Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Legend of the Wren

The tiny bird the wren is known as the King of all Birds in European folklore.

According to legend, the birds held a contest to see who could fly the highest. The magnificent Eagle was flying higher than any other bird, but he started to tire. The tiny Wren was hidden in the Eagle's tail feathers, and flew out and soared higher than the Eagle, proving the cleverness can triumph over strength.

The Wren was sacred to the Druids of ancent Britain and Ireland, and its song used for divination purposes. In children's nursery rhymes, the character Jenny Wren was the shape-shifting Fairy Queen in the guise of a bird. The Irish for 'wren' is 'an dreóilín'.

Early Christian martyr Saint Stephen is also associated with the Wren, as the noisy bird was said to have betrayed him as he was hiding from his enemies. On Saint Stephen's Day in Ireland, which falls on 26 December every year, the Wrenboys celebrate the Wren, also called the 'Wran'. Legend has it that Viking invaders had set up camp in Ireland, and had celebrated Christmas in true Viking fashion, and the Irish natives watching them thought that if they attacked the Viking camp early the next morning, there was a good chance they would defeat them. So at dawn the Irish were creeping up to the camp, while all of the Vikings were sleeping off their Christmas hangovers. However, someone had left a drum outside, and on this drum were crumbs of food from the night before. It being winter, the little Wren was hungry, and so it pecked at the food on the drum. The noise it made inevitably woke the nearest Viking, who realised the Irish were about to attack and roused the rest of the Vikings, who were able to fight back and win.

Traditionally boys would catch a wren and kill it, and impale the bird on a stick and parade around with it, but this gruesome practice has long been done away with. Now Wrenboys in Ireland, particularly in the west and south, dress up in women's clothes, blacken their faces or wear masks, and take their bodhrans and other musical instruments and go from village to village, and pub to pub, singing and dancing and generally celebrating midwinter and the imminent change of season. Many of them now collect spare change which is either used to pay for food and drink during the day in question, or simply donated to local charities. The Wren is also extensively described in John B. Keane's novel 'The Bodhran Makers'.