05/01/2014 11:45 GMT | Updated 06/03/2014 05:59 GMT

One Raven Away from Doom

In Homer's The Illiad, the Trojan warriors were driving the Greek invaders back to their ships, when an eagle with a serpent in its claws appeared in the sky. The serpent bit the eagle, which released it, and the snake fell, still writhing, among the Trojans, who feared the event might be an omen of defeat. Hector, their leader, chose to ignore the serpent and continued his charge, setting events in motion that would finally lead to the fall of Troy.

In medieval Japan, the Genji and Heike clans were both preparing for the great naval battle of Dan-no-ura, when a vast school of dolphins suddenly surfaced and swam towards the Heike boats. The Heike warriors initially took their approach as a hopeful sign, and expected the dolphins to either remain on the surface or circle back towards the Genji. When the dolphins dived and swam beneath the Heike fleet instead, the Heike feared they were doomed, and many of their allies deserted to the Genji.

Until a few decades ago, people generally assumed that animal divination, along with other superstitious practices, was a survival of ancient times, destined to fade away as people became progressively more rational.But superior reason doesn't stop crowds of reporters and tourists from gathering around the hole of the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania every February 2, to learn from him whether winter is about to end.

Team sports, which are essentially simulated wars, are now openly accompanied by animal divination. This came to public attention when Paul the octopus at Oberhausen Zoo in Germany successfully predicted the outcome of all eight World Cup soccer championship games in 2010. Today many other animals, mostly in Germany, are being used to predict the outcome of soccer games, including an elephant, pig, alpaca, otter, cow, bulldog, goat, and python.

It is a little hard to tell just how seriously people take Paul the octopus and his successors, and it is just as hard to tell how much the Homeric heroes really believed in the divinatory power of eagles and serpents. In both these instances, the exhilaration of combat may have moved people to respond to events in otherwise uncharacteristic ways.

Perhaps animal divination serves largely to focus human attention and confirm intuitive conclusions. Even before the omen, Hector's recklessness was apparent to the counselor Polydamas and probably to other Trojans. Before the dolphins appeared, the Heike had already suffered many serious defeats. When Paul predicted its victory, Spain was already the favorite to win the 2010 World Cup.

Rather than the relic of a hoary age, animal divination is something that is likely to surface in any era when the conditions are right. The tension, excitement, and insecurity that accompany war and sport lead people to look for portents, especially in the behavior of animals. It is galling to think that a game point in soccer may be decided by whether a ball is blown a fraction of an inch off course by the wind. Animal divination might seem irrational, but it reassures people that all things have a reason and purpose, even when they appear arbitrary.

As I showed in my book City of Ravens, ravens were first brought to the Tower of London in about 1883 to serve as props for tales of Gothic horror told by Beefeaters to the tourists. During World War II, people used these ravens as spotters for enemy bombs and planes, and their employment was quickly mythologized as a prophecy--that the British Empire would fall if the ravens ever left the Tower. This prediction, which sounded "primitive," was then displaced into the remote past, and used to make ravens at the Tower one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain.

In 1945, just before the Tower of London was about to reopen after shutting down for World War II, the last two ravens, a mated pair named Mabel and Gripp, escaped. The British Empire was dismantled shortly afterwards, so people could have said that the prophecy was confirmed, and there was consequently no further need for visionary ravens. Instead, new ravens were brought in, and their prophecy was amended to say that the British Commonwealth would fall if the ravens left the Tower. When Britain joined the European Common Market, the Commonwealth lost much of its importance, so the ravens were said to hold the fate of Britain herself. Merlin, a female raven at the Tower of London, was used to predict results of the 2012 Olympics.

But, over the past few decades, the ravens have increasingly been associated with the monarchy. In 2011 a baby raven was born at the Tower of London, the first in decades. The bird was named "Jubilee," and was ceremonially presented to Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of celebrations that marked the 50th anniversary of her accession to the throne. In 2013 an urban fox managed to find its way into the Tower and, tragically, managed to kill two ravens, Jubilee among them. This was immediately interpreted as an omen. On October 30, 2013, for example, a headline in The Telegraph, a leading London newspaper, proclaimed, "One spare raven away from the end of the world." Some people interpreted the incident as a sign from heaven that Britain should not have banned fox hunting, while others blamed allowing immigrants into the country.

This sort of development was probably inevitable, since the Crown has become a sort of repository for British traditions and mythologies that would elsewhere seem anachronistic. As British society in general became more modern and industrial during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Crown provided a sort of balance by growing more ostentatiously "medieval," in its renewed emphasis on jewels, bloodlines, prophesies, protocols, mysteries, and, most especially, elaborate ceremonies. Perhaps, though, the message of the fox is this: In post-Industrial society, "magic" is, once again, to be found almost everywhere, and not so easily confined, contained, or controlled.