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Friday, December 26, 2014

The Killing of the Wren: Hunting King Charlo

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give us a treat.

As I was going to Killenaule,
I met a wren upon the wall.
Up with me wattle and knocked him down,
And brought him in to Carrick Town.

Drooolin, Droolin, where's your nest?
Tis in the bush that I love best
In the tree, the holly tree,
Where all the boys do follow me.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.

I followed the wren three miles or more,
Three miles or more three miles or more.
I have a little box under me arm,
A penny or tuppence would do it no harm.

Mrs. Clancy's a very good woman,
a very good woman, a very good woman,
Mrs. Clancy's a very good woman,
She give us a penny to bury the wren.

Today, December 26, is Wren Day. It is also celebrated as St. Stephen's Day, though the celebration itself really has nothing to do with the saint.

The tradition consists basically оf hunting a wren аnd putting іt оn top оf а decorated pole. Then groups of men or boys dress up іn masks, straw suits аnd colourful motley clothing and, accompanied by traditional céilí music bands, parade through the towns аnd villages. These crowds аre sometimes called wrenboys.

In Galicia, Spain, this ritual is called "Caceria del rey Charlo" ("Chase of king Charles") and is still performed. In the past, the inhabitants of Vilanova de Lourenza would chase down a wren and, after tying it to a pole, parade it and show it to the abbot of the local monastery, who would proceed then to offer them food and drink and appoint two leaders of local town council out of the four candidates proposed by the neighbours. This tradition has been recorded since the XVIth century. The sources are somewhat misleading about the date, since they claim it was "New Year`s Day" but it might mean "The day after Christmas", which was regarded back then to signal the end of the year. The wren, in Galicia, is called carrizo (reed).

In the folk traditions of Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Holland, British Isles, Denmark and Sweden, the wren is considered king of birds but also is believed to bring bad luck and harm.  As early as the seventh century, carrizo was considered King when it appeared in one of Aesop's fables.  Plutarch attributes the fable of the Eagle and the Wren to Aesop, though the story is not found in any surviving collections of Aesop’s fables.

In the fable, the wren outsmarts the eagle in a race by riding on its shoulders until right before the finish line, at which point the wren  suddenly flies ahead and wins the race!  Some believe Aesop’s fable was taken from an ancient Sumarian tale about an elephant and a wren rivalry. There are various versions of the tale. Grimm has a version of the tale where the wren creeps into the breast feathers of the eagle and hides. In another version, the wren rides on the crest feathers of the eagle, and when the eagle, from the heights, proclaims itself king, the wren objects from its higher position, challenging the eagle to “come up here!”  The eagle is too tired, and the wren is proclaimed King!

Some versions of the story have the eagle cursing the wren to never be able to fly higher than the hedges. Others say all the other birds were disgusted at the wren’s trickery, and since that day have driven the wren from all open spaces and have forced him to take shelter in the hedges.

According to Elizabeth Lawrence’s book, “Hunting the Wren,” a Welsh sequel to the fable states the other birds were sorrowful about the outcome of the contest. They cried bitterly and decided to drown the wren in a pan full of their tears. This plan, however, was foiled by the owl, who upset the pan and spilled the tears. The birds then swore vengeance against the owl. Ever since, he has not dared to go out during the day, but hunts at night when the other birds are sleeping.  Yet another Welsh story says the wren fell to the ground and was injured during the contest. The other birds made a broth to cure the wren but again, the blundering owl upset the pot. Darn that owl!

At any rate, the wren was saved as was the title of King of the Birds.

What is interesting to me is that in almost every part of Europe, some form of the contest between the eagle and the wren exists, with variations in North America and China. Perhaps the legend can be traced back to Taliesin, a sun god in the British tradition, for whom the wren was a sacred bird. The wren and eagle can also be found in the Mabinogion, where the wren is the spirit of the Old Year killed at the Winter Solstice, and the New Year rises like the eagle. I believe the origins of the story are even more ancient, and that the Eagle represents Horus, god of the rising and setting sun, god of the east and sunrise, born at the Winter Solstice. And how dare that dastardly little wren foil the Sun?!

The wren is surrounded by an aura of sacredness whose meaning is not easy to understand without some digging into those origins. In Ireland it is popularly believed that "the robin and the wren are two saints of the Lord. "(The robin and the wren are God's two holy men). In Cornwall, early last century, the children knew and recited the following:

“He that hurts a robin or a wren
Will never prosper nor his land”

There are many folk traditions that speak the same warning. From Sussex and Essex:

“The robin and the wren
Are God Almighty’s cock and hen;
Him that harries their nest,
Never shall his soul have rest.”


“Hurt a robin or a wren,
Never prosper, boy or man.”

In Scotland the wren was called the “Lady of Heaven’s hen.”

Despite that veneration, it was a custom in many parts of Britain and Ireland to kill wrens on December 26. Sometimes it was done by servants or peasants, sometimes by children, sometimes by mummers. The wren was murdered and mounted, wings extended, on the top of a long pole, or suspended by the legs in the center of two hoops set at right angles to each other, or mounted it in a bush or holly branch.  The wren-boys then went from house to house chanting a rhyme and asking for gifts of food or money. Sometimes the day was concluded by carrying the wee body to the churchyard and burying it with chanting, singing and dancing.  Though it seems cruel, the wren was most certainly killed because it was a hallowed bird representing the Old Year, the dying sun. 

The tradition of hunting the wren survived in Galicia, northern Portugal, southern France, England, Wales and Ireland until the middle of last century.  In some villages, it survives still.  Within these ancient agricultural rites is the attempt to somehow magically stimulate the renewal of plant and animal life after winter.

In Spain, these and other pagan festivals were censured by San Paciano, Bishop of Barcelona (circa 370), St. Augustine (circa 400), Cesareo of Arles (circa 480), and others. However, they were often glossed over with Christian symbolism and have survived, nearly intact.

Sometimes, it was the priests themselves who brought the traditions to the locals.  The hunting of the wren in Lourenzá, Spain, according Designed Tomé, was a tradition that probably came to the monastery of that place with the French monks.

Some authors assume that the apparent popular antipathy was demonstrating against these little birds in the vicinity of the winter solstice, was encouraged by the Church to end, or Christianize, the pagan tradition.

The sacralization of the wren certainly contrasts with its year-end ritual slaughter; indicating that popular aversion is most likely the manifestation distorted by the Church or simply by the passage of time, an ancestral rite  - the primitive sacrifice of the king - represented here by a bird that acquired its supposed personality under the beliefs about this rite.

An interesting aside:  a 1527 document on the hunt wren in Vilanova de Lourenzá, mentions an important analysis of the origins of this tradition data. The wren commonly referred to as Bird King, in the sixteenth century also received the name of King Charlo.  This could have to do with the former emperor of the Franks, Charlemagne, though there is nothing to prove (or disprove) that theory. However, considering Charlemagne was the one who led the observance of the Celtic church to the designs traditional church of Rome, it’s not out of the question.

Art by Glass Candy

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