[From A Second Manx Scrapbook]


1. The Ritual.

Wren Boys, Ramsey 1904
Wren Boys, Ramsey 1904 [from Birds of IoM]

A WELL-KNOWN ceremonial custom has brought the wren into greater prominence in Manx folk-lore than any other bird. This custom of an annual sacrifice has three main aspects: the ritual, the reason given for it, and the song associated with it. To discover, so far as is now possible, the position of the custom among the traditions of the Island and its connexions with those of other countries, it will be necessary to start from ground already made familiar by Waldron, Townley, Bullock and Train, and later writers deriving from these. To avoid the tedium of repetition it will be best to reduce their several accounts to one. The small points on which they differ can be noticed afterwards.

On a certain day of the year, then, a wren was caught and killed. It was carried round, by a singing procession of men or boys, in a decorated receptacle from house to house, its feathers, in exchange for food or coins, being distributed to be worn as protective charms or luck-bringing amulets, or to be kept in the houses and the fishing-boats for the same purpose. The body of the bird was afterwards buried to the singing of " dirges," formerly in the churchyard with subsequent circular dances, but latterly on the seashore or in any convenient piece of waste ground.1

Two details mentioned by Townley are not found in any of the other descriptions : the use of a red flag (apparently instead of greenery), and the belief that the value of the wren as a luck-bringer depended on its being caught between dawn and sunrise.2

Dr. Kelly, in the Manx Dictionary for which he was compiling materials in the latter portion of the 18th century, gives (under " Baaltin ") a description of the Wren-ceremony in his ancestral district of Baldwin. The details in which it differs from that of other parts of the Island are that the processionists beat drums and flew colours (unless these were simply the ribbons attached to the " bier "), that the bird's remains were " deposited with much ceremony in Kil Ammon " (i.e. Keeill Abban, the ruined chapel near the old Tynwald Hill there), and that the evening concluded with games on an adjoining piece of ground.


The main features of the sacrifice, or sacrament, if that term may be used, assimilate it to a widely-studied but not yet wholly explained group of customs, of which the ensuing specimens are characteristic.

" A Californian tribe which reverenced the buzzard held an annual festival at which the chief ceremony was the killing of a buzzard without losing a drop of its blood. It was then skinned, the feathers were preserved to adorn the sacred dress of the medicineman, and the body was buried within the temple amid the lamentations of the old women, who mourned as for the loss of a relative or friend." After the rites were concluded, three days and three nights were spent in dancing.3

" In order, apparently, to put himself more fully under the protection of the totem, the clansman is in the habit of assimilating himself to the totem . . . each clansman carries at least an easily recognizable part of his totem with him. Condor clans in Peru, who believed themselves descended from the condor, adorned themselves with the feathers of the bird."4

The Piaroans of the Orinoco pluck feathers from their sacred toucan, one for each member of a family. These feathers are first attached to sticks outside the dwelling to scare away the evil spirits ; afterwards they are worn in the head-dresses.5

The Ainos, the Gilyaks, and other North Asiatic tribes annually lead a bear about among the huts to bestow his blessing on them. After receiving rewards in the shape of food, they sacrifice the animal, amid dancing and lamentations, and, in some cases, the bones are solemnly carried away by the oldest tribesman to a retired place in the forest near the village, where they are buried, with the exception of the skull, which is hung in a tree.6

Members of a Central African tribe lead a sacrificelamb about among the people, who pluck off scraps of its fleece and wear them for protection. 7


The wren-sacrifice certainly shows points of strong resemblance to these totemistic rites ; but if the bird, or whatever it has replaced, was at first an object of tribal reverence, the rites connected with it must, after losing their totemistic value, have greatly enlarged their area and become a mere traditional observance not understood by the participants.

For the custom of killing a wren on a certain day of the year, formerly observed in many places in the British Isles and the South of France, various explanations of a fabulous character are offered in the various countries. The Manxmen have accounted for it by a tradition which appears to be confined to their Island.+ This, in its several versions, must be quoted as a partial basis for the ensuing remarks.

