The Limits of Natural History: From Melville to The Tlingit Raven, Yéil

15 Mar 2023 04.00 PM - 06.00 PM SHHK Conference Room (SHHK-05-57) Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public


In genus and myth cormorants and ravens are related: Corvus Marinus, Sea Raven, and Corvus Corax, common raven. Seventeenth and eighteen century theologians linked both birds to Satan. Leviticus reviles cormorants and ravens as unclean and unfit for human consumption. Yet ornithologists separate the common raven from its seafaring cousin.  Buffon derides the raven for attaching to “the rock where they were bred” and sleeping in “straggling trees.” Western natural history derives its association of ravens and unregenerate earth from The Book of Genesis. The raven’s failure to return to Noah’s ark proves his apostacy. Biblical exegetes describe raven’s bad terrestrial habits: a carnivorous, scavenging nature enables raven to survive on dead animals washed up on bare patches of land. Eighteenth-century ornithology confines the raven to a terrestrial plane to demarcate unregenerative nature. This talk places western natural historical writings about the raven alongside the Tlingit Raven Cycle from southeast Alaska. Focusing on a sequence of stories about Raven and the Whale (Yéil ka Yáay), this talk shows that knowledge conveyed through the Tlingit story cycle reveals raven’s complexity as a being that moves seamlessly between land and sea. As such, raven takes on a different valance as trickster rather than apostate and as creator as well as destroyer. The Tlingit Raven cycle not only offers an alternate way of seeing and relating to non-human animals but also recenters human relationships to the natural world.  

About the Speaker:

Sarah Rivett is Professor of English and American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (2011) and Unscripted America: Indigenous Languages and the Origins of a Literary Nation (2017). She is currently writing a book on ravens in American literary history.