Wren, The (The King)
DESCRIPTION: A tale of the hunting of the wren on Saint Stephen's Day. Boys go out, hunt the wren, and bring it home for a reward: "The wren, the wren, the king of all birds / St. Stephen's Day was caught in the forest / Although he be little, his honor is great..."
EARLIEST DATE: 1879 (Henderson)
KEYWORDS: carol hunting wren
FOUND IN: US(NE) Britain(England(Lond)) Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Flanders/Olney, pp. 58-59, "The Wran" (1 text, 1 tune)
DT, WRENSONG WRENSNG2*
ADDITIONAL: Ron Young, _Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador_, Downhome Publishing Inc., 2006, p. 246, "(De wran, de wran, de king of all birds)" (1 text, said to be performed by mummers)
cf. "The Cutty Wren" (subject)
cf. "Hunt the Wren" (subject)
NOTES [1099 words]: The English legend that the wren is the king of birds has a parallel in German. A tale from the Brothers Grimm ("The Wren"/"Dier Zaunkönig," 1840, from Johann Jakob Nikolas Musaus) explains that, when the birds decided they needed a king, they decided to hold a contest to find the king. First they said that the bird that could fly highest would be king. The eagle would have flown highest, but the wren rode on its back and so managed to climb higher still. Then the birds decided to try a digging contest. The wren slipped down a convenient mouse hole, and won that round also. So the wren became the king.
There is a similar Danish legend (Jones-Larousse, p. 462; Pickering, p. 320). Indeed, the plot is found as far away as China, although the animals differ: In Chinese legend, the ox wanted to be the first animal in the Zodiac, and arrived before all the others -- but the rat cleverly rode on its back, and jumped off at the appropriate time, and so took first place (Eberhard, p. 246).
We find references to discord between wren and eagle as long ago as the time of Pliny's Natural History: "There are antipathies between... the eagle and the... [golden-crested wren] because the latter received the title of 'the king of the birds'" (Opie/Tatem, p. 451).
In English, we find references to the Wren as King going back at least to the early thirteenth century; in the long poem "The Owl and the Nightingale" (thought to have been written around 1220 and existing in two thirteenth century manuscripts) there is a scene where the wren enters as king of the birds (OwlNightingaleEtc, p. 169).
Curiously, in that poem, the wren is said to have been reared among humans, and to have learned its clever ways from them, rather than being raised in the forest (OwlNightingale, p. 170).
Palmer, p. 60, quotes an interesting couplet:
He that hurts a robin or wren
Will never prosper on sea or land.
Shakespeare seems to refer to the wren's many offspring in "Twelfth Knight" (act III, scene ii), although the significance of this is not clear (Phipson, p. 181).
Pickering, p. 320, says that the wren was identified as the wife of the robin. This explains the name "Jenny Wren": the wren was always female (Simpson/Roud, p. 397; for a tale, "The Marriage of Robin Redbreast and Jenny Wren," see pp. 542-543 of volume A.2 of Briggs).
It's possible that the equation of wrens with kings goes back to the Greeks; the Greek word βασιλισκος, "basiliskow," "little king," is listed in Liddell/Scott, p. 230, as meaning, among other things, the golden-crested wren -- but they cite only one instance (Plutatch, citing Aesop); the usual meaning of the word is "royal" or "official" (so, e.g., in the New Testament -- or, rather, in variant readings; BASILISKOS is used only in variant readings in John 4:46, 49, of the "official" of Capernaum who had a sick child. In the LXX Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, it occurs in Psalm 90:13 [91:13 English]), where it refers to a venomous snake, and in some manuscripts of Isaiah 59:5, where again it seems to mean "adder" or "viper"; English "basilisk" of course derives from this meaning.)
The identical equation seems to occur in Latin: "regulus" means "petty king" (compare rex, king), but the word is also, in the Vulgate of the Hebrew Bible, used for a poisonous snake and (in secular writings) for a small bird (FreundEtAl, p. 1553). The latter two uses are rare; my two shorter Latin dictionaries do not mention them (although Hazlitt, pp. 665-666, declares that the word refers specifically to all types of wrens. Hazlitt also notes that some Romance languages use kingly names for the wren, presumably from the Latin). A good analogy might be to refer to a king cobra as a "king" rather than a "cobra."
The German name of the wren, interestingly, is zaunkönig, fence-king, as in the Grimm tale above. In Danish, this becomes elle-king, alder-king (Hazlitt, p. 666); compare German erlkönig (which, however, is used for a malevolent tree-spirit which steals souls, not for the wren; Jones-Larousse, p. 164; Pickering, p. 98).
