[From A Second Manx Scrapbook]
The use made of the feathers as amulets is an interesting and, perhaps, the most significant part of all the Manx proceedings. From this standpoint the song as sung at Llanrhaiadr-ym-mochnant, Montgomeryshire, is the most notable of the Welsh versions, though it is imperfectly preserved. In English it runs thus :
1. Let us go to the wood, said Dibyn to Dobyn,
Let us go to the wood, said Risiart to Robin,
Let us go to the wood, said John to the three,
Let us go to the wood, said every one.
2. What shall we do there ? etc.
3. Hunt the little wren, etc.
4. What shall we do with it ? etc.
5. Sell it for a shilling, etc.
6. (Not given.)
7. Spend it on ale, etc.
8. What if I got drunk ? etc.
9. (Not given.)
10. What if I died ? etc.
11. (Not given.)
12. Where shall we bury the feathers ? etc.
13. In a grave in a mound, etc.1
Two of the foregoing proposalsto get drunk on ale bought by money received for the wren, and to bury the feathers in a moundwere regularly practised, though with a hen as the corpus vile, at Colby Fair in the Manx parish of Arbory, every 6th of December. The hen seems to have been its presiding genius as the billy-goat is at Puck Fair in Kerry every 15th of August. On the first day the hen was carried about alive ; on the following day it was killed, and (as Rhys surmised in his Celtic Folk-lore) its feathers scattered among the crowd as largesse.2 Plenty to drink was an essential and traditional feature of the business. Dr. John Clague of Castletown gives, in a little bilingual volume published by his literary executors,3 a description of the custom which dates to a considerably earlier period than that at which he wrote:
" I have heard an old man say that his mother kept a public-house, and she told him that the men and young boys of the neighbourhood would kill a hen, and they would walk two and two, holding the hen between them, and other persons would walk two and two through the fair with their hats off, as if they would be at a funeral, and sing:
Catherine's Catherine's hen is dead.
You take the head and I'll take the feet,
And we'll put her underground.4
They would then go to the public-house and get plenty of ale. A wake was kept over the hen, and early the next morning the men went to peelf the hen. The head and feet were cut off, and they were buried. It gave them an opportunity to get a little drop on the next day. Anyone who went to the public-house on the day after the fair, people said, ' He is going to peel the hen.' "
Dr. Clague also mentions an accreted tradition to the effect that the custom originated in the donation, by a local benefactor named Catherine, of a piece of land near her namesake's chapel to be used as the fair-ground, with the injunction that a hen was to be killed and a sufficiency of ale drunk at the feast. (Both these conditions, it may be interjected, were conscientiously observed by the Manxmen almost up to the beginning of the present degenerate century. The fair itself did not long survive the custom.) Tradition further stated that before there were any attorneys, the people of Colby used to adjust their differences over the dead body of their bird; "each party would pluck some of the feathers and bury them, and the case was settled."
Fuller details of this method of settling disputes would be very welcome ; but it is to be feared that they are now forgotten.
A " dramatic scene acted by the people " with its accompanying old song of which only the burthen remained--" Kiark y Treen e Marrow," " The Hen of the Treen is Dead " (sic)-are ascribed by William Harrison to the now defunct Periwinkle Fair, which was held in a shore-field at Poolvaash in Malew on the 6th of February, St. Dorothy's Day, but later on a variable date. It was partly a pleasure-fair and partly for the sale of cattle and ponies. Harrison says, " I have in vain endeavoured to ascertain the entire drama, and the verses connected with it. . . . Some attribute the custom to St. Catherine's Day, November 25th."*
The sacrifice of a hen was not confined to Colby (and Poolvaash, if Harrison was correct in his statement). Up to the early years of this century, I am told, such a custom lingered among the labourers at a few farms in various parts of the Island. They killed a black fowl and carried it about the premises as a protection against the machinations of witches and for good luck generally. An account given me by an eye-witness relates to the farm of Skyhill, a hill-top dwelling which now stands deserted. The slaughtering was done with a knife, not by the more usual method of wringing the neck. In this particular case the body was afterwards thrown away on the " midden "-the dung-heap ; but I gather that the traditional way of disposal was to bury it, as with the Colby hen and the wren. The vagueness of the details is due to the fact that my informant was a child at the time, which was about the year z909. As it is only quite recently this extinct custom has come to my notice I cannot say to what day of the calendar it belonged, or, if the bird was plucked, what was done with the feathers.
