A Diet of Jackdaws and Ravens
by James J. S. Johnson
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. … The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. (Psalm 46:1 & 46:11)
Looking at ravens, recently, I was reminded of the 46th Psalm and a hymn that majestically paraphrases its doxological theology. Also I was reminded of the Jackdaw (Corvus monedula), which is cousin to the Raven (Corvus corax), both of which corvids range in Germany.
But how are these – Psalm 46, a hymn, ravens, and jackdaws — connected?
Let’s begin with a famous hymn that paraphrases, in lyrical dignity, from the content of the 46th Psalm. Surely you recognize these lyrics:
Of course, the lyrics are penned by a Saxon theologian of the AD1500s, in German, so maybe an English translation (of that hymn’s lyrics) would be more helpful. This German hymn (“Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”) was translated into English, as early as AD1539, by Bible translator Miles Coverdale, with the title “Oure God is a defence and towre” [notice obsolete spellings of “our”, “defense”, and “tower”]. The hymn’s composition (AD1529), as well as its original melody and meter, comes to us thanks to Dr. Martin Luther, the great Reformer.
But the most familiar English translation of this heroic hymn, by Frederick Hedge (AD1853), is “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing”, which begins:
- A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
- Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name, from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.
- And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
- That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.
Of course, Lutheran choirs and organists know this hymn well!
Yet how does this hymn, and its music-loving author (Dr. Martin Luther), relate to a “diet of jackdaws and ravens”?
In the year AD1530 an ecclesiastical confrontation was scheduled to occur at Augsburg (a city in Bavaria, Germany), but Dr. Luther was persuaded to stay behind – mostly for his personal safety’s sake – in Coburg (a town of Bavaria, near Augsburg) because Luther was declared an “outlaw” at the Diet of Worms, so he was an unprotected target). So Luther staid there, writing to his friend Philip Melanchthon (and others), as Luther waited for the next important event to occur in Germany’s (and Europe’s) Reformation. But Luther was not one who would contently wait while others battled – and the controversy would have reminded Luther of prior confrontations that he had personally experienced, in defense and promotion of Luther’s Bible-based faith.
While in Coburg, therefore, Luther’s imagination could picture the clutter and cawing of agenda-driven clergymen (and bustling government officials) who were gathering, in Augsburg, to cluck about theological controversies, at what would be a hotly contested “diet” (conference of representative delegates). Luther could easily imagine the conspiring conversations of the corrupt clergymen who would soon be attending and arguing at the Augsburg “diet”, seeking to ensnare Melanchthon and Luther’s other Protestant allies.
In Barnas Seares’ biography of Dr. Luther, titled THE LIFE OF LUTHER, WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO ITS EARLIER PERIODS AND THE OPENING SCENES OF THE REFORMATION (American Sunday-School Press, 1850; 2010 reprint by Attic Books), he describes how Luther’s birdwatching provoked memories of prior confrontational conferences:
“A mind like Luther’s could not remain inactive, and, for want of other employment, he suffered his fancy to picture to itself a diet of birds, as he saw them congregate before his window, much as he saw persecuting bishops in the huntsmen and hounds while engaged in the chase at Wartburg [where Luther was sequestered, hidden from his persecutors, during the time Luther translated the Bible in German]. The reader will easily recognize the satire. The sportive letter [written by Luther] was addressed to his table companions at Wittenberg, and reads thus:
‘Grace and peace in Christ, dear friends. … [Luther then explains that he and two other men] do not go to the Augsburg diet, though we are attending another one in this place. There is, directly before my window, a grove where the jackdaws and ravens have appointed a diet; and there is such a coming and going, and such a hubbub, day and night, that you would think them all tipsy. Old and young keep up such a cackling, that I wonder how their breath holds out so long. I should like to know if there are any of these nobles and knights with you, for it seemeth to me that all in the world are gathered together here. I have not yet seen their emperor, but the nobles and great ones are all the time moving and frisking before us; not gayly attired, but of one uniform colour, all black and all gray-eyed. They all sing the same song, though with the pleasing diversity of young and old, great and small. They pay no regard to the great palace and hall, for their hall hath the high blue heavens for its ceiling, the ground for its floor, the beautiful green branches for its paneling, and the ends of the world for its walls. They don’t trouble themselves about horses and wagons, for they have winged wheels wherewith to escape from fire-arms. They are great and mighty lords; but what decisions they come [to] I know not. But, so far as I can learn through an interpreter, they meditate a mighty crusade against wheat, barley, oats, malt, and all kinds of corn and grain, and there is here many a hero, who will perform great deeds. … I consider all these nothing but the sophists and papists, with their preachers and secretaries, and must have them all before me thus at once, that I may hear their lovely voices and their preaching, and see how useful a class they are, to devour all that the earth bringeth forth, and cackle for it a while.’” [Quoting Luther, as quoted within Sears, at pages 449-451, with emphasis added.]
Somehow the busy yacking and cawing of the jackdaws and ravens, in Coburg, reminded Dr. Luther of the conspiring ecclesiastical kleptocrats whom he observed (and contended with), those crooked racketeers famous for grabbing (but not for giving) — just as jackdaws and ravens are famous for shamelessly raiding the crop-fields that others work long and hard to produce food from. (See 1st Peter 5:2-3; some things don’t change much!)
Quite a “diet”, pardon the pun.