The Wren – Seer, King and Singer

The Wren – Seer, King and Singer

  In this season of Air, in the lead up to the Winter Solstice and beyond, we hold an awareness of the significance of sound and the potential that is encapsulated in the beat of wings. Thus, we are inevitably drawn to the birds of Cerridwen’s story. In all the transformations which Gwion Bach went through (and it may be that there were more than the four recorded in Ystoria Taliesin), it is his transformation into the wren which feels the most playful and tricksy! The wren is a tiny bird, quite dumpy with short round wings and a short narrow tail. It is a cocky little thing. The English surname ‘Wren’, which derives from the bird, comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning lascivious and was applied to small, busy, quick and energetic people, just like the little bird.[1] 

By the time Gwion transforms into the wren to escape from Cerridwen in the initiatory chase, he has already experienced the form of a hare and a salmon. When he rises into the air as a wren, it is his last transformation before he becomes a seed, to be ingested by Cerridwen as the black hen. Thus, his flight through the air could be interpreted as his last gasp of freedom before he returns to the Cauldron, to become Taliesin, the greatest of all the Bards. The wren could certainly be described as a ‘Bard’ of birds. This tiny bird has a loud song, made possible by an organ called a syrinx with a resonating chamber and membranes, which make use of all the air in the lungs and can produce two notes at the same time. 

Wrens are also known as Troglodytes troglodytes, because they have been observed near caves.[2] I find this very interesting when the story of Cerridwen is considered. Gwion as wren becomes the seed which enters Cerridwen’s own womb-cave. The wren shares an affinity with dark places, caves, hedges, and little holes in the ground with the Celtic Bards, who spent the dark months of autumn and winter in their own ‘caves’ – the dark huts, where, as part of their training, they memorised and composed poetry. The wren is at home there. Elizabeth Lawrence alludes to the significance and symbolism of this:

Its habit of vanishing into undergrowth or crevices made the bird seem mysterious… this reclusive character led to its image as a sage, thinker, or shaman… its piercing eyes gave the aspect of a seer, and its perpetual movements made the wren seem to be under the influence of an unseen force…thus it is understandable that the wren was seen as a mystical being, a mediator between humankind and nature, and a prognosticator of future events. Unlike most other birds within its range, the wren continues to sing in winter, often late into the evening, even in snowstorms. The ability of such a minute creature to appear cheerful even in the harsh weather and darkness of the solstice makes it a symbol of endurance and hope for renewal.[3]

   Another example of the wren’s endurance (with the added cockiness of a young Gwion-like youth in the face of a more powerful force!) can be found in the folktale of the King of the Birds, which also interestingly includes a bigger bird as the other character in the story, much like the motif of Wren-Hawk in the Cerridwen and Gwion episode. The origin of the word ‘Wren’ in Irish is dreoilín, which means a trickster and this can definitely be applied to the wren in this story. All the birds had gathered to choose the king of the birds. It was decided that the bird who flew the farthest would be chosen as the King. As soon as the birds took off into the air, the little wren hid in the feathers of the eagle. Predictably, the eagle flew higher and higher and as the eagle started to descend in the knowledge that he had won the title, the little wren who had been hiding in the feathers of the eagle appeared from its hiding place, taking flight just above the eagle. And so, the wren became King of the Birds. Some versions of the tale even go as far as to describe the wren’s habits and character in relation to the folktale, explaining that the wren is still the king of the birds, but stays hidden in hedges and bushes due to fear of hawks and eagles. They will kill the wren if given the chance, as they are ashamed that they were outwitted. All the other birds visit the wren for advice, due to its cleverness and cunning.[4]

Image by TheOtherKev from Pixabay

 This story takes us to the importance of the wren at the Winter Solstice and Christmas, because it is thought that this folktale and the folk customs and songs associated with the wren at this time of year are connected. In later Christian society, perhaps due to the wren’s cunning character, or association with Druids, the wren was treated with suspicion. However, it is clear that the origins of the folk custom, ‘the Hunting of the Wren’, goes back much further than a Christian hunt or persecution of a bird which has been accused of everything from being a witch in disguise (by the Irish) to being the bird who betrayed St Stephen by alerting his persecutors that he was hiding in the bushes. This particular connection to St Stephen gave rise to Wren Day on St Stephen’s Day (26th December) when, dead or alive, a captured wren was put on top of a decorated pole and paraded round the community.[5] This happened in many Celtic countries, including Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Lowland Scotland. The earliest folktale accounting for the origin Wren hunt tells of a fairy or witch whose beauty lures the men of the Isle of Man to harm. The witch was chased and is changed into the form of a wren. It is therefore in punishment for her actions that the wren is hunted on St. Stephen’s Day.[6] The practice of hunting the wren, and the song, ‘The Cutty Wren’, which goes along with it, was also collected from a group of men in Adderbury, Oxfordshire as late as the 1900s, with the same version of the song published as far back as 1744. Like all the best folk practices, these Oxfordshire men had no idea why they were enacting this custom – it had simply ‘always been done’.[7] The same Cutty Wren ceremony was performed in the village of Middleton in Suffolk, and the Old Glory molly dancers revived the custom in 1994. On the evening of 26th December, a procession winds its way through the village, including a man in Victorian agricultural clothes, sweeping a path for the ‘Lord and Lady’. He is followed by a man carrying the effigy of a wren, which is hidden in a bush of ivy on a garlanded pole. Musicians and dancers move slowly to a drum beat and eventually congregate at the local pub.[8]