Points of resemblance, however, between the Wren-custom and that of St. Catherine's Hen at Colby stand out distinctly. In both there was the sacrifice, the procession, the mock mourning, the plucking, the burying, a special use made of the feathers, a special song, and a reward for the principal actors in the little drama. The Manx Wren-parties, moreover, doubtless consumed as much ale as the devotees of the Saint's Hen, in the days before the Wren-rites were delegated to children.
In a general way the hen, especially a black hen, is a powerful instrument in the magic spells of many countries, and so are feathers. A Hungarian charm to discover hidden treasure involves the sacrificing of a black hen.* A black hen was sacrificed in Germany to the hill - mannikins. f " Hill - mannikins " may be interpreted as elves or fairies. In a Bondei (Zanzibar) folk-tale a large bird gives its feathers, four at a time, as charms ; when the pot is stirred with one of them it causes plenty.+ The sacrifice of a hen at a Breton fair has been described in a letter to a Cornishman from a Welshman resident in Brittany (a comprehensive Brythonic synthesis !) :
" The other day I went to St. Gildas'-a church dedicated to that Saint-in our Cornwall here. § It being the festival of St. Gildas, 11 I saw there some two or three thousand peasants who had congregated together. . . . A curious part of the religious ceremony was the throwing from the church tower of a fowl to the people below. In a moment the animal was caught by its legs, wings, tail and head, and torn into so many pieces. I was told that the one who caught the head and carried it off was considered the champion, and that the parish he belonged to was sure to get the best harvest during the year."*
The discrepancy between the dates in Man and Brittany suggests that ecclesiastical influences have attached the custom to certain Christian feast-days, and that no connexion need be looked for between Catherine and the unfortunate Manx bird of which she was, nominally, the patron saint.
Perhaps the first stage of a kindred ceremony is to be seen surviving, like the stump of a oncevenerated tree, in this description of a Cotswold custom which has been discontinued only in recent years :
" It was the practice, on New Year's Day, for all the ploughmen to come home from the field at noon and stable their horses. Then the head carter, carrying the plough-spanner and a wooden wedge in his hand, and followed by the under-ploughman and boys, proceeded to the kitchen, and laid them on the table before the mistress with the remark, ' Now for the owl' cock, Missis ! ' or ' Rain or shine, the cock's mine.' After that the carter and his mates went outside and chased the cock round the farmyard for ten or fifteen minutes, and then came into the kitchen and sat down to a substantial meal. There was no more ploughing that day.".+ " The cock's mine "clearly implies that the bird was at one time scrambled for and fell to the nimblest pursuer. There is nothing to show whether it was then treated like the Manx hen, like the hen of St. Gildas in Brittany, or like the cock in a classical custom cited by Grimm from Pausanias : " a cock with white feathers is cut up and carried round the vineyard against the wind." The killing of a cock in Ireland on St. Martin's Day is well-known.*
In the Cotswold custom, by the way, the bringing in of the symbols of the plough compares with the bringing in of the implement itself and putting it under the table, during Christmas week in South Wales farmhouses, as already noted on page 373.
Not only are the feathers of the wren prominent in the Manx ritual and some of the songs other than Manx, but they are introduced into more than one of the fables that associate the wren with the eagle and the owl. In an English story the eagle avenged himself for being cheated out of the kingship by plucking the feathers out of the wren's tail, which in those days was much longer than it is now. Some other anecdote of the wren and the eagle is doubtless alluded to in the Breton proverbial saying, " The eagle flees before the wren."* The Bretons have an explanation for the strained relations existing between the owl and the rest of the birds, which turns upon the wren's plumage. Finding the cold unbearable, they asked her to oblige them by going to hell and bringing back some of its fire. This she did, but returned with her feathers all scorched. Each of the other birds, in gratitude, gave her one of their own feathers, with the exception of the curmudgeonly owl. For his refusal they mob him whenever they see him.t
In the same wonderful land of Armor a song of immense length is devoted to the subject of the plucking of the wren's feathers, but it amounts to no more than a cumulative memory-test. It begins:
" We will pluck the wren's beak,
For that is quite tiny,"
and adds the rest of her (him in France) part by part, the last item being:
We We will pluck his tail,
[About thirty items intervene]
We will pluck his beak
We have plucked him from end to end! "*
In view of the importance of the feathers of the wren and the hen in Manx tradition it will be convenient to summarize in tabular form the several references made in the course of this chapter to the ceremonial plucking and use of feathers :-
357,369. Manx Wren-boys' distribution of feathers among the people to be worn or carried for luck and protection against evil influences.
