Hunting the Wren

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Hunting the Wren, illustration by Walter Crane The custom of Hunting the Wren is still followed in many traditionally Celtic areas of England, Ireland and Wales on December 26, or Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. Some customs probably took place on Christmas Eve depending on the time available to the participants.

Originally the Hunting of the Wren was celebrated on the Winter Solstice, specifically the day after Long Night when people celebrated the birth of the new Sun, that is, December 21st. This tradition incorporates Indo-European religion and custom in various ways, as the custom of Burying the Wren with a lament for the death of the Sun, and as the custom of Hunting the Wren which reenacts the myth of the celebration and naming of the new Sun, and finally as a performance in which the death and revival of the Sun is reenacted in the many mummers’ plays. All of these customs and traditions had a social element as well as a religious one, so that they provide an opportunity for people to visit their neighbors, share food, tell stories and participate in singing and dancing.

The Wren King is hunted at the winter solstice as a reenactment of the Celtic Myth that tells How Lleu Llaw Gyffes Got his Name which is about the Goddess Arianrhod. The story is told in the Mabinogion, the collection of Welsh myth which was written down in the 12th century. This story is essential to an understanding of the custom of Hunting the Wren. Arianrhod is a major figure in this story and a Celtic form of one of the most important Proto-Indo-European Goddesses.

Without this text, the custom of Hunting the Wren would make no sense, because wrens are too small to eat and everyone likes them since they are chipper little birds that live near humans and eat bugs in the gardens and orchards. It is for wrens that people first put up nest jars or birdhouses to encourage them to live near by. Wrens often spend the winter in temporarily unused buildings which they wriggle into through holes in the roof, or by flying down the chimney. When disturbed they rattle like a machine gun which is probably what got them the title of “king” or “queen” in folktales of the type “How the Wren Became King of the Birds” and in the etymology of their name--they are imperious little birds because their only defense is a loud voice. The word wren in English refers to the bird but in Welsh “ren” means king or queen, and is often used to mean “lord” or “lady” in a social context in Welsh. The name for wrens means king in many Indo-European languages.

Besides the myth of How Lheu Got his Name, the connection of wrens to Rhiannon may be understood from another source. James Frazer’s Golden Bough (MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920, 12 vol. edition, Vol. 8, pp. 318ff) incorrectly quotes a chant from Scottish children which refers to wrens as the Lady of Hevende Hen, another name of Rhiannon.

The traditional customs of Hunting the Wren are described in published books of folklore and on the internet. Many are described for Breton in northern France, and more widely in France, in Welsh-speaking areas of England, in Cornwall, in Manx island and in Scotland. All these areas are traditional areas of Celtic-speaking people, but the descriptions are mostly in English. That’s not an accident. It is both because it is more likely that one group (the English) are likely to describe the “quaint customs” of another group (the Celts), and because such descriptions are easier to access in English.

Among these customs are the Wren Procession with Wren King songs, Burying the Wren, and folk plays in which the Sun is killed and revived, such as the Ampleforth Play and other plays traditionally performed at the Winter Solstice or Christmas. During the procession, wren feathers are given out to sailors because they are thought to give good luck and protection.

All of the myths and customs and the Wren King Songs associated with Hunting the Wren have three things in common: a trick, an absurdity, and a bit of hostility toward authority.

The trick shows up in the Welsh myth of How Lleu got his Name, as the trick by which Gwydion gets Arianrhod to give Lleu a name. It appears in the wren processions as an offer to “show the King in a box” in exchange for presents, where the king turns out only to be the Wren King, a dead bird, or nothing at all--just a mass of greenery in the box.

The absurdity in the myth lies in the fairytale trick of Lheu being able to throw a needle between the tendon and the bone of a wren’s leg. Although it is customary when hunting to bring an animal home by running a pole or thong through the leg tendons, there is simply no way that this could be done on such a tiny bird. The absurdity is expressed in the songs by the description of the elaborate means by which the bird will be hunted (with cannon and shot!) or carted home (by a wagon and horses!) or hung from large poles carried across the shoulders of strong men (“hoist! hoist!”). In Manx it was the custom to actually have strong men carry around heavy poles on their shoulders as if they were carrying home a deer from the hunt, but there was only a tiny wren body hanging from the poles. All of this makes for a bit of humor, although the humor is more in the telling than in the doing.

The hostility is expressed in the myth about Arianrhod both by the narrator directly and by Gwydion to Arianrhod as characters in the myth. In the customs connected to Hunting the Wren, the hostility is expressed in a more interesting way and seems to be highly political. Historians say that the Wren Song was sung at the villains’ revolt in England in 1381. “Going on a Wran” was a common activity of the “White Boys” who were farmers in Ireland who fought against their English landlords.

The death of the wren (with its dirge and burying of the wren/queen), originally represented the death of the Sun leading up to the Winter Solstice, but politically the word wren could be used as a pun. In English it means the bird, but in the original Celtic languages it is understood to mean a “lord” or “lady” referring to the English overlords who ruled many Celtic peoples during the Middle-Ages and into the last century. Imagining the death of the king used to be a capital offence in England. But the question used on the processions “Would you like to see the wren in a box?” could be understood among bilingual speakers as “Would you like to see the king in a box?” Of course, when it turns out to be only a dead bird or even a fake one, that’s ok. It isn’t even necessary to have a box. If people show up at their rich neighbors’ house carrying barrel staves and wearing a mask and offering to “make a deal,” they’ll get the message. In this context, costumes that cover the face are not just fun, but may have been necessary. They may have allowed for anonymity for raucous or even illegal behavior. The songs about hunting the wren, however mythological their origin, may have formed a thinly disguised threat about executing the king or queen or perhaps “lord” or “lady” understood as a title of someone of high rank. Here, a word for a person of high rank (modern Welsh reiann “lady”) is being used or interpreted as the name of the small bird. We can imagine that this continued up through Victorian times as many wealthy landowners had servants or tenants of Welsh or Irish ancestry who were not as fond of their masters as might have been imagined.

The expression of rebellion which may have motivated people in the old days to “Hunt the Wren” is much abated in the British Isles, since people now have more important things to worry about. But the modern custom of hunting the wren is still practiced especially in Ireland, where it is not a “revival” but a continuation of the old customs, for example by the Wren boys on the dingle penninsula. Fortunately the custom of actually killing wrens is no longer practiced, even in places where it once was and a fake wren is now used.

This page was at pierce.yolasite.com/huntwren but Yola went out of business so the page has been migrated here.

© 2007, last updated 2/15/2012, piereligion.org/huntwren.html