Robin and Wren
I’m currently sitting in front of a window that goes all the way to floor level. As usual, every now and again as I’m sitting here, birds come up close to the window, trying to get into the space they can see through the glass, or sit on the fence a few yards away, looking in sceptically.
Just now, a wren came along, flying low to the ground, and hopping every now and again, along the length of the window, sitting on the window ledge for a moment before flying off.
The birds in these parts are incredibly large, compared to other places I’ve lived. It’s bound, in part, to be the fluffing up of feathers against the chill of the wind, but even taking that into account, we have some beefy birdies. I’ve always put the rest of it down to the sheer quantity of insects available for them to eat over the summer.
(To which I say, eat away, little birds, eat away! The fewer midges to bother me the better.)
It means I always second guess myself when I see a wren. In all the other places I’ve seen wrens, they’ve been tiny, truly tiny. Here, they’re almost the size of sparrows, so I always double check the features that make it definitely a wren. Pale and dark variegation on the wing? Check. White bar above the eye? Check. Tail tipped up perpendicular to the ground? Check.
Amusingly enough, just a few seconds after the wren went on its way, a robin appeared on the fence, big and round, with his beady eye looking at me.
Why amusing? Because the wren and the robin are important birds in English, Welsh and Irish folklore, with a strong relationship to one another.
The wren is known as the king of the birds, and its name in many European languages means king, king-bird, or little king. This may be because, according to legend, the wren became the highest flying of all the birds when he hitched a lift on the back of an eagle, then launched himself from it’s back to fly just a little bit higher. This legend also illustrates the wren’s fabled cunning.
The wren is both protected from, and associated with lightning, as well as with oak trees, and the deity Taranis. If you steal a wren’s egg or a baby wren, your house will be struck by lightning. The same may apply if you mess with a Druid, as druids and wrens are closely associated.
The robin has much more Christian legend associated with it. One version of how the robin got his red breast recounts how he sang in Christ’s ear as he hung on the cross, to distract him from his suffering, and that drops of Christ’s blood landed on his breast, permanently marking him. Another version tells how he tried to stop up the wound in Christ’s side with his breast, and that is how it was stained red.
Yet a third story tells of the robin’s merciful nature: out of pity for the souls trapped in Hell, he would carry water to them in his beak. In the process, his breast was burned by the fires of that place. (This is very similar to a story of a mystical peacock, whose tears for the suffering of the souls trapped in hell soothe their burns.)
Another story of the robin and fire also brings in the wren. In this tale, the robin stole fire from heaven, and caught fire himself as he brought it to earth. In gratitude for this act, all of the other birds gave him one of their feathers, to cover over the areas where his own had burned away. In the robin’s enthusiasm, he did not notice the tiny wren in the crowd, got too close, and so the wren, too, caught fire. The singe marks can still be seen on the wren’s wings today.
The robin and the wren are also brought together in a whimsical tradition that if a dead person be left unburied, the robin and wren together will cover over its body with leaves.
The most famous story of the relationship between the robin and the wren, however, is not one of cooperation, but of conflict. In this tradition, the robin is associated with the rising of the new sun at the winter solstice (around 21st December), and the wren is the old year, which must die for the new to be born. In some tellings of their tale, the robin kills his father, the wren, and gets his red breast from the wren’s blood.
This could also be the origin of the Medieval tradition of hunting and killing a wren on St. Stephen’s day (26th December) by stoning. Supposedly, this was in remembrance of the stoning of St. Stephen, but it is easy to see how it could have a more Pagan origin, in the killing of the old year to allow the new one in.
Thankfully, this is a tradition that died out some time back, although ‘The Hunting of the Wren’ is a festival still celebrated in the Isle of Man, and various places around England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, with a wreath or other object taking the place of the wren.