Birds buried in churchyard and elsewhere.
359. Californian tribe : preservation of sacred buzzard's feathers for wizard's dress.t Bird buried in temple.
359. Condor clans, Peru: feathers of condor totem worn for distinction and protection. 359. Orinoco tribe : toucan feathers distributed, used to scare evil spirits, afterwards worn. 395. Adderbury, Oxon., Wren-song: feathers given to " the cook."
410. Old English Wren-song: distribution of a feather each among Wren-party.
411. Llanrhaiadr Wren-song: burial of feathers in a grave-mound.
412, 414. Colby Fair, Isle of Man: plucking, distribution and burial of hen's feathers. Bird buried. 412. Laguenne, France: plucking of wren and tossing of feathers into the air.
416. Bondei tribe (East Africa) : " large bird " gives its feathers, four at a time, to ensure plenty.
418. Transylvania : cock as Corn-spirit, its feathers sown with seed to ensure good crop. 419. English legend : eagle plucks feathers from wren's tail.
419. Breton legend : contribution of other birds' feathers to wren.
419. Breton song : entirely devoted to the plucking of the wren.
These instances suffice to convey an inkling of the magic virtue attached to the plumage of the sacrificed bird
1 The Welsh original is in the Welsh Folk-song journal, vol. i.
2 In the Lower Limousin district of I;rance, among other ceremonies practised with a wren accoutred as a hunting-hawk, the bird was plucked and the feathers tossed into the air. (Folk-lore, xvii., 272.) Presumably they were scrambled for by the populace.
3 Cooinaghtyn Manninagh - "Manx Reminiscences " ; Castletown (1911).
4 Compare the words of the Devonshire Wren-song, also the burial of the Manx wren. The vernacular of these three lines contains a rhyme or assonance :
|Kiark Catriney marroo ;
Gow uss y chione, as goym' sny cassyn,
As ver mavd ee fo halloo.
|Catherine's hen is dead ;
I'll take the feet and thou the head,
And under the earth we'll make her bed.
6 In the same vein of bucolic wit, when a man was seen drunk at the fair it was said, " He has plucked a feather of the hen." (Moore, Folk-lore of the Isle of Man, page 127.) And, next morning, " Ren eh plucky yn kiark mie riyr " ; " He plucked the good hen last night." (Roeder, Lioar Mann., iii., 189.) The word " good " is explained by the reasons given for this and similar customs further on in the present chapter.
7 Mona Miscellany, ii., 182.
8 Folk-lore, xxxviii., 128. A review in Folk-lore, xxxvii., 312, of the Jahrbuch fiir Historische Volkskunde, vol. i., Berlin, 1925, alludes to a special study therein of hen-rites and hen-charms.
9 Teutonic Mythology, page 1488.
10 Folk-lore, xxxiv., 274 If.
11The province of Cornouaille. 29th January.
12 Cornish Notes and Queries (1906), page 216, from J. H. R. (Dr. J. Hambley Rowe).
13 Alfred Williams, Round about the Upper Thames, page 168.
14 The Cotswold custom described above is more likely to be a survival in England of the German and Transylvanian rite of which many examples are given in chapter xlviii., section 3, of The Golden Bough, but if so, it has been shifted from the end of harvest to Christmas-tide. " When the last sheaf is about to be bound, the master releases a cock and lets it run over the field. All the harvesters chase it till they catch it," is typical of the German custom. The bird is the " Harvest-cock " or " Harvest-hen." When the reapers come to the last sheaf they shout, " Now we'll chase out the cock " ; when it is cut they say, " We have caught the cock." In Transylvania the skin and feathers of the actual bird are kept until the following year, when the feathers are mixed with grain from the last sheaf and scattered on the field which is to be tilled, to ensure a good crop.
