[from W Ralph Hall Caine Isle of Man]



THE hunting of the wren was until quite recent years the cruel and eager pursuit of boys. The legend, however, from which all the mock ceremonial takes its rise is of almost world-wide currency, and has a history and an application outside all boyish fancy. It concerns the winsome lady who lures gallant, love-hungry, over-confiding men to their doom, and with us is probably of Norse origin.

In the northern half of the island this ancestry is very evident. A waterfall may be ' a foss,' and our glens and streams may be peopled at nightfall by the same magical little people you find in the folklore of Norway. Even the name of our northern capital, Ramsey, is merely a corruption of the Norse ` Hrafnsa,' or Raven's Water, while physical and mental affinities obtrude themselves in a thousand different ways.

Norwegian folk-lore tells of Huldren, a young woman of surpassing beauty and charm, who lives in a great castle hid away in the forest on the mountain-side.

She is never visible save at night, and then reveals herself only to a young man, disconsolate and alone. Beneath a wide-open neck she wears a red corsage embroidered with pearls. A skirt of black, reaching nearly to her ankles, is bordered with ribbon and silver lace. Gleaming gems are about her pretty neck and snow-white shoulders. Her white apron is edged with Hardanger embroidery, and her shapely feet are in shoes with silver buckles.

Her voice is a caress, her kiss a dream of honeyed bliss. She laments her single state, and, with promises of unbounded love and joy and wealth, lures the unsuspecting young hero to his doom.

He has wedded a horrid vampire. By daylight she is a hideous monster with a cow's tail. But he is in her power now, and she has sucked away his blood, to his eternal hurt.

Even the negroid inhabitants of West Africa and the West Indies have their own version of the cruel charmer. With them she is a fair and beautiful woman with shining hair. She has one human foot and one cloven hoof, which she cautiously conceals from observation. She inhabits a pretty little house, 'bery nice put away' on the mountains.

She is supposed to be the ' duppy,' or spirit, of a child that has died in innocence, and to have reached maturity in Jumbidom, or some hidden sphere of the negro imagination. Returning to the scene of her birth, she bewails her virginity in tears of ravishing beauty, and pleads her cruel destinythat of riding a white horse in hell-should she pass hence finally unblessed with child.

The lonely wanderer is fascinated by her exquisite beauty. Eye and ear are enslaved.

The awakening comes on apace; the black man's cup of bitter anguish is filled to running over: the fair charmer is only an alluring devil.

In the Isle of Man the charmer is a beautiful maiden, disconsolate and alone, eager to embrace a man worthy of her person, her riches, and her love.

She is never seen save in the pale moonlight, and then reveals herself only to some young and gallant man who, heart-sore and weary, forms an easy conquest.

The attention of the lonely wanderer is first arrested by the tinkle of tiny silver bells, that acts upon his downcast spirit like a token of good cheer.

Then the music of a merry voice converts the cold, pale light into an atmosphere of sunshine and warmth and love. At the next turning his eyes are arrested by the engaging picture of a sprightly lady, clad in virgin white, gaily dancing on the flowery mead with all the tender grace of a fairy.

Their eyes meet. Her tender. look of sympathy, admiration, and love, is an invitation to tarry awhile.

' Thou brave man! Wilt thou not listen to my pretty song ?' she says with a merry roguish laugh. Right gladly, graihag,' he answers boldly, adding after a moment's hesitation, in doubt if he might venture so far, ' and to thy pretty speech, most beautiful maiden,' eyes of admiration eating up every feature of the vision of grace and delight. ' But thou art a bold boy, unless thy word belies thee,' she makes reply, flattered by the speed of her conquest; ' though methinks I might love thee for all. Did ever any true dooinney-sooree need a dooinney-moyllee to win a woman's heart?'

' Nay, myrneen, cuishlin-my-chree, and thy love for me is not a thousandth part of mine for thee,' he says, taking her into his arms. ' I am thy slave for ever,' he rapturously declares, pressing hot kisses on lips and cheeks and eyes. ' Thou, Ben-jee ! I adore all of thee.'

Alas! no man who has yielded obedience to the dazzling lustre of those bright eyes, or trusted in those promises of unfathomed depths of love, or listened with hungry ears to legends of uncounted gold, has ever returned to tell his tale. Mystery, like a pall, lies on his hard and bitter fate.

The beautiful deceiver is an alluring devil, whose food is a victim's soul. Conquest is her pleasure and play, hunger an eternal quest.

' Whence has she taken him ?' cries sweetheart and maid through her tears. I beg thee say, that I may reclaim him, and make speech of forgiveness.'

He is gone, and would not return for the shame he has done thee, m'doodee,' answers one.

'He is lost in the sea, and cannot come back if he would,' says another.

'Count thyself a child of good fortune, inasmuch as thou art not mated to so frail a thing.'

He is unworthy of thy tears. Forgive ! Forget !'