" In former times a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she, at various times, induced, by her sweet voice, numbers to follow her footsteps, till by degrees she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended that the Island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knighterrant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this siren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard by taking the form of a wren. But though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her by which she was condemned, on every succeeding New Year's Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by human hand."8

In this fairy or siren it is not difficult to recognize the sorceress or enchantress Tehi Tegi, of whose wholesale seductions Waldron, writing a century earlier than Bullock, gives the following account :

" An old Native, to whom it has been handed down from many Generations as an undoubted Verity, told me that a famous Enchantress sojourning in this Island . . . had by her diabolical Arts made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of Men, that she ensnared the Hearts of as many as beheld her. . . . They entirely neglected their usual Occupations . . . and everything had the Appearance of an utter Desolation even Propagation ceased, for no Man could have the least Inclination for any Woman but this universal Charmer. . . . When she had thus allured the male Part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a Progress through the Provinces, and being attended by all her Adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white Palfrey, in a kind of Triumph at the head of them : she led them into a deep River, which by her Art she made seem passable ; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden Wind to rise, which driving the Waters in such abundance to one Place, swallowed up the poor Lovers to the number of Six Hundred in their tumultuous Waves. After which, the Sorceress was seen by some Persons, who stood on the Shore, to convert herself into a Bat, and fly through the Air till she was out of sight, as did her Palfrey into a Sea-hog or Porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the Bottom of the Stream.

Tehi-Tegi, it seems, was the Name of that Enchantress."

A briefer tradition of the same tenour locates a similar enchantress in the parish of Bride ; here she is called " a seal-woman," and is not stated to have assumed any other form in what remains of the story.9

In a folk-tale told to Miss Mona Douglas, when a child, by a Maughold woman, a magic smith had his forge on the little peninsula in that parish called, on the maps, Gob ny Garvain.10 This smith had a daughter who partook of the nature of a mermaid, and enticed a man to follow her into the sea-world, where he became a leader of the souls of the drowned ; and the narrator remarked of her, " that would be Tehi Tegi."11

Half a century after Bullock a Galloway writer's account of the enchantress exhibits her as a stormraising sea-witch who drowned fishermen, but her connexion with the little land-bird persists.

" The Manx herring-fishers dare not go to sea without one of these birds taken dead with them, for fear of disasters and storms. Their tradition is that of a sea-spirit that haunted the herring-track attended always by storms, and at last it assumed the figure of a wren and flew away. So they think that when they have a dead wren with them all is snug."12

All these fables, or whatever they ought to be called, are manifestly pervaded by the shadow of some mythological personality fluctuating from shape to shape in the manner characteristic of those august beings. The form of a bird was assumed by Fand, the wife of Manannan, in " The Sick-bed of Cuchulain," to tempt the hero to elope with her to the sea-fairyland whence she had emerged; her sister Liban "the Mermaid" accompanied her in a similar shape. The Sirens of the Greek seas, in the forms of birds with women's heads, lured sailors to destruction with their sweet voices ; and when the Muses defeated them in a singing contest they plucked out the Sirens' feathers and wore them as trophies. But the harmless wren is not the kind of fowl one would expect a siren to animate in a Northern tradition. A Lancashire writer links " the Manx wren " with the robin and the stork as being " inhabited by the souls of human beings "; a statement which, so far as it concerns the wren, would square better with the Insular legends if for " human " were substituted " superhuman."

In the last-quoted of these Manx legends, it will have been noted, the fairy, sea-spirit, sorceress, enchantress, siren or seal - woman evinces the storm - raising or storm-heralding faculty of the mermaid herself ; but immunity is conferred upon fishermen by a wren's feather. (Yet even without this or any other safeguard, the mermaid, when met at sea, was regarded by Manxmen with a friendly eye, for she often befriended them by her timely warning of an approaching tempest.) A blend of mermaid and bird is a little disconcerting at first sight, but a flying mermaid is not unknown in the Netherlands. One such predicted nightly in her song from the top of the church-tower the drowning of the city of Zevenburgen, if, indeed, she did not actually bring it about in an earlier form of the legend. To-day the church-tower sticking up out of the water is all that is left of Zevenburgen.13 The story of the enchantress, which appears to have been grafted on the Manx wren-custom in order to explain it, has a better claim to be called " native " than the " Hunt-the-Wren " song. The song was probably imported about the same period as the Mummers or Whiteboys, the Battle of Summer and Winter, and the Hop-to-naa (Hogmanay) custom with its song. Throughout the Wren-song the bird is referred to as " he," and " the king," just as in Britain and Ireland, and on the Continent ; whereas the Manx legendary explanations, though they vary somewhat in details, share a single essential motive, the seductiveness and destructiveness of a female sprite, a marine counterpart of the fresh-water Nikkesen.