15 Revue celtique, ii., 367. The association of the wren with the eagle in folk-lore is neither modern nor purely European. It was familiar to Aristotle; and the Confucianist Book of Odes is said to contain a poem on the wren and the eagle, an old native commentary on which states that the fledglings of the eagle in some cases turn into wrens. (Notes and Queries for 13th June, 1925.) I have not been able to find the commentary.
16 Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1859, p. 184, article "Breton Antiquities."
17 The entire song is given in Luzel's Soniou Breiz-Izel (Chansons Populaires de la Basse Bretagne), where it is entitled " Plumer le Roitelet." Luzel mentions a French version, " Plumer I'Alouette," and is uncertain which is the original; there is also a similar Breton piece, " Breaking up the Blackbird," and an Irish song about the herring.
18 Compare the feather cloak of the Irish druids.
The fable of the wren's outsoaring of the eagle and so gaining the kingship of bird-land is familiar to us all from our nursery days; less well-known is its quaint Welsh sequel:-" When the birds beheld their king they became very sad and sorrowful, and they cried bitterly. Afterwards they met in solemn conclave and decided to drown their king in tears. So they procured a pan to hold their tears, and the birds gathered round and craned their necks over the pan and wept. But the owl clumsily mounted the edge of the pan, thereby upsetting it, and spilled the tears. The birds became enraged at this and swore vengeance against the owl, and ever since he has not dared to show himself during the day, and is obliged to seek his food at night, when all the other birds are asleep. Thus the wren was saved, and continued king of the birds."1
Another Welsh account of the affair says that in the flying contest the wren fell to the ground and hurt himself. The rest were much concerned at the mishap and concocted a broth to cure him, but the blundering owl upset the pot.
The Roumanians also blame the owl. When he was put to watch the hollow into which the wren had crept to avoid the wrath of the other birds after the flying-match, the owl fell asleep and let him escape.2
In the Cornish ballad of " The Butterflies' Ball " it is the butterflies who fill the bowl with their tears, in their dread that the wren will devour them all, and it is the wren's negligence that upsets it. The other birds then lay upon her a curse, namely, that she should never be able to fly over a hedge or bush as high as a milking-pail without alighting on it, and so giving the moths and butterflies a chance to escape. A reason given by an old Cornishman for the wren's wickedness and consequent annual persecution was that, when St. Paul (who was as small among men as a wren is among birds) was converted, the Spirit of Destruction went out of him and into the wren.3
One at least of the two separate allusions in the Mabinogion (in " Kulhwch " and in " Math " respectively) to shooting or striking at the wren's legs looks like a minute specimen of the imperfectly assimilated myth or folk - lore which abounds throughout that collection of tales. It is quite possible, of course, that neither of the two passages implies anything more than its surface-meaning, namely, that to hit a wren was a proof of good marksmanship. Still, we read further on in " Math " that when Llew, whose feat earned him his second name, was slain in his human form-or was transformed by magiche flew away in the shape of an eagle-or, to be very precise, in the shape of a screaming bird which afterwards discovered itself as an eagle ; and when Llew's witch-wife Blodeuwedd, who was of no human ancestry, suffered a similar fate at the hands of Gwydyon, her attendants were all drowned in the Ffestiniog river and she flew away in the form of an owl, to be harassed ever since by the other birds in punishment for her former misdeeds. Apart from the close association of the eagle and the owl with the wren in other myths and fables, Blodeuwedd's catastrophe, or crisis, is very similar to that of the Manx witch or siren Tehi Tegi which was related in explanation of the yearly hunting of the wren.
The remainder of the wren-lore existing in so many countries does not, so far as I am acquainted with it, show any vital connexion with the killing and parading of the bird, with the exception, perhaps, of certain allusions in fables to its feathers. The wren's " kingship" over the other birds, for example, does not appear to explain these ceremonies ; while if he was ever imagined to rule over any other kingdom, it was so long ago that the myth is lost.
1 H. W. Evans, Solva, in Pembrokeshire Antiquities (reprints from the Pembrokeshire Guardian), 1897, page 49
2 J. C. Davies, Folk-lore of South and Mid-Wales, page 225. Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories, page 301. The Germans, too, have this version.
