Today’s nature moment comes courtesy of Zosia who noticed this wren (troglodytes troglodytes) outside the study window. It is looking a bit nervous because we’re getting close to December 26th.
In the European folklore the Wren is the King of the Birds. According a fable of Aesop, long ago the birds held a contest to see who could fly the highest; this one should become the King of the Birds. At first it looked as though the Eagle would win easily. But just as the Eagle began to tire, the Wren, which had hidden under the Eagle’s tail feathers, crept out, soared far above and shouted: “I’m the King!” Thus the Wren proved that cleverness is better than strength. The Wren’s majesty is recognized in such stories as the Grimm Brothers’ The Willow-Wren and the Bear. Aristoteles and Plutarch called the Wren basileus (king) and basiliskos (little king). In Japan the Wren is also calling King of the Winds.
It was a sacred bird to the Druids, who considered it “supreme among all the birds”, and used its musical notes for divination. The shape-shifting Fairy Queen took the form of a Wren, known as “Jenny Wren” in nursery rhymes. A Wren’s feather was thought to be a charm against disaster or drowning.
The Wren also features in the legend of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who supposedly was betrayed by the noisy bird as he attempted to hide from his enemies. Traditionally, St. Stephen’s Day (26 December) has been commemorated by Hunting the Wren, wherein young Wrenboys would catch the bird and then ritually parade it around town, as described in the traditional Wren Song. “The Wren, the Wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze. Although he is little, his family’s great, I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.” The tradition, and the significance of the Wren as a symbol and sacrifice of the old year, is discussed in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
This mythological association with treachery is a probable reason why in past times the bird was hunted by Wrenboys on St. Stephen’s Day. A captured wren was killed and tied to the Wrenboy leader’s staff pole. Wrenboys no longer practice this aspect of the Wren, although the event is still referred to as Hunting The Wren. Devoted Wrenboys, with their colourful straw costumes and masks, and with the accompanying céilí bands, continue to ensure that the Gaelic tradition of celebrating the Wren continues to this day.