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Welsh Winter Traditions: The Hunting of the Wren

By Jhenah Telyndru

Although occurring in the same season as the Mari Lwyd traditions, the Hunting of the Wren -Hela’r Dryw –  is a separate custom which appears to be more straightforward when it comes to revealing its ancient roots. There are two distinct phases of the practice: the hunt itself and the subsequent parading of the wren. While the enactment of these customs often occurred over the course of several days, Owen believes they both originated from a single ceremony that evolved in performance and meaning over time.

Although there is no direct evidence which connects the Hunting of the Wren to pagan practices, there is folk wisdom which connects the birds to the ancient Druids, thereby accounting for their sacredness and privileged status. Legend has it that the wren was sacred to the Druids who kept them in cages for divinatory purposes, and conducted augury with the birds in the wild, finding significance in the direction and place from which the birds sang.  There appears to be some etymological connection between the two, and Lawrence suggests that the Proto-Celtic word “drero” meaning “true” was the origin for the words for wren, druid and soothsayer.  This furthers the  hypothesis that the Manx word  for wren –“dreian” – may have developed from “druai-eean” meaning “druid’s bird” and presents an explanation for why the word “dryw” in Welsh means both “wren” and “druid.”

Examining the name given to the wren in many parts of Europe, it is clear that the bird was held in high regard; indeed, its connection with royalty appears to be almost universal. In many languages the name for the wren glosses back to mean “king”; we see it in 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”), Teutonic (konig vogel, “king of birds”) and so on.

Wren in Winter - Photo by David Norton/Alamy
Wren in Winter – Photo by David Norton/Alamy

A Manx folk-tale recounts how it is the wren became king. All of the birds had gathered together to decide, once and for all, who would be first among them.  In turn, each bird came forward to state what gifts they had which set them above all of the rest.  Although the wren had proven her cleverness to the approval of the gathering, the eagle suggested that the bird who could fly the highest should be the one to rule over them all. The gathered birds agreed, and the eagle flew up as high as he could, far surpassing all of the rest. He called out to the assembly, “’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 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 around the world. He writes:

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.

It may be that 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 other 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 town personages, who would gift him money with which he would throw a grand feast in the evening.

Armstrong argues 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 also have its roots in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia,and indeed, cultures around the world have celebrated the rebirth of the light at this, the period of the year with the longest nights. Whether or not the wren is a stand in for a human sacrifice, it is believed to have represented the energies of the old year, and through its killing, the new year was able to begin.

What is interesting about the wren hunt is that it is an example of a ritual which countermands the usual order of things. Wrens, if not considered a sacred bird, from medieval times onward were at the very least an honored and protected species. It was considered bad luck to harm a wren or disturb its nest, and this notion is attested to in 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 life during the dark time of the year was a powerful offering indeed to whatever forces decided how lucky or abundant the new year would be.

19th Century Pembrokeshire Wren House
19th Century Pembrokeshire Wren House

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, who was later 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 visualized. This wren-house was decorated with ribbons and carried by four men who held it aloft on poles. The men carried this from house to house, singing songs, and pretending to struggle under the enormous weight of this tiny bird, in what appears to be another example of a juxtaposition associated with this custom. In other districts, if there were no wren-houses available, an old lantern decorated with ribbons was used in its place; further, if no wrens had been caught, a sparrow might be used in its stead. Indeed, in modern times where the killing of the wren was looked down upon, a potato carved to look like the bird, complete with feathers stuck into its flesh, was used as a substitute during the procession, as was done in Southern Ireland.

Perhaps in a resonance of the rejuvenating powers of the wren, the Pembrokeshire tradition sees the wren–house borne to the homes of the wren-boys’ sweethearts, reminiscent of the fertility aspect of the Mari Lwyd, which, when associated with the wassail, showed preference for the houses of those who were newly married or who has recently moved to a new home. Wentersdorf notes that, aside from the winter holiday season, wren hunts also occur in some places 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 may also have been released. He believes the wren was a symbol of the life force, and that it 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.”

The Hunting of the Wren tradition also appears on the Isle of Man, occurring on St. Stephen’s Day; and unlike Wales, the specifics of the processional practice 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. The Manx custom saw the dead bird paraded through town tied upside down by its feet between the double hoops of a garland decorated with ribbons, or else 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 wren’s feathers were considered to be fortuitous, and were either sold or given away as good luck charms. In addition to being brought house to house, wren would be carried aboard fishing boats to ensure abundant hauls, and 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 either buried in a churchyard or at sea in coastal areas. The tradition is still enacted in the present day, although instead of a bird, it is only the garlanded and beribboned poles that are carried from door to door.

The tradition of the Hunting of the Wren has been preserved in Welsh folksongs. Versions of these wren songs are known from all areas of Wales, indicating that the practice was rather widespread; it is known in other Celtic areas as well, including Brittany, the Isle of Man, Southern Ireland, and Essex. Here is a variation recorded 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.”

This particular song and those related to it reflect the fate of the wren in some districts: to be captured, killed and dismembered, with its body portioned out either for a ceremonial meal or for good luck. Again, the lyrics display the disproportionate reaction to the hunting and killing of such a tiny bird (the cutty wren); the amount of force used, the man power needed, and the size of the tools and cookware required to cook the bird are more examples of the juxtapositions associated with this ceremony.

A gentler processional song  has been recorded from Marloes:

 

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.

 

A variation of the Wren Hunt tradition was recorded as being performed in Cardiff in 1860, and is believed to have been brought from Ireland by immigrants. Unlike the more typical Welsh tradition, the wren procession occurred on St. Stephen’s Day rather than Twelfth Night . 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.

 

While it appears clear 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 also served to depict the wren in a bad light, perhaps as an attempt to justify the killing of the tiny, and otherwise protected, creature. In one tale, the wren, through her singing, revealed Jesus to his enemies while he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In another, ostensibly also trying to explain the Wren Hunt’s connection with St. Stephen’s Day (as seen most prominently on the Isle of Man), the wren landed on the face of a guard, thereby rousing him from his sleep as St. Stephen attempted to escape his captors. 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 secular origin myth for the practice comes from the Isle of Man. Here, it is told that a beautiful fairy once held the fancy of the men of the island; they would become so enamored of her that they would follow her into the sea where they would drown. A traveling knight sought to break the fairy’s  hold over the men, which was leading so many of them to their doom. She was able to escape at the last moment by turning herself into a wren, but not before a spell was cast on her, causing her to return every winter in the form of the bird – a form in which she would remain until she was killed by a human. Wentersdorf’s interpretation 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, as noted earlier.

Conclusion

Both the Wren Hunt and the Mari Lwyd are practices which reflect the liminality of the winter season, a time period which may have been perceived as dangerous in ancient times. It may have been believed that the temporal transition represented by the new year required human assistance, both to achieve the shift from the old order to the new, as well as to do so with as much good fortune and  abundance as possible. While both customs may have had their separate origins in pre-Christian Pagan practices, and later had their symbol-sets subsumed to some degree into a more acceptably Christian paradigm, ultimately they may have survived because they each played a socio-economic role in Welsh culture. Vehicles to strengthen bonds of community during a time of relative isolation, as well as the 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.

Part I: The Mari Lwyd

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