3 Old Cornwall, No. ii, page 6.
The Manx name dreain represents the Scottish Gaelic dreathann, which is not recognized by Dinneen and the other Irish dictionary-makers, though the Irish word dreolkn is known in the Highlands.* The Old English wrenna appears in the Old Norse rindill ; according to Williams's Cornish Dictionary the Cornish name gurannan is derived from the English word. The Breton laouennan, laouennak, mean simply the merry or lively one, but some of the local sobriquets for the bird are more suggestive of the legends which have grown up around it : doeig and in Doë, " little god," and " God's bird," equivalent to the French name poidette de Dieu. Troc'hau is yet another Breton name. French country names for the wren seem mostly to be diminutives of a stem Berri, meaning presumably the province, but varied by bërëe in the Cotes du Nord, berruchet around Dinan, and Marie Chourre in Bëarn. Chovian, " witch," is an English gypsy term. Into the remainder of the wren's European names, from the Latin regillus, kinglet, downwards, the idea of "king" commonly enters. Whether this is due to the fable of the eagle and the wren, or whether the fable, though known so early as Aristotle and Pliny, was invented to explain a name which was even then unintelligible, is an arguable question.
* Ireland has some wren place-names. Reenadrolaun (Point), and Killeenadreena with its ogam stone, are both on Valencia Island, Kerry. Wren Point is the people's name for Lower Rosses Point, Sligo, Evans Wentz says. Probably there are more such names in the country, and nothing can be argued from the fact that these few all occur on the coast.
That the Welsh name for the wren, dryw, also carries the meaning of " druid " in modern usage does not help to establish the theory that the bird was killed in recent times simply because of its pagan associations. The sense of " druid " was attached to the word in or since the i7th century, when dryw replaced an equally fictitious term for a druid-derwydd, coined in the 12th century when the long-forgotten order was rediscovered in classical authors and a native name for it became a patriotic necessity.* Thus the druid has been given the name of the wren, not vice versa ; but it is likely that even this accidental coincidence in meaning was due chiefly to the desire for a word having a plausible resemblance to the presumed singular of Cæsar's plural, druides, or of the other plural, druid, used by some Latin authors.
One of the fanciful derivations in Cormac's Glossary * See, for example, Jubainville, Les Druides, pages 82, 83; and Silvan Evans's Welsh Dictionary, page 1694.
explains " dreaan, a wren " as " drui-6n, a druid-bird, i.e. a bird that makes prophecy." O'Curry's remarks on the supposed connexion of the wren with the Irish druids are very guarded and slightly inconsistent. He says : " Whether the interpretation of dreams and of auguries drawn from the croaking of ravens, the chirping of wrens, and such like omens formed any part of the professional office of the Druids of ancient Erin, I have not been able to ascertain. But whoever it was, or whatever class of persons, that could read such auguries, there is no doubt that they were observed, and apparently much in the manner of other ancient nations." He adds further on: " I suppose it is but probable that all such auguries as those of which I have just been speaking were generally practised by the same influential order. I have, however (as already remarked), no positive proof that these divinations were confined to the class of Druids."*
* Manners and Customs, ii., 223-¢. In a Life of St. Moling the wren is called magus avium eo quod aliquibus praebet augurium, " the druid of the birds, inasmuch as it makes predictions to certain people."
In a Life of St. Ceallach, of Killala, while imprisoned in a hollow oak-tree he is visited by various unfriendly birds. The wren he apostrophises thus : " O tiny wren, most scant of tail, dolefully hast thou piped prophetic lay 1 surely thou art come to betray me, and to curtail my gift of life l " (Silva Gadelica, ii., g9.)
A passage in Iolo Goch's poems mentions, among other omens to be avoided, " the voice of the wren for an unrighteous profit," (Rev. Celt. xx., 342), whatever that may mean.
The gypsy name for the wren previously quoted, chovian (witch), is due to a gypsy belief that when it chirps and flutters about a camping-place it is warning the party that they will soon be made to " move on." When there was more room in England and no police, the wren must have foretold graver afflictions.
