The Hunting of the Wren – Hela’r Dryw – is a winter mumming custom practiced in Wales and other Celtic countries since at least the middle ages. There are two distinct phases of the practice: the hunt itself, and the subsequent parading of the captured wren. While each of these phases were often performed over the course of several days, they may both have originated from a single ceremony that evolved in practice and meaning over time.
Although, like the Mari Lwyd, there is no direct evidence which connects the wren hunt to ancient Pagan practices, folk wisdom associates wrens with the Druids, which may have contributed to the bird’s privileged status. The Druids were said to have considered the birds sacred, and kept them in cages for divinatory purposes; they also conducted augury with wrens in the wild, finding significance in the direction and place from which the birds sang. In support of this, there appears to be an etymological connection between wren and Druid, and it has been suggested that the Proto-Celtic word drero meaning “true” was the origin for the words for wren, druid and soothsayer. This supports a hypothesis that the Manx word for wren – dreian – may have developed from druai-eean meaning “druid’s bird”, and may also explain why the word dryw in Welsh means both “wren” and “druid.” (Potentially from PIE *dóru(“tree”) + *weyd-(“to see” or “to know”), literally: “tree-knower”).
King and Sacrifice
It is clear that wrens were held in high regard across Europe, and they appear to have an almost universal connection with royalty; in many European languages the name for the wren glosses back to mean “king”. Some examples include: Greek (basiliskos, “little king”), Latin (regulus, “king”), French (roitelet, “little king”), Spanish (reyezuelo, “little king”), Italian (reatino, “little king”), Danish (elle-konge, “alder king”), Dutch (konije, “king” or winter-koninkje, “winter king”), German (zaunkonig, “hedge king”), and Teutonic (konig vogel, “king of birds”).
How is it that this tiny bird was considered to be a king? One explanation comes to us from a Manx folk-tale, which tells the story of a gathering of all of the birds of the air at Tynwald, on the Isle of Man. They wanted to determine, once and for all, who would be first among them. Deciding that the cleverest among them should be their king, each bird came forward in turn to state what gifts they had which set them above all of the rest. Although some laughed at the tiny wren when she came forward, she proved her cleverness and gained the approval of the gathering by saying:
“Small though I am and slender my leg,
Twelve chicks I can bring out of the egg”
The eagle, however, did not want the wren to hold higher status than he, and suggested instead that the bird who could fly the highest should be the one to rule over them all. The gathered birds agreed, and the competition began. The eagle flew up as high as he could, far surpassing all of the rest. He called out to the assembly below him, “’I am King of the Birds, King of the Birds!” – but he didn’t realize that the wren had hidden herself among his feathers, and as he made his proclamation, she jumped up to the top of his head and cried out, “’Not so, not so! I’m above him, I’m above him!” And thus, through her cleverness, the wren became king of the birds.
The wren’s connection with royalty is important when considering some of the theories surrounding the purpose and meaning of the wren hunt. In his classic work, The Golden Bough, Frazer talks about the hunting of the wren along with several examples of similar ritual behavior from other cultures, writing:
The worshipful animal is killed with special solemnity once a year; and before or immediately after death he is promenaded from door to door, that each of his worshipers may receive a portion of the divine virtues that are supposed to emanate from the dead or dying god. Religious processings of this sort must have had a great place in the ritual of European peoples in prehistoric times, if we may judge from the numerous traces of them which have survived in folk custom. (Frazer, The Golden Bough, pg. 145)
Perhaps, then, the wren stood as proxy for an ancient tradition where the annual king would be sacrificed at year’s end to ensure the abundance of the crops and animals in the year to come. There are echoes of this found in several variations of wren hunt traditions. One of the most complex celebrations occurred in Carcassonne, France, and was celebrated until around 1830. Whomever found and killed the first wren during the hunt was “crowned” king, and brought the dead bird home affixed to a pole to proclaim his victory. Later, on New Year’s Eve, the king and the other hunters embarked upon a procession through town accompanied by musicians and torchbearers. Every so often, they’d stop to write the date and “Vive le Roi” in chalk on the doors of houses as they passed. Finally, on Twelfth Night, a date very often associated with the wren hunt, the “king” would don full royal regalia and attend High Mass, preceded by the body of the wren displayed triumphantly on a garlanded pole. Afterwards, the king would spend the day visiting important people in town who would gift him money with which he would throw a grand feast in the evening.
Even if the sacred nature of the wren does not have its origin in ancient pagan practices, we can say with some degree of certainty that, from medieval times onward, the wren was an honored and protected species of bird. Except on the day of the wren hunt, it was considered bad luck to harm a wren or to disturb its nest, a belief reflected in Welsh folk sayings such as:
Y neb a dorro nyth y dryw
Ni chaiff iechayd yn ei fyw
Whoever robs the wren’s nest shall
Never have wealth in his life
This protected status may further bolster the idea of the wren as a sacrifice, and the exchange of its precious life during the dark time of the year was a powerful offering to whatever forces decided how lucky or abundant the new year would be. The Hunting of the Wren is an example of a ritual folk practice which countermands the usual order of things, and it does so in several ways as we shall see.