In the above-quoted versions of this motive, MacTaggart's (Gallovidian Encyclopedia) is purely a sea-affair ; in Bullock's the seduction is by land, the destruction by sea ; in the Kirk Bride story-the most recent and most meagre-the siren comes out of the sea and bewitches her victims on land; in Waldron's account-the earliest and fullest-the sea is not mentioned, but Waldron's words " sea-hog or porpoise " suggest that it entered into the affair. Train borrowed from Bullock and Waldron. This hesitation between land and sea in the Manx stories has an illustrative analogy in the change of habits seen in the bird-like sirens, who were " originally terrestrial, dwelling in a meadow by the sea, yet not venturing in the deep themselves, but luring men to shipwreck on the coast by the spell of their song ; and an echo, perhaps, of this conception . . . lives on in a folk-song which pictures the enchantment of a maiden's love-song wafted to seafarers' ears from off the shore: ' Thereby a ship was passing with sails outspread. Sailors that hearken to that voice and look upon such beauty, forget their sails and forsake their oars ; they cannot voyage any more ; they know not how to set sail.' But by the 6th century the traditional habitat of the sirens had changed." They had become mermaids, with fishlike tails in place of their bird-tails and clawed and feathered legs, " who by their exceeding beauty and winning song ensnare mariners."* It is apposite here to remark that Bullock, in his account of the Manx siren, notes a detail missed by Waldron, when he says that she attracted the men of the Island by her bewitching singing.

Another passage in the Bullock account already cited deserves a moment's consideration. " She only escaped," he says, " by taking the form of a wren. But though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her by which she was condemned, on every succeeding New Year's Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by human hand." A similar theory of alternating sacrifice and reanimation (similar except for the promised final extinction of the enchanted being) appears in a later and fuller citation concerning the killing of the sacred buzzard by Californian Indians, who " rank near the bottom of the savage scale," says Sir James Frazer. He is here considering the rite from a standpoint other than that of Totemism.

His extract concludes thus: "They said that the Panes [buzzard] was a woman who had run off to the mountains and there been changed into a bird by the god Chinigchinich. They believed that though they sacrificed the bird annually, she came to life again and returned to her home in the mountains. Moreover, they thought that, as often as the bird was killed, it became multiplied ; because every year all the different Capitanes celebrated the same feast of Panes, and were firm in the opinion that the birds sacrificed were but one and the same female."*

The Samoan doctrine was identical. " Each family had for its god a particular species of animal ; yet the death of one of these animals, for example an owl, was not the death of the god, ' he was supposed to be yet alive, and incarnate in all the owls in existence.' "1'

In comparing the foregoing beliefs with the Manx myth, it is not clear whether Bullock by the words " reanimate the same form " meant that she reanimated an individual wren or all the wrens, as all the buzzards and owls are possessed by the deity's spirit. He says that the slaughter was indiscriminate : " In consequence of this ' well-authenticated' legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the Island . . . devote the hours between sunrise and sunset, to the hope of extirpating the fairy, and woe be to the individual birds of this species who show themselves on this fatal day . . . they are pursued . . and their feathers preserved with religious care." Vallancey, speaking for the Ireland of a century ago, says likewise that the wrens were killed indiscriminately. These statements leave it uncertain whether the wren-hunters hoped to hit upon a particular bird which embodied the fairy or whether they sought safety by destroying all the wrens in the neighbourhood. In recent years even a single wren has been dispensed with in the Manx celebrations.