Even if they were so confined in Ireland, which is very unlikely, the wren was much less important in matters of augury than other individual birds, the raven especially, and than birds moving about in flocks, to say nothing of quadrupeds. Moreover, the extracts from an old Irish manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin, on which O'Curry rests his cautious opinion, show it to be a collection of rules for interpreting dreams and omens, and it is not likely that the druids, or rather the file, the diviners, by whom such prognostications were practised, would need or use a written code of instructions. Still, it is of interest to see that at some bygone period (O'Curry gives no indication of the date of the MS.) the wren domesticated for the purpose, he thinks-was certainly one of the many creatures from which omens were obtained. " Some of the distinctions," he remarks, " taken respecting the sounds made by birds are very curious, almost suggesting the recognition of some species of language amongst them " ; a belief which, as folk-lorists know, did exist in most parts of the world, and appears in many a legend and fairy-tale.
It must have been this tradition which inspired the author of an old Welsh poem in the Iolo MSS., headed in translation " Sayings of the Wise, to the wise who may understand them." Of the thirty-three triplets voicing the moral maxims of birds and beasts, the fourth runs :
" Hast thou heard the little saying of the Wren
In the nest where she lived ?
Let every sort go where it belongs."
After the thirty-third dictum of the three and thirty philosophers has been delivered by the Pig, comes the exquisite envoy : " Thus ends this portion of the Sayings of the Wise ; and happy is the man who as wise as the Pig."
To sum the matter up, the custom has been best preserved in the Isle of Man, and its accompanying song, so different in its tenour from the actual ceremonies, was remembered at as great length in the Island as anywhere. In a simpler form the custom has flourished widely in South-West Wales, and there is at least one record of it in North Wales. Fragments of the song have been heard in North Wales. In all the provinces of Ireland the wren was carried round on Christmas Day or St. Stephen's Day, but without the characteristic song. In England the persecution of the wren has been noted in the following counties, which are so widely separated that it would seem that the practice was once current in almost every part of the country : Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire,1 Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Suffolk, 2 Essex, Surrey and Devon.
The song accompanied it in Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Devon. Cornwall and Cumberland show a custom of bird-shooting on St. Stephen's Day which probably descended from that of killing the wren. In Scotland both the custom and the song were in vogue, according to Chambers's Popular Rhymes, but no localities are particularized; Galloway loosed a captured wren on New Year's Day; and the Wrensong penetrated to Orkney as a cradle-song. In the South of France the custom was generally practised, sometimes in a very elaborate form, but no song is mentioned in accounts of the proceedings ; in some places the bird was freed after capture, as in Kirkmaiden, Galloway. Brittany has four songs relating to the wren, but I have seen no record of any custom connected with it.
1 The late J. Harvey Bloom, of Stratford, told me that the sport called " shacking the wren "-harrying it, that is-was carried on at any time during the winter. The same, according to my own recollection, may be said for Oxfordshire.
2 In Suffolk the date was the exceptional one of 14th February, St. Valentine's Day. (County Folk-lore: Gloucestershire.)
The Irish custom so closely resembles that of South Wales that it may well have been introduced into Ireland since the Anglo-Norman invasion; a native Gaelic custom would have preserved or developed dissimilarities. This conclusion applies equally to the Manx ceremony. The archaic wren-myth from which all these customs, and their English vestiges, must have arisen, was probably current in Southern Gaul and Celtic Britain, but not in more purely Teutonic and Gaelic regions. But it must be admitted that the British scholar who was best qualified to form an opinion did not think the custom was Celtic at all, if his omission of it from the pages of his Celtic Folk-lore may be thus construed.
Wherever it originated, it had in recent times become so widely scattered that if it was at first simply a totemistic or tribal ceremony it must, after having become obsolete in that form, have spread from its centre as a mere folk-custom to which a religious meaning was no longer attached.
For a satisfactory explanation of the whole mystery more evidence is needed, or perhaps a more penetrating scrutiny of the present evidence. For my own part I am content to have brought together such material as seemed to bear on the question, and to adopt in regard to it the attitude of that consistent agnostic Fiddledefoze.
The Provencal and Scottish practice of freeing the wren instead of killing and plucking it (see pages 379 and 382) was occasionally followed in Pembrokeshire also. " There was an old Epiphany observance which I saw but once. A little boy, with coloured paper streamers pinned to his cap, brought in a cage a wren, caught for the purpose and afterwards let go, and repeated something about
Come and make your offering
To the smallest, yet the king,
of which I could learn no more, . . . (Contributed to Folk-lore, xv., 198, from the Narberth district.)