Shamans, Priests, and Crows

Courtesy of Jennie Kristel

Today is All Souls Day. Throughout the Americas families and individuals will gather tonight, or tomorrow night, to welcome the returning Dead. Those who gather by family alters, or in churches or cemeteries, will bring with them wonderful food and beautiful flowers. Some will burn incense or tobacco; others will display transient handmade crafts. Many will remain awake throughout the night, or sleep where they maintain their vigil.

In some ways, everyday is All Souls in South India, where the Ancestors are always present in the form of large crows. These crows are fed in temples, at backyard shrines, and at garbage heaps. Crows are pampered and venerated, and priests and shamans care for them. When crows leave an area, as they have recently left Bangalore, people notice and express concern.

One day, near the end of my time in India, I was sitting with a person who had asked for my aid. After a time of conversation, this person requested a ceremony. The rest of my day was already quite full, as were my remaining days in India. There was no time for a properly conducted ceremony, and I was loath to do anything less.

As I was about to decline the request, a crow came and sat in a tree, just three or four feet from me. The bird looked directly at me and began to squawk. Initially, I ignored it, but the crow then began to hop around, complaining the entire time. I found myself carrying on an internal discussion with the bird, carefully explaining how there simply was not enough time left in my trip for me to conduct such a ceremony.

The crow appeared adamant. After some time, I decided one should not argue with the Ancestors and reluctantly agreed to perform a hurried version of the ceremony. Immediately the crow quieted, then hopped away. The resulting ceremony was indeed hurried, and quite moving.

This all reminded me that a few years ago our neighbors asked us to stop feeding the crows. Our local flock of crows were regarded as a very loud, invasive nuisance. We stopped feeding them, but they never entirely left the neighborhood.

It is my experience that the Spirits and Ancestors are always with us. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of them, or an even happens that confirms their interest in us and our lives. Yet there is something comforting in the India explanation, and in the very presence of the crows, in all their intelligent, raucous aliveness.

Since our return, I have noticed our local crows becoming more present to me. They are often nearby or overhead, and they seem more engaged with me, and more engageable. I wonder how our changed relationship will work out.

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