In the Isle of Man the wren was usually carried about in a small box made of coloured paper and gaily decorated with ribbons or paper streamers, tinsel or foil ; or else it was suspended by a leg from the junction-point of two hoops of willow or other flexible wood with their ends fastened together to form two circles, and intersecting each other at right angles, the decorations being similar to those of the box. I have seen both styles in different parts of the Island, but no wren since the European war, though in a few districts the singing and begging parties still go round with their framework. Bunches of such greenery as could be got at that time of the yearoften holly or ivy-were sometimes fixed round the receptacle ; this must have been an essential part of the equipment formerly, for its technical name was always " the Bush," " the Wren-bush." " Are you goin' round with the Bush this year ? " was understood to mean the procession with the wren, or with the trappings minus the bird itself. Captain Walter Cowley tells me he remembers the Foxdale boys of about sixty years ago carrying it about in the middle of a green bush so big that you couldn't have got your arms round it ; this was fixed on a long pole which was sloped over the bearer's shoulder, and the wren was hanging by a string in the middle.* In the South, in later years, the boys would sometimes carry a mouse instead of a wren.f These fragments of evergreen growths, which in the 19th century surrounded the bird's body in Man just as in Wales, seem to have been gradually replaced in the Island by artificial materials. '+' The boys' attempts at disguise and fancy costume may have been prompted by the example of the Whiteboys and other traditional performers ; but a blacked face or a home-made mask, and something unusual to wear, if only his jacket turned inside out, is a boy's first thought in such affairs. Dr. Clague says he saw a Wren-boy covered with a net, his face blacked, and wearing a bunch of leeks for a tail.*

The crossed hoops, in which, I believe, a cosmic symbolism has been discovered or imagined, were not peculiar to the Wren-procession. In England they formed the skeleton of the garland which was carried at the funeral of an unmarried woman, a white glove being suspended in the middle. In Tavistock, on Garland Day (29th May), the boys approximated to the Manx use of the hoops ; between these, twined with flowers, they hung a string of birds' eggs, excepting that of the robin. So Mrs. Bray tells us, in her Tamar and Tavy. An article on page 13 of The Times of 1st May, 1930, describes the May Day garlands which the Oxfordshire children used to carry round for pence, as having been made of various kinds of wild flowers. " In the more ambitious hands they were wrought cunningly on circular hoops of hazel twigs ; the acme of art was a creation of two hoops crossing at right angles, and the proper finish was a small doll seated on the lower intersection of the circles."


The receptacles constructed by the Welsh " Wren-bearers," as they were called, also closely resembled those of the Manx. Mr. George Eyre Evans of Carmarthen, who remembers the custom at Abergwili some forty years ago, tells me that the little square box was made of interlaced skewers pasted over with coloured paper, with streamers of paper attached to it. An opening was left in the box to give patrons a peep at the dead victim. The " Milder to Melder " song was sung, as at Tenby. Mr. Evans' description, given in the course of conversation among a group of friends, brought out recollections that the Wren-bearing custom had been practised similarly at Llanishen and Llwchwr in the same county, and at Llawrenny on Twelfth Day ; probably there were few places without it down to the middle of the 19th century. At Manorbier it was seen a dozen years ago, and may not yet be quite extinct there.

From a brochure of 83 pages printed at Solva in 1897, containing local matter by various contributors -among them Sir John Rhys-to the Pembroke County Guardian, certain wren-customs akin to those of the Isle of Man are worth rescuing. The descriptions are evidently written by eye-witnesses.

Page 39: " At New Year . . . work ceased, and the villagers came round for the usual present of ' Cwkau'* and the children with the wren in its cage decked with ribbons, and singing carols in Welsh and English, one of the latter being -Cursed is the man

Who kills a Robin or a Wran.' "

(This relates to Killau Bridge, North Pembrokeshire, and is signed Farrar Fenton.)

" The wren was put in a cage, or rather a lantern, which was dressed with coloured ribbons. Every young lady, and even old ladies, used to compete in presenting the grandest ribbon to the ' Wren.' Those who took the little bird and sang were invited by farmers, and especially their wives, to visit their homes on ' Gwyl Ystwyll,' which they did gladly, of course, for they knew that that meant half a crown, or more perhaps. One told me that he used to go out with the Wren for many years, and that he sometimes had too many invitations to accept, but he used to attend one farm-house, Pencnwc, every year. In this farm-house an old farmer and his wife resided, and my friend was invited with his Wren, but he was warned to come early in the morning, before they rose from bed, and the first thing he was to do was to sprinkle water over them as they lay in bed. What this meant I cannot say, but probably they took it as some kind of ' blessing.' I have heard the song which was sung and have copied it, but I hardly think that I ever heard it so full as it used to be . . . .

