Kenny Klein: Tales Of The Rambling Wren.
Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
Yuletide and the Wren!
Yuletide is upon us. Time for wassail, the Yule log, and of course, hunting the wren!
The Wren is a small brown bird, common throughout Britain, Europe and North America. But the wren is a very sacred bird, and holds a place in British myth and in Yule lore. Called The King Of The Birds, the Wren is a symbol of the Old God, or Holly King, and of the death of winter. This smallest of birds is known in story, myth and folk song, often simply as The King. Here is an excerpt from my book The Flowering Rod:
"At Yule, young men who had recently reached puberty would go hunting in the woods. Their quarry was the wren, the symbol of the Winter God. The wren's name comes from Cutty Wren, or Cutty Bran, Bran's Sparrow. Bran is the Welsh name for the Antlered God, king of the Underworld. The death of the wren at the hands of the young hunters symbolizes the death of Winter at the hands of the young Sun God, and helps the young men internalize that archetype. This ritual helps the young men establish that they are each the embodiment of the Oak King. In killing the wren, they stop seeing the Holly King as father or nurturer, and establish their own identities with the older men as mentors and role models.
The young men take the wren to each house in the village, so that each household can rejoice in the death of Winter and the promise of Spring. In one English village, the following song is sung as the young men go from door to door. This custom is the forebear of Christmas caroling.
Joy, health, love and peace
Be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing
Concerning our King
Our King is well dressed
In silks of the best
In ribbons so rare
No King can compare
We have traveled many miles
Over hedges and stiles
In search of our King
Unto you we bring
We have powder and shot
To conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball
To conquer them all
Oh, Yuletide is passed
Twelfth tide is the last
And we bid you ado
Great joy to the new.
The Wren can be seen on English coinage (above), and in many instances of British myth: Aside from the Welsh Bran, mentioned above, and from whom the bird gets its common name, we see the creature in the myth of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a Welsh tale from the Mabinogion. Lleu is under a curse that he can have no name until the Goddess Arianrhod names him. Lleu kills a wren (the symbol of winter), establishing himself as the God of the sun. Arianrhod sees him kill the bird with a well shot stone from his slingshot, and exclaims "The Little Lion Has A Steady Hand!" The Lion is a common name for the sun god (Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and the Irish Lugh, both mean lion), and in Welsh, The Lion With The Steady Hand is...you guessed it...Llew Llaw Gyffes.
The English forest God Herne also has strong associations with the Wren, and its summer counterpart, the Robin. It's very likely that the hero Robin Hood takes his name from these two birds and their place in the Herne myth. On a side note, the Robin represents the lithe, sexual summer God who presides over the Beltain rites: anyone with the name Robinson or Robson most likely had an illegitimate ancestor conceived on that merry eve.
As Britain became Christian, like many other mythic figures, the Wren was given a new story to explain his kingship. In the new tale, the birds have a contest to see who will be king. Whoever can fly the highest will earn that title. The small birds make their attempts, as do geese, herons and hawks. But the eagle seems most likely to win. Indeed, the eagle soars high above all the others, but at the zenith of his flight, a wren who had hidden in the eagle's neck feathers popped out, flew a tiny bit higher, and won the crown.
In the Wren tradition of rural Britain (a custom still observed today), we always have a small effigy of a wren in our Yule ritual. We crown it King, then celebrate its death as the sun grows in strength, bringing the Robin and the new life of spring.
Have a merry Yule: Wassail!
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