IN olden times a beautiful Fairy exerted undue influence over Manxmen; her sweet singing induced many of them to follow her voice when by degrees she led them into the sea, where they perished.*1 A Knighterrant*2 at last sprang up, who laid a clever plot for her destruction, from which she only escaped by taking the form of a Wren, when by her rapid movements she became invisible,*3 but not before a spell had been cast upon her, by whose potency she was compelled on every New-year's-day to re-animate the same form, with the definite sentence that she must ultimately perish by a Manx hand. Woe to the devoted birds that show themselves on this fatal anniversary-day! for
'Away to the woods,' says Dick to Tom,
'Away to the woods,' says ey'ry one.'
'What to do there, ye merry Manxmen
'To hunt to death the wicked Witch-Wren.' " &c.
And so from early dawn the people go about with long sticks, and beat the hedges and bushes till they start one of these smart little birds,* which they chase with great shoutings from bush to bush till the pretty thing is captured or killed ; it is then alfixed to the top of a long pole, from which a red banner is suspended, and so carried before the Hunters. After making the usual circuit, they lay the Wren on a bier, and, with a whimsical kind of solemnity, bury it, and sing dirges (in the Manx language) over its grave, which they call her knell. Formerly, after the obsequies had been performed, the company ranged themselves in a circle, and danced to music provided for the occasion.
The singular ceremony of " Hunting the Wren," is still kept up on St. Stephen's-day, and has been a custom in the Isle of Mann from time immemorial. The birds' feathers are kept with religious care as an effectual preservative from shipwreck for one year,-and that fisherman would be deemed foolhardy who entered upon his occupation without providing himself with a few charmed feathers as a safeguard.
Whilst engaged writing this Manx tradition, on this present 27th day of December, 1858, a party of Wren Hunters came to my house, carrying the dead body of the pretty bird in the interior of a little bower made of evergreens, tied with ribbons. 1 gave them some pence, and received three feathers.
" In the south of Ireland the Wren is hunted by the peasantry on Christmas-day, and on the following day (St. Stephen's,) he is carried in procession, the Hunters singing an Irish catch importing him to be the King of Birds, as the Druids represented the Wren to be. It was the Augur's favourite bird, and the respect shown to it gave so much offence to our first Christian missionaries that they caused it to be hunted and killed."*
In olden times the Manx herring-fishers always took one of these dead birds with them to sea. Alas, poor Wren! once honoured as the King of Birds-that ever thou shouldst have become the victim of fabulizing Poets! '
*1The Germans have a similar Siren, called the Lore-Lei.-See page
*2 Ulysses again.
*3 It is well known that when flying the motion of the Wren's wings is so rapid that they become invisible.
*4 The tit-wren is selected as the victim.
*5 HALL'S Ireland, vol. i., p. 24.
APPENDIX TO THE WREN.
NOTE *1.-Page 26.
Some writers represent the Sirens of Cape Pelorus, in Sicily, with the body of a bird, except the head, which was that of a beautiful female. On a trial of skill in singing to which these Sirens invited the Muses, the latter, proving victorious, plucked the feathers from the wings of their jealous adversaries, with which they made themselves crowns. A. Siren influence, divested of its fatality, has ever since spell-bound us in the melody of the Muse.
NOTE II.-Page 28.
The inhabitants of the town of Ciotal, near Marseilles, commence about the same time an anniversary huntinq of the Wren. When captured, it is suspended, as though it were a heavy burden,* from the middle of a long pole borne on the shoulders of two men, carried in procession through the streets, and weighed on a strong balance, after which there is a convivial entertainment."-Sonnini Travels, ap DALZELL's Darker Superstitions of Scotland, p. 422.
* We find the same notion of " a heavy burden " in the Manx Carol before quoted:-
" ' She's down, she's down !
How get her to town ?'
' in my brewery cart,'
Says Bill Fell to Taggart
How get her into it?a'r
'With iron bars do it."' &c.
Of how many traditions is the innocent Wren a victim! The following was communicated to me by a member of the Manx Publication Society.
"I witnessed, many years ago, in Ireland, men as well as boys go out with sticks and clubs, and spend the day in a barbarous onslaught on the hapless tribe of Wrens. On inquiring into the origin of this custom, I was told, how, previous to the Battle of the Boyne, the Irish party stole in the darkness of night upon King William's troops as they lay encamped and asleep, and were on the point of ridding Ireland of these heretics, when a Wren hopping on to the drum of a Protestant drummer awoke him; he immediately beat an alarm that roused the slumberers, who soon put their foes to flight. The peasantry have ever since hunted to the death the poor Wren on the anniversary of this day of their defeat."