The song will be found on page a90 herein. The sprinkling was an independent custom practised at that time of the year, and here grafted on that of the wren-bearing. Doorsteps were sprinkled also. The above account (page 45) is signed " J. S. Jones, St. David's," and apparently relates to that place.

In the North of the county the Wren-custom was associated with another of so much interest that I make no apology for including it here. The contributor writes from Pontfaen, but thanks a Skyber man for the information:

" In North Pembrokeshire the holidays commenced, especially amongst the farmers, on Christmas Day, and were continued for three weeks, viz. till Epiphany Sunday. On the 25th day of December, the farmers with their servants and labourers suspended all farming operations, and in every farm the plough was at once carried into the private house, and deposited under the table in the ' Room Vord'* (i.e. the room in which they took their meals), where it remained until the expiration of ' Gwyliau Calan.'t During these three weeks, parties of men went about from house to house, and were invited into the ' Room Vord,' where they sat around the table, regaling themselves with beer, which was always kept warm in small, neat brass pans in every farm-house ready for callers. But the peculiar custom which existed amongst these holiday-makers was that they always wetted the plough which lay dormant under the table with their beer before partaking of it themselves, thus indicating that though they had dispensed with its services for the time, they had not forgotten it, and that it would again, in due course, be brought out on the greensward and turn it topsy-turvy. These bands of men would sometimes carry with them the ' Wren,' singing simple popular ditties . . . .

At Haverfordwest " there was another usage which I believe was very old, that of carrying the wren, or the king, as he was called, on twelfth day, the last day of Christmas. The little house in which the poor bird was carried about, not by children, but by men, was decorated with ribbons, a ridiculous song being sung, commencing ' Our king is no small man,' and I suppose no good luck could be expected to rest on a house where these visits were not welcomed."* The writer unfortunately found the song so ridiculous that he recorded neither the words nor the air ; but they were evidently quite unlike the set of words used at Tenby, only 2o miles away, although the rest of the proceedings and the date of the annual observance were the same. It is further noticeable that the past tense is used, in or before 1882, in describing the ceremony. The local term used in the context for Allhallows is " La Hallantide."

" Some years ago it was the custom for groups of young men to go from house to house in Pembroke on Twelfth Night, carrying a ' Cutty-wren ' in a little box having glass windows in the sides and ends, and gaily decked with coloured paper. Handles were fixed at the corners, and it was carried from house to house after the manner of a hand-barrow. The box had a couple of bits of candle stuck at the side to illuminate ' King Wren,' and when a halt was made the following quaint but now almost forgotten ditty was sung. . . .* After this the singers expected to be rewarded with some halfpence. The custom has now quite disappeared here. I have often heard my grandfather sing the above song."

The Tenby district is well known as a stronghold in time past of the wren-custom. Here, as elsewhere in Wales, we miss the distribution of the feathers for luck, and probably that feature had already fallen into disuse, if it ever existed in Wales. An anonymous writer, after describing several local methods of wheedling coppers out of householders' pockets, continues : " Another mode of levying contributions

was by means of the ' cutty ' wren. Having procured a wren, and placed it in a small ornamented box, or paper house, with a square of glass at either end, two or four men would carry it about, elevated on four poles fixed to the corners, singing the while a long ditty," which will be found on page 386. " The four men would then enter the doorway, groaning under the weight of their burden, and looking as if they had just relieved Atlas of his shoulder-piece."* Amongst a number of other traditions and personal reminiscences the following description was taken down during the present century by H. C. Tierney (a trustworthy recorder) from a Lawrenny (Pembrokeshire) man aged 81 : "Seventy years ago . . . we used to go hunting the wren. Four men went in front and carried handles on each side, supporting something like a bier. On this was a nice box with a wren, or sometimes two or three wrens in it, and it was decorated with coloured ribbons and flowers. As they went to each house they would sing. . . .fi Then they would ask the people, especially at the farms, for drink and cakes. In most places they were well treated, and I can tell you they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. It was not at Christmas or New Year, but on the Twelfth Day. That was our play, and up in the Welsh parts they had Marri Llewelyn."} An allusion follows to sprinkling people with " New Year's water," a custom which we have just seen associated with the Wren-bearing at St. David's, but which was practised independently of it all over South Wales.

