habits of yonder humans. Yet still you look with such a cold eye upon those poor hairless fools shivering in the dark?”
Raven looked down upon the poor hairless fools and wondered why in the Great Orb it was his problem. “I’m sure they were put here naked for a purpose,” he said, yawning. “They got big brains in those skulls–don’t you remember the one who fell of the cliff? Schmucked ‘em all over the rocks. What a feast it was! Remember?”
Both birds paused for a moment. Recalling, salivating…
“There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t figure out how to stay warm,” Raven said, blithely. “Who taught us? No one! We learned. We had to make our own mistakes, and we’re better for it.”
But Crow was overcome with pity. “How would you like to be out in this wind in your bare skin?” He felt sad for the humans. They were cold and hungry.
In the morning, Crow left his roost and dropped to the ground and told the humans, “You must learn to make fire to keep yourselves warm.”
The Chieftain looked at Crow blankly, his teeth chattering in his nakedness. “M-m-make f-f-fire?”
Crow spent many days teaching the humans how to make fire, but it was all magic to them, and they had great difficulty acquiring the skill. ”It was like the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing,” he reported to Raven on the dismal lack of progress. “Like their own two hands didn’t belong on the same body, and they argued with each other all the time.”
“You’re wasting your time, Cousin,” Raven said with a yawn. “Let them shiver. Necessity is the mother of invention, you know.” He hunkered down in his warm feathers and shut his eyes.
The sound of the humans teeth chattering on the ground below irritated him however, and he couldn’t sleep. “I really don’t see what the big deal is,” he said, opening one eye. “It’s a simple exothermic oxygen-consuming process brought on by the excessive heat generated from the friction of rubbing two sticks together. Intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. I grow weary of their dim wits.”
“But it’s so unfair!” Crow wailed as he paced back and forth on the branch. “We didn’t have to find our own feathers, did we? No, we came with them. But these humans have neither feather nor fur. They’re cold. Who can think critically when they’re cold?”
Thunder rumbled across the valley, and the shivering humans buried their heads in fear under their arms. The wind picked up, and a few pellets of cold rain hit Raven on the head. The sound of wailing below grew louder.
“That tears it!” Raven said angrily.
Without further word or warning, he unfolded his great wings, leapt into the air and flew off into the darkening sky.
Alarmed at Raven’s sudden departure, for the storm promised to be a very wild one, Crow called out: “Cousin, no, don’t go!”
But Raven heard him not, and he flew right into the thunderstorm. Powerful winds and sheets of rain battered him, yet he was steadfast in his purpose. Staying low near the ground, Raven dodged lightning bolts until one struck the tree right in front of him, sending fiery projectiles in all directions.
He caught a flaming branch in his beak and bore it out of the storm, back toward the freezing humans. As Raven approached, the skinny hairless things were trying with all they had to get a fire lit, struggling to remember what Crow had taught them. Arguing heatedly with one another, they had no patience with their own ineptitude.
“No, Dufus,” one human said, irritably. “You rub have to rub two sticks together, otherwise the fire won’t work.”
“Fine, Dumass, you do it, then.” Dufus said. He threw the fire stick down and walked off in a rage.
At that moment Raven swooped in, a ball of fire in the downpour. His black feathers glistened as a lightning bolt shot across the sky.
The humans cowered and pled for mercy, thinking they would be punished for being stupid, for failing to learn their lessons, for failing to make fire. But Raven said nothing. He dropped the burning branch right into the fire pit.
“Don’t let it go out, you Fools!” Raven called out as he flew away.
When Raven got back to the tree, Crow was overjoyed to see him. “I thought you were goners, Cousin. Whatever made you go out at that moment? That was a nasty storm.”
“Just taking care of a little business,” Raven said and shut his eyes.
The next day Crow flew to the human encampment where they had a roaring fire and were roasting many fish on sticks. Some were dancing around the fire, others were eating.
“How marvelous this fire!” Crow cried as he skidded to a landing right next to the Chieftain. “I’ve got to hand it to you, Chief, I never thought you’d get it, how to build a fire. And now this! I am astonished!”
The Chieftain looked puzzled. Humans hardly ever could tell ravens from crows, and so he had no idea that it had not been Crow, but his cousin Raven that had brought fire to them. The rain abated and the entire tribe had stayed up all night, keeping the fire lit. They stoked it with anything they could get their hands on.
Someone threw a dead fish onto the fire and the odor of its roasting flesh created a thunderous roar among the stomachs of the tribe . They fished the flesh out of the fire and devoured it.
“Look what we discovered, Crow!” the Chieftain exclaimed. “If you put fish into the fire, it comes out great! Try it!”
Crow beaked a few chunks, and agreed. “Marvelous! May I never eat it raw again!”
“Likewise,” the Chieftain said, as bits of pink salmon flesh fell from his mouth.
“We thank you for the gift of fire, Crow, Bearer of the Flame,” the Chieftain said as he pulled a whole salmon from the fire. He handed the meat to Crow and called out to his tribe. “Hear ye Crow, Hear ye Human! Hereafter, Crow, you shall be our friends, gods though you may be. In our camps, wherever we gather, Crow is always welcome.
“In token of our gratitude for bringing us fire, you will forever feast at our table, for all the days of your natural life, and your children’s and their children’s, until such time as children stop being born. Crow and Human will share friendship.”
“And feast,” Crow murmured.
“And feast,” The Chieftain added. “May we never have less! Let neither our friendship nor our feasting cease!”
Crow flew back to the tree and dropped the remains of the blackened fish the humans had bestowed upon him at Raven’s feet. A few chunks had fallen to the ground, or into his beak, on the way back. Still, there was plenty left for his cousin.
“See here, Raven,” Crow bragged, “you laughed every morning when I went off to teach the humans how to make fire. You said they’d never get it. Well, you were wrong, Cousin. They finally learned. For my excellent teaching, they promise me a chunk of meat, cooked to perfection, every day for the rest of my days, and my children’s days, and their children’s days, on into infinity! I will share it with you, Cousin, even though you laughed.”
Raven chuckled. “How precious you are, my dear Cousin. I am happy to know the humans finally learned something. It’s a small victory, though. Chances are we’ll be dragging them kicking and screaming into the Old Stone Age before too long. I reckon you’ll have to beat them over the head with a simple stone tool before they could figure out how to make one.”
“But they sure are grateful!” Crow said as he snagged a chunk of meat.
“For now,” Raven said.
The two cousins gorged themselves on the leftovers from the human table again later that day, and every day after that, for all the days that Crow and Raven lived on Earth. Their children and grandchildren gorged all the days of their lives. And their Great-grandchildren…..