‘Seven or eight handsome young fellows, tricked out in ribbons of the gayest colours, white waistcoats and stockings, and furnished with musical instruments of various kinds – a fife, a piccolo, an old drum, a cracked fidil [Griffin has fiddle], and a set of bagpipes – assumed their place in the rear [Griffin has rere] of the procession, and startled the yet slumbering inhabitants of the neighbouring houses by a fearfully discordant prelude.
‘Behind those came the Wren-boy par excellence – a lad who bore in his hands a holly-bush, the leaves of which were interwoven with long streamers of red, yellow, blue and white ribbon; all which finery, nevertheless, in no way contributed to reconcile the little mottled tenant of the bower (a wren which was tied by the leg to one of the boughs) to his state of durance. After the Wren-boy came a promiscuous crowd of youngsters, of all ages under fifteen, composing just such a little ragged rabble as one observes attending the band of a marching regiment on its entrance into a country town, shouting, hallooing, laughing, and joining in apt chorus with the droning, shrilling, squeaking, and rattling of the musicians of the morn.’
'Various reasons are set forward by folk-lorists for the hunting of the wren on St. Stephen’s Day. They say there is a traditional dislike to the bird in the country, for it was she that sold the Irish to their foes in the time of Ruáidhri ua Goncobhartha. She is a great seer, too, and wonder-worker (her name in Irish, drean, is glossed magis avium, the “druid of birds”); and the people are shy of her sleights, believing them to be born of nothing good.'
“The Wran! the Wran! the king of all birds,
St Stephen’s day was caught in the furze;
Although he’s little, his family’s great.
Get up, fair ladies! and give us a trate!
And if your trate be of the best,
In heaven we hope your soul will rest!”’
(From David Byers website, www.byersmusic.com, quoting Gerald Griffin, 1803-1840)
But first we must answer the question, why is the wren, the smallest of birds on the British Isles, the king?
If you read my last 2 posts on the Fool archetype, you have the best clue. For the smallest, the humblest, the easily missed in human daily life experience, is also the closest to the Divine.
And indeed this is the general meaning of sacrifice itself, a word which means "to make sacred". In general, a ritual sacrifice is a human cocreative act that is hopefully in accord with the magical powers of the universe as they play out on Planet Earth. The sacrificed is actually honored, for their essential sacred nature is acknowledged and glorified in the act. In this act of glorification, too, are we all honoring the unseen worlds, and inviting in their powers and ways of moving through the year.
The picture above extends the wren's St. Stephen's Day demise at the turn of the sun to include the robin. Now we'll get into the trees, too, for the wren is associated with the waning solar year's holly. Holly is a well-armed and poisonous solar plant (the thorns or swords associate it with the masculine solar energies, for one thing) that symbolizes the personal challenges that are faced within, in our inner darkness. The loss of solar energy on the planet reveals such energies in humans of depression, disappointment, stagnation, and loss. This is one reason why folks get so down at this time. So the wren is associated with this waning sun Holly King energy which can manifest as inner suffering, holly's thorns and prickly leaves.
And the robin is the bird of the oak, the Oak King, that rules the other half of the year, when the sun climbs to its greatest height in the northern hemisphere. So the wren's demise is what allows the robin, the oak tree's solar powers, to rise, to the ultimate throne of summer solstice.
And vice versa. The illustration is of the old poem The Wedding of Robin Redbreast and Jenny Wren. Robin falls in love with Jenny, and the robin's showy Oak King personality comes out in promises to clothe the plain brown wren in the colors of peacock and goldfinch. Jenny refuses, preferring her modest garb. At the wedding an accident happens when the Foolish cuckoo started getting rough with Jenny. Cock Robin's buddy Sparrow tries to help, and pulls a tiny bow and arrow to shoot Cuckoo, but alas, shoots the bridegroom instead.
More symbolic magic ensues as the different sorts of animals sacralize the tragic event in their ways. Reading the poem today, I recalled these lines from childhood:
Who killed Cock Robin?
“I,” said the Sparrow,
“With my bow and arrow,”
I killed Cock Robin.”
Who saw him die?
“I” said the Fly,
“With my little eye,
And I saw him die.”
Who caught his blood?
“I,” said the Fish,
“With my little dish,
And I caught his blood.”
Who made his shroud?
“I,” said the Beetle,
“With my little needle,
And I made his shroud.
Who shall dig his grave ?
“I,” said the Owl,
“With my spade and show’l,
And I’ll dig his grave.”
There are lots of mention in British Isles lore of rites associated with the winter flip of kings, from Holly to Oak, from Wren to Robin. However, this flip of modest little Jenny and Cock Robin would be at the other side of the year, the summer solstice. Cock Robin dies, and plain little unglorious Jenny Wren lives. The days get shorter, a mournful event for many. We must begin to leave the peacock glories of the flowery heights of summer.
But the beauty of this poem is that it describes the relationship of wren and robin, of winter and summer if you will, as a love affair, unlike the usual images of battles between the two. For the most common of rites these days between Holly and Oak at winter's door is the battle between them, enacted in sword fights which must, of course, be lost by the Holly King. Of course that loss is appropriate to the seasons, with June as a time of weddings and love, December being cold and unfruitful.
Joy, health, love, and peace
Be all here in this place
Every season bears its blessing, and here is a way to transmit the winter's holy spirit. The killing of the wren by the wren boys, their ruckus and their song, are all designed to drive out the old and make way for the new. Children are usually more healthy, vital, than adults, so it's a good job for them.