Sacrifice and Rebirth
In The Folklore of Birds, Armstrong makes a case for the significance of the wren hunt occurring near or around the Winter Solstice, saying that it is a “New Year ceremonial having as its purpose the defeat of the dark-earth powers and identification with the hoped-for triumph of light and life”. This connection with fertility and light may share its roots with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which would have been celebrated in Britain during the Roman period. Of course, cultures throughout time and around the world have celebrated the rebirth of the light during the darkest nights around the winter solstice. Whether or not the practice of the wren hunt evolved to serve as a stand-in for human sacrifice, the bird came to be associated with the energies of the old year, and its death cleared the way for the new year to come.
Although hunted and captured, the wren was not always killed. In Pembrokeshire, the wren was carried around on Twelfth Night in a cage by a youth who went house to house asking for monetary offerings for the king; at the end of the ceremonies, the wren was let go. In Kirkmaiden, the live bird was tied with colorful ribbons and then set free. In Tenby, a small decorated house was constructed with glass panels on both ends so that the bird placed within it could be seen during processions. This wren-house was decorated with ribbons and carried by four men who held it aloft on poles. The wren company would carry this decorated house from door to door, singing songs, and pretending to struggle under the enormous weight of this tiny bird – another example of the reversals associated with the wren hunt. In other districts, an old lantern decorated with ribbons was used if no wren-houses were available. If the wren company or “wren-boys” had failed in the hunt, a sparrow might be used as a replacement. In modern times, where the killing of the wren is looked down upon, a carved potato with feathers stuck into its flesh was used to represent the wren in places like Southern Ireland.
Some folklorists believe that the wren was a symbol of the life force, and that it may have obtained this association through its obsessive nest building and prolific breeding. In contrast, at the turn of the year “the bird was captured, killed, reverenced, and buried – perhaps in substitution for an annual human sacrifice –to promote the fertility of flocks and fields in the year ahead.” (Wentersdorf, pg. 193) Perhaps as a reflection of these rejuvenating powers, the Pembrokeshire tradition sees the wren–house borne to the homes of the wren-boys’ sweethearts, This holds resonance with the fertility aspect of the Mari Lwyd, which, when associated with the wassail, more often visited the houses of those who were newly married or who had recently moved to a new home. It is notable to mention that in places where the wren hunt occurred at a time outside of the winter holiday season, it almost always occured on St. Valentine’s Day and in and around May Day – both spring festivals associated with love and fertility. In these cases, the wren is kept alive after capture, and was likely later released.
On the Isle of Man, the wren hunt occurred on St. Stephen’s Day, and the specifics of their processional practices have been very well documented. Although the first person who caught the wren was not crowned a king, as in France, he was considered a leader of sorts in the community and was associated with good luck in the year to come. In Manx custom, the dead bird was paraded through town tied upside down by its feet; sometimes it was carried between the double hoops of a garland decorated with ribbons, other times the body was affixed to a long pole that was similarly decorated, with the occasional addition of a handkerchief which served as a banner. The wren-boys carried this in procession and were accompanied by a third youth who was covered by a net. The latter’s face was blackened and he wore a tail fashioned by a bunch of leeks which were attached to his back. As they processed, they would sing:
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can;
We hunted the wren for Robbin the Bobbin
We hunted the wren for every one.
The feathers of the ceremonial wren were considered to be incredibly lucky, and were either sold or given away as good luck charms. In addition to being brought from house to house, the wren would be carried aboard fishing boats to ensure abundant hauls. Fishermen carried wren feathers with them as a charm against drowning or shipwreck. When the celebration was over, the plucked body of the wren was buried in a churchyard or at sea in coastal areas. This tradition continues to the present day, although instead of a bird, only the garlanded and beribboned poles are carried from door to door.
While it is possible that the wren hunt has its origins in pagan antiquity and may be the remnant of a yearly sacrifice of a divine king, several different origin stories explaining the practice evolved over time, recasting the tradition with a more acceptable, Christian veneer. These stories typically depict the wren in a bad light, perhaps as an attempt to justify the annual killing of the tiny creature. In one tale, the singing of a wren revealed Jesus to his enemies while he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In another, while St. Stephen was trying to escape his captors, a wren awakened his guard by landing on the sleeping man’s face; this was likely the explanation for the wren hunt’s connection with St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th. Other stories were more political; in Ireland it is told that the wren warned the Danes — or in some cases, the armies of Cromwell – of an Irish ambush, by jumping up and down on a drum and awakening the enemy troops.