From an account published in 1849 a detail may be added to the descriptions which have already been given of the wren's receptacle, namely that the ribbons were attached to a " wheel " which surmounted the little box. Also, that tradition connected the custom with the death of an ancient British king at the time of the Saxon invasion. (Halliwell Phillips, Popular Rhymes, page 166.)

A remarkable adaptation of Wren-bearing to a special purpose is seen in a Welsh custom practised in the 18th century and thus described by the Rev. Silvan Evans in a letter to the Academy which was reprinted in Bye-Gones for April, 1885, page 2o6.* During the Christmas holidays the houses of couples recently married were visited, at night only, by a procession of youths carrying a wren on a bier. If all the wrens had eluded them they substituted a sparrow. Under the bedroom window they would halt and sing these lines in Welsh :

Here is the Wren If he is alive,
Or a sparrow To be roasted.

The husband would then admit them and regale them with beer and food, which, says the writer, seem to have been the object of the visit. This explanation leaves the wren's presence unaccounted for, but it may be imagined that its recognized virtue as an antidote to evil influences in general was here specialized to further the chief end of marriagefruitfulness.

This development of Wren-bearing has the merit of offering us the only example of a formal curse used in connexion with the custom, as against its numerous little begging-rhymes. " Other houses in the district, if similarly circumstanced, would be visited on subsequent nights until the Epiphany, which was called ' distyll y gwyliau ' [ebb of the holidays], when all festivities connected with Christmas terminated. I ought to have mentioned that if the wren-party were not admitted into the house and entertained, in parting they gave vent to their feeling of disappointment in the following malediction :

'Gwynt ffralwm, Ddelo'n hwthwm I droi'r ty
A'r wyneb fyny ;

Scottish folk-lore also suggests that the wren was understood to cause fertility. Miss Goodrich Freer reports, in vol. xiii. of Folk-lore, that a wren about a Highland dwelling is a lucky sign, and that a Scottish Gaelic proverb says:

" No house ever dies out that the wren frequents."

which may be rendered:

'Come, raging wind, in fury frown,
And turn this house all upside down.'"

It is surprising that the South-West of Scotland, with its admixture of Brythonic blood, has not more vestiges of the Wren-custom to show. At Kirkmaiden in Wigtownshire there was a practice of catching a wren and decorating it with ribbons, as in other parts of the Kingdom ; but it was afterwards set free again.' The characteristic song has penetrated into Scotland, however, as we shall see later.

That Brittany also possessed a Wren-custom which involved going to the woods to catch the bird and afterwards plucking off the feathers is suggested by certain Breton folk-songs which will be noticed in Section 2. Here may be mentioned, for what it is worth, a Cornouaille custom. On St. Stephen's Day parties went from door to door soliciting presents ; they were preceded by an old horse decorated with ribbons and laurel-branches. The gifts were invited through the medium of a song which had a title similar to that of the Scottish Hogmanay and the Manx Hop-to-naa song, though the words, as preserved, do not correspond to any of the variants of these.+

Although Cornwall has no discoverable memory of having hunted and plucked the wren, a custom which has probably survived from that of wren-hunting is mentioned in Cornish Feasts and Folk-lore, page 1q.: " On St. Stephen's Day, 26th December . . . every man or boy who could by any means get a gun went out shooting. . . . The custom is said to have had its origin in the legend of one of St. Stephen's guards being awakened by a bird just as his prisoner was going to escape. A similar practice prevailed in the neighbourhood of Penzance on ' Feasten Monday,' the day after Advent Sunday."

The same habit obtained in 1857, if no later, further North in Brythonica. In Cumberland " St. Stephen's Day is kept as a general shooting holiday ; the woods and fields echo all day with the desultory practice of ' sportsmen,' and the pigeon-shootings held for prizes."*


In the South of France no song has been recorded, so far as I am aware, in connexion with the Wren-ceremony, and the ritual observed in the various districts has only a rudimentary resemblance to the Manx procedure. Though some of the Proven~al instances have become hackneyed by frequent quotation, I give them once more for the sake of completeness.