But the Beautiful White Devil does not die. She is here still, eager for another conquest, hungry for another soul. Hither and thither the lonely, love-hungry traveller may see the alluring vision of passionate delight flitting across the fields at night, that she may, with presumed unconscious intent, intercept the path of unrequited lover or angry and disappointed husband.

' When the heart is alienated and empty, conquest is easy,' she says.

Wife or sweetheart parting from her lover in anger has need of that remembrance.

The pretty play of tender sympathy, the bright eyes, the endearing word, the coy kiss, the ravishing splendour of her person, the merry song, the gay music of silver ferret-bells, the feet that trip in cadence on the grass with a touch so light that a materialized spright from fairyland might envy so gentle a tread-these and all else never fail to encompass another victim. Eyes, mind, and heart are enslaved in adoring love.

Over the door of the inner porch he reads his fate: 'He who seeks all loses all.'

His soul is lost. Adoring love is turned to bitter hate.

At length there arose a brave knight who made a proud boast that he would destroy the charmer. We know he was brave, because he carried a great sword against a defenceless woman! and we know his boast was vain, because his sword was a material weapon against a spirit enemy.

Yet the winsome lady had her own misgivings in the face of so strong a man-strong and happy in a good woman's love, strong in his fixed resolve for vengeance. Tempted at length to reveal herself, she endeavoured to enslave this victim by artifice. But the knight had no eyes for her beauty, no ears for her endearments, no passion which she might appease.

Hurt and humiliated, she hastened to hide the shame of her defeat. But the knight was in pursuit. She quickened her footsteps down to the river brink. Still he pursued, and his naked sword flashed in the moonlight.

The knight went forward and endeavoured to seize the lady by her flowing hair. At that moment her feet touched the water. She was gone.

The knight stood as one dazed. There was no splash of the waters, nor was any strange form visible in the bosom of the crystal stream; but in. the same instant that he gazed at the place at which the fair lady had passed from his sight, there was a flutter in the water near the opposite bank. Out of the river emerged a wren. With a chirp of triumph, the bird took to the wing, and in a moment was lost in the trees.

Such is our story of the Beautiful White Devil. Anthropomorphism pictures Cod in our image. Is it unlikely that the Devil, as first created in the mind of primitive man, took the guise of a beautiful and enticing maiden ?

The wren was ' the king of birds' to the Druids, and has been deeply revered in most parts of Europe. It was probably the same in the Isle of Man. Yet for many centuries the bird has been hunted and stoned and killed in our island by men and boys in the hours of breaking day on December 25, a date that suggests New Year's Day by certain pagan calendars of sun-worshippers.

Boys still sing an old song, ' Hunt the Wren,' and go from door to door exacting some gift in exchange for a feather of the dead bird. Mock ceremonial used to attend solemn interment in a corner of the churchyard, but this custom has disappeared, though a feather of the dead bird may be still treasured by the fisherman-that most superstitious of all men.

A new confusion has arisen. The festival has been put back one day, December 26 being the festival of the stoning of St. Stephen. The two celebrations have no other reference or relationship whatever.

The wren may have been a family or tribal totem, and the hunting, death, and burial, a form of sacrificial worship. I leave the reader to form his own solution of the problem. My own conviction is that the story of the beautiful lady who turns out to be an alluring devil is in all probability as old as our human intelligence.

Lastly, that mysterious power of evil that would encompass our ruin never found direct reference on our tongue. All that we dared to venture was NOID NY HANMEY-the Enemy of the Soul.

GRAIHAG (graih-ag), beloved lady.

DOOINNEY-SOOREE (dohn-yah-soor-ee), a brave, resolute, or confident wooer Strictly a lady's man or courting man.

DOOINNEY-MOYLLEE (dohn-yah-moil-yah), a matrimonial go-between. Strictly a praising man, one who actually does a part of the wooing for a diffident suitor, and keeps the lady in companionship in the absence of the recognized lover. This last duty is sometimes so zealously fulfilled as to make the return of the affianced wanderer an unnecessary and unwelcome intrusion.

MYRNEEN (m'r-neen), darling.

CUISHLIN-MY-CHREE (koosh-lin-m'-kree), my heart's core, a companion expression to the more familiar ben-my-three=woman of my heart. BEN-JEE (ben jee) : ben = woman (not girl, wife, or sweetheart) ; jee =god. Goddess.

DOODEE (dthoo-dthee, sometimes more colloquially vud-dee), sweetheart. Kelly's Dictionary suggests ` a girl, a lass, a sloven.' The word conveys no suspicion of sting. It was used by a mother for her girl child ; it was the favourite expression by a father for the beloved infant in her cot or on his knee. The priest would use it as 'my poor child' or 'my suffering child.' It was therefore an expression of mingled admiration, endearment, and sympathy, and ranks above myrneen.

Pronunciation varies widely, and those given approximate to the general rule.


back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2018