A more mystical origin myth for the practice comes from the Isle of Man. Folk tradition tells us that there once was a beautiful water fairy who seduced the men of the island with her singing, luring them into the sea to drown. A traveling knight sought to break the fairy’s hold over the men, but she was able to escape him by turning herself into a wren. However, before she got away, a spell was cast on her that impelled her to return to the island every winter in the form of the bird; she would remain in wren form until she was killed by a human. In his essay, “The Folkloric Symbolism of the Wren”, Wentersdorf’s suggestion that “the wren was hunted and killed annually in token exorcism of erotic desire” is in accord with the wren-hunt as a fertility ritual, and suggests a puritan subtext to the Manx legend of the sea fairy.
Music and Memory
Welsh folksongs have helped to preserve wren hunt traditions, and versions of these wren songs are known from all areas of Wales, indicating that the practice was rather widespread, and extended to other Celtic areas as well, including Brittany, the Isle of Man, Southern Ireland, and Essex. Here is an example of a processional song, from Marloes on the west coast of Wales:
Joy, health, love and peace; we’re here in this place;
By your leave here we sing concerning our King.
Our King is well drest in silks of the best
And the ribbons so rare, no King can compare.
Over hedges and stiles we have travelled many miles.
We were four foot-men in taking this wren.
We were four at watch and were nigh of a match
Now Christmas is past, Twelfth Day is the last.
To the old year adieu, great joy to the new.
Please turn the King in.
(Loreena McKennitt performs a beautiful version of this traditional song on her album To Drive the Cold Winter Away; you can listen to it here.)
Another variation of the wren hunt tradition was recorded from Cardiff in 1860, and is believed to have been brought from Ireland by immigrants. Unlike the more typical Welsh tradition, this wren procession occurred on St. Stephen’s Day rather than Twelfth Night, and in this iteration, the dead wren is affixed to a holly tree decorated with ribbons and a bottle of alcohol. The tree was carried in procession by a group of rowdy boys, who sang:
Mister Jones is a worthy man,
And to his house I brought my wran
I brought my wran to visit him here
To wish him a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
The Wran, the Wran that you may see
Here guarded on our Holly Tree,
A bunch of ribbons by his side,
And a bottle of whiskey to be his guide,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.
We hunted him up and we hunted him down
Till one of our brave boys knocked him down.
Another very popular processional folksong is a variation from the Tenby area of Pembrokshire:
“O! where are you going?” says Milder to Melder,
“O! where are you going?” says the younger to the elder,
“O! I cannot tell,” says Festel to Fose,
“We’re going to the woods,” says John the Red Nose.
“O! what will you do there?” “Shoot the Cutty Wren. “
“What will you shoot her with?” “With bows and arrows.”
“That will not do. What will do then?” “With great guns and cannons.”
“What will you bring her home in?” “On four strong men’s shoulders.”
“That will not do, etc.” “On big carts and wagons”
“What will you cut her up with?” “With knives and with forks. “
“That will not do, etc.” “With hatchet. and cleavers.”
“What will you boil her in?” “In pots and in kettles.”
“That will not do, etc.” “In brass pans and cauldrons.”
(Damh the Bard performs a wonderful rendition of this traditional song on his Tales from the Crow Man album; you can listen to it here.)
This particular iteration of the processional song does a powerful job of reflecting the fate of the wren. It is to be captured, killed, and dismembered; its body plucked free of its feathers and portioned out for a ceremonial meal. Note that the lyrics illustrate a disproportionate use of resources necessary for the hunting and killing of such a tiny bird (the cutty wren); the amount of force used, the man power needed, the size of the tools used, and the quality of the cookware required to cook the wren underscore the energies of reversal associated with this ceremonial practice. It is the magic of these oppositions that they reflect of the threshold nature of the long nights of winter between the solstice and the new year; it is a time outside of time, a place Between where the energies of the Otherworld can come through, and the natural order of things is suspended as we collectively cross from the old order to the new.
Both the Wren Hunt and the Mari Lwyd are practices which reflect the liminality of the winter season, a period which, like most threshold places and times, may have been perceived as dangerous in ancient times. It may have been that the temporal transition represented by the new year required human assistance through ritual and sacrifice, both to achieve the shift from the old order to the new, as well as to ensure that the new order brings with it abundance and good fortune. While both customs may have had their separate origins in pre-Christian pagan practices, which later had their symbol-sets subsumed to conform to a more acceptably-Christian paradigm, ultimately they may have survived because they each played a socio-economic role in Welsh culture. Ceremonial vehicles which served to strengthen bonds of community during a time of relative isolation, while acting as a means through which food and sometimes money could be redistributed during a time of relative lack, both the Mari Lwyd and the Hunting of the Wren traditions, in their own way, brought a light born from communal conviviality into the darkest time of the year.
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