At Carcassonne the Wren-fëte goes back to the time of the Knights Templars, and has for long been the privilege of the young people living in the Rue St. Jean in the lower town ; from which it would appear that the Knights of St. John lent it their patronage. " Every year on the 31st of December the champion of the previous year's fëte summoned with the aid of a drum-and-fife band the young people who had the right of taking part in the fëte of the following day, the 1st of January, at an hour agreed upon under an elm-tree of the Rue St. Jean ; they went to a wood, and armed with a pole they tried to knock down a wren. The first to succeed received a crown from the hands of the preceding champion, and the bird, surrounded with a garland of oak-leaves, was placed at the end of the longest perch procurable. On the 6th of January the new Roitelet [Kinglet or Wren], decorated with a Maltese cross and having a sceptre in his hand, attended mass with his companions at the church of St. Vincent ; then he went to wish a happy New Year to the municipal magistrates. If no wren had been obtainable, the former Roitelet tossed the preceding year's bird into the air, and whoever got possession of it was proclaimed King. This amusement, interrupted about the year 1792, was resumed on the return of Louis XVIII. to the throne."*

" I was informed at Ciotat of a singular ceremony practised there every year, the first days of Niv6se. A numerous assemblage of men, armed with sabres and pistols, sally forth in pursuit of a very small bird called by the ancients ' troglodyte.' . . . When they have found it, which is no difficult matter, for care is taken to have one always ready, they suspend it on the middle of a long pole which two men carry on their shoulders, as if it were a heavy load. This whimsical procession parades thus through the streets of the city ; they weigh the bird on a strong balance, and afterwards sit down at table to divert themselves. The name given to the troglodyte is not less whimsical than the species of festival which it occasions. They call it patois (polecat) or ' woodcock's father,' on account of the resemblance of its plumage to that of the woodcock, which they there allege to be generated by the polecat, a great destroyer of the feathered race, but not the producer of any one."*

" In several districts a wren was taken alive and given to the priest, who after midnight mass entered the pulpit holding the bird adorned with pink ribbons and let it loose in the church ; he who had caught it was exempted for one year from the olive-tithe, and was called 'King of the Holidays.' If it was the women who bad succeeded in capturing the wren, they were entitled to deride the men who had taken part in the hunt, and these made a hasty disappearance to avoid having their faces daubed with soot or mud."

No doubt most of the preceding accounts of the wren - custom are familiar to professed folk - lorists, but it may be worth while to contrast with the actual celebrations the heroic deeds outlined by the words of the typical Wren-song in some of its variants.

Lady Wilde, Ancient Legends of Ireland (edition of 1902), page 177, says that if no money was given to the Irish wren-boys they buried the body " on the doorstep, which was considered a great insult to the family, and a degradation."

t journal kept in the Isle of Man, i., 311 (September, 1789).

* Frazer, Totemism, page 15. The killing of the Manx and Irish wrens, however, was not-in the 18th century at leastconfined to the single specimen required for the ceremony.

t Totemism, pages 25, 26. Folk-love, xvii., 266.

* Frazer, Golden Bough (abridged), chap. iii.

f Ibid., pages 534. 535.

$ The Danes may have had some legend or folk-tale of a similar complexion, for Ellis's Brand (19o8 edition, pages 197 ff) says that their name for the wren is elle-hong. As this means elf-king it combines the general idea of its kingship with the Manx idea of its fairy nature.

* Bullock, History of lite isle of Man, page 370.

* A Manx Scrapbook, page 438.

t Ibid., page 382.

* For the sake of uniformity I follow Waldron's spelling of this name; whether that is due to a misprint or not, the pronunciation given me is Tyee Tyee, rhyming with " nigh 'ee." As a pendant to these native traditions may be mentioned a version given by Wood-Martin (Elder Faiths of Ireland, ii., 149). Here the fairy is called Cleena ; she resumes the wren-form every Christmas Day. The phrasing strongly resembles that of Bullock's anecdote.

t Gallovidian Encyclopedia, page 157.Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folk-lore, page 237.

t Thorpe, Northern Mythology, iii., 282.

* Lawson, Modern Greek Folk-lore and Ancient Greek Religion, page 187.

* Golden Bough (abridged), page 5oo.

Ibid., page 500.