Stewart, p. 20, claims that the wren was the totem of the Celtic god Bran. O hOgain, p. 37, however, reports that it was considered an unlucky bird in Ireland.
Manx fishermen seem to have had a rule always to sail with a *dead* wren, for luck (Opie/Tatem, p. 451).
Elsewhere, killing a wren was said to invite bad luck (Pickering, p. 320) -- except, perhaps, when it came time to Hunt the Wren:
The legend in Ireland (O hOgain, p. 37) is that the wren betrayed Stephen to death, and hence was hunted on St. Stephen's Day. There is, of course, no Biblical warrant for this; the account in Acts 6 makes it sound as if Stephen was arrested in public circumstances, and he certainly was publicly tried and executed.
In many parts of the British Isles, it became the custom to capture a wren (Hazlitt, p. 666) on St. Stephen's Day (December 26), perhaps kill it (Frazier, p. 621), and parade it about (perhaps at the end of a pole or in a trap; Frazier, p. 622), perhaps while asking for alms or food.
Explanations of this custom vary. Kennedy quotes an account in which a wren's song aroused a sleeping sentry and saved English and Manx soldiers from an attack in Ireland. Garnett/Gosse, volume I, p. 298, claim that the "report of Brian Boru's great victory over the Danes on St. Stephen's Day survives in Ireland in a carol about a wren." (Uh-huh. For this story, see "Remember the Glories of Brian the Brave" -- and note that most sources place the battle of Clontarf on Good Friday 1014; see, e.g., Fry/Fry, p. 57. In any case, this would hardly explain the existence of the custom in Wales, the Isle of Man, and even parts of England; Simpson/Roud, p. 320). There is even a partial analogy in France, where boys beat the bushes for wrens, with the first one to kill one is the king; the parading of the wren follows (Frazier, p. 623). Frazier, p. 623, compares it to "the Gilyak procession with the bear, and the Indian one with the snake." (Interesting indeed, that last, given the Greek and Latin use of one word for wrens and snakes).
Vallancey claims that the wren was used in augury by the Druids, and so Christian missionaries hunted it to prevent this use (Hazlitt, p. 666). Flanders and Olney also date it back to druidism.
Another story says that it will precede a future hero (e.g. King Arthur). Frazer compares the whole business to various coronation quests and hunts for sacred animals. Greenway offers perhaps the greatest stretch of all, considering the wren to represent the "indomitable peasant." - RBW
Last updated in version 5.0
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, British Folktales (originally published in 1970 as A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales), revised 1977 (I use the 1977 Pantheon paperback edition)
- Eberhard: Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought (originally published in 1983 as Lexicon chinesischer Symbole), translated from the German by G. L. Campbell, 1986 (I use the 2003 Routledge paperback edition)
- Frazier: Sir James George Frazier, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922 (I use the abridged 1978 MacMillan paperback edition)
- FreundEtAl, A New Latin Dictionary, "Founded on the Translation of Freund's Latin-German Lexicon Edited by E. A. Andrews... Revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short," Harper & Brothers, 1886
- Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, A History of Ireland, 1988 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Garnett/Gosse: Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, English Literature: An Illustrated Record four volumes, MacMillan, 1903-1904 (I used the 1935 edition published in two volumes)
- Hazlitt: W. C. Hazlitt, Dictionary of Faiths & Folklore, Reeves & Turner, 1905 (I use the 1995 Studio Editions paperback)
- Jones-Larousse: Alison Jones, Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore, Larousse, 1995 (I use the 1996 paperback edition)
- Liddell/Scott: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, fifth edition, Oxford, 1864
- O hOgain: Daithi O hOgain, The Lore of Ireland, Boydell Press, 2006
- Opie/Tatem: Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, editors, A Dictionary of Superstitions, 1989 (I use the 1999 Barnes & Noble edition)
- OwlNightingaleEtc: Brian Stone, translator, The Owl and the Nightingale/Cleanness/St. Erkenwald, second edition, Penguin, 1988
- Palmer: Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Warwickshire, Rowman and Littlefield, 1976
- Phipson: E[mma] Phipson, Animal Lore of Shakespeare's Time, 1883 (page references are to the 2011 Lost Library facsimile edition)
- Pickering: David Pickering, The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore, Cassell, 1999
- Simpson/Roud: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2000
- Stewart: Bob Stewart, Where Is Saint George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong, revised edition, Blandford, 1988
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