* In Provence, Ireland and Essex, as in Foxdale, the wren was often hung from the end of a pole or staff.

f Whether this was substituted because more easily come by, or whether it had some traditional significance, I cannot say; but in the Faros the mouse is proverbially called " the wren's brother." The shrew-mouse is persecuted in the Isle of Man. In Provence the wren was called " polecat " and " woodcock's father " (see page 382). These seemingly absurd conceits are merely isolated peaks betraying a great submerged continent of animal-myth.

$ Miss Cookson in her Poems from Manxland (1868) says on page 50: " 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. I gave them some pence, and received three feathers." Another description by an eye-witness is that in Cumming's Guide to the Isle of Man, (1861), page 2o : "They then erect the body on a perch between osier twigs, decked out with ribbons and evergreens." Compare with these trappings those which are likened in The Golden Bough (abridged edition), page 654 : "The gigantic images constructed of osiers or covered with grass in which the Druids enclosed their victims remind us of the leafy framework in which the human representative of the tree-spirit is still so often encased."

* Manx Reminiscences, page 15. In Ireland also the costumes, and even the rites, often partook of those associated with the Mummers or Whiteboys. In Roscommon the leader's face was blacked and he was clothed in straw- ; another participant wore a woman's dress. (Folk-love, vi., 3o8.) In County Clare the singers had blacked faces and carried a bladder each. (Folk-love, xxvii., 26o.) "Sir Wisp, a personage in the Wren-play in a straw suit, masked and armed with a wooden sword or bladder fastened to a rod, he represents the Englishman and is defeated by an Irish knight similarly armed called Sedn Scot." (Dinneen's Irish Dictionary, s.v. Sop.) This was in 1925. At Christmas time the Manx boys used to go about making a rough music with tin whistles, Jew's-harps, tin-cans, and papered combs, and flourishing and thumping mollags-the sheepskin bladders which buoy the nets. This procession was called " the Mollag-band." Faces were blacked or raddled, dress was eccentric, and coppers were not refused, but these streetminstrels were quite distinct from the Wren-boys.

* Small cakes.

* Literally " table-room," like the English " board-room."

t The feast-days of Christmas.

* C. C. W., in Haverfordwest and its Story, 1882, page 50.* The same song as at Tenby. The account is taken from The Carmarthenshire Miscellany, May and June, 1892, pages 46-48.* Tales and Traditions of Tenby, 1858, page 12. Much of the folk-lore in this work is taken from articles contributed to The Cambrian journal in 1857, entitled "Manners and Customs of the People of Tenby," by L. P. Barnaschone. They relate largely to the 18th century.

t The " Milder to Melder " song. See 2 of this Chapter.

+ i.e. Mari lwyd, the equivalent of the Manx laare vane, the sham horse-head with the snapping jaws. Both of these dragon-like effigies were virtually identical with the Lancashire " Old Ball " fully described by Harland and Wilkinson, Lancs. Folk-lore, pages 234-6, 254. The Lawrenny memory is taken from the Transactions of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society, part xxv., page 48.

* It is also to be found in Elias Owen's Welsh Folk-lore (Oswestry, 1896), page 332.

* This intention, among others, may be suspected in the ceremony at Laguenne near Tulle in the Lower Limousin region, where the occupants of the wagon on which the wren was borne consisted, on one side, of those who had been married during the previous seven years, and, on the opposite side, of more experienced couples. They afterwards engaged in a tug-of-war with the wagon until it fell to one side or the other. (Folk-lore, xvii., 272, 3.) In Berry, France, it is the office of the newlymarried to carry the wren to the Lord of the Manor.

* Rev. Silvan Evans in Bye-Gones, April, 1885, page 206.

t The liberation of a captured wren was also performed at the gate of a town in the Nivernais. For details of both customs, see an article on " the Scapegoat," by N. W. Thomas in vol. xvii. of Folk-love.

$ See the Barzaz Breiz, page 445.

* Sullivan, Cumberland and Westmorland, page x-70.

* Sëbillot, Folk-lore de France, iii., x89.

* Sonnini, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (translated by Hunter), iii., 16, 17. Sonnini was a Frenchman employed by Louis XVI. to travel in Egypt.

f S6billot, Folk-lore de France, page 190.

Wren Boys (Douglas 1904)
Wren Boys (Douglas 1904)


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