   This ‘Hunting of the Wren’ custom is thought to be pre-Christian, with James Frazer in The Golden Bough, as well as more recent scholars, likening it to a rite with echoes of the Sacrificial King.[9] After all, why would the King of Birds not take the place of a human king? The Cutty Wren song is now an established song in many a folksinger’s repertoire and one does not have to research the details of the ceremony in any depth to be convinced of its pagan origins – I believe that hearing this song is enough to persuade most people! What makes it feel so ancient? Perhaps it is the call and response pattern which recalls magical rituals, or the insistent rhythm. Then there are the words; they may be perceived as nonsensical, with the hunting of the smallest bird seemingly requiring almost superhuman effort e.g. four strong men are not enough to bear its weight. This underlines the song’s possible origins; the wren is small and yet at the same time very great. In Celtic mythology, as evidenced in the Welsh Mabinogion and the Irish Ulster Cycle, exaggeration is often an important part of the storytelling process and symbolism. In this particular ritual, the hunting of the wren seems to have had significance to the survival of the whole community. One of the later stanzas of the song hint at the magic of transformation:

That will not do then said Milder to Mulder,

O what will do then? Said Festle to Fose

In a bloody great brass cauldron said John the Red Nose,

In a bloody great brass cauldron said John the Red Nose.[10]

   At Midwinter, when people are looking towards renewal, this aspect of the custom with all the connotations of fertility of the land, is not just physical but also spiritual. The wren was linked to Taliesin and we know that transformation and the survival of the soul is at the heart of his Mystery. Across the crisp snow of a winter landscape, perhaps the wren has always been chased, whether by a Goddess or the so-called ‘Wren Boys’. In the words of Terry Pratchett, ‘the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood.’[11]

   The Hunting of the Wren has certainly stayed with us, even finding its way into children’s fantasy novels, most notably Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ (1973, Chatto and Windus), which is set at midwinter and employs British mythology in the same tradition as Alan Garner and John Masefield. Damh the Bard’s version of ‘The Cutty Wren’ is a favourite  (135) The Cutty Wren – YouTube but so, too, is the classic 1970s Steeleye Span version with Maddy Prior on vocals. (135) The Cutty Wren – YouTube [12] Even Chumbawamba feature a recording of it on their 2003 English Rebel Songs 1381-1984, attributing it to the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, with the wren symbolising the young King Richard II. (135) Chumbawamba , The Cutty Wren =; -) – YouTube [13] The wren continues to be explored by modern folk singers, and the wren as symbol of those who are hunted and scapegoated has also been developed and transformed in modern representations. Ian Lynch of the Irish band, Lankum, has based his ‘Hunting of the Wren’ on the true story of the Wrens of the Curragh – a 19th century community of women who had put themselves beyond the pale of respectable society and were living rough on the plains of the Curragh in County Kildare. They lived in nest-like shelters, which gave rise to their wren name.[14] This is probably the bleakest of the modern ‘wren songs’, which I have researched. It speaks less of the druidic, seer-like King of birds and more of the harsh realities of winter with a sharp feminist twist. (135) Hunting the Wren (Live in Dublin) – YouTube

Sharp is the wind

Cold is the rain

Harsh is the livelong day

Upon the wide open plain

By Donnelly’s hollow

Under sad gorse and furze

There lies a young wren oh

By the saints she was cursed

The wren is a small bird

How pretty she sings

She bested the eagle

When she hid in its wings

With sticks and with stones

Among the small mounds

They come from all over

To hunt the wren on the wide open ground

With cold want and whisky

She soon is run down

Her body paradеd

On a staff through the town

Attacked in the villagе

And spat on in town

They come from all over

To hunt the wren on the wide open ground.

   I mentioned the surname of Wren at the beginning of this article, and I return to this thought now. Sir Christopher Wren was the man who designed St Paul’s Cathedral and 52 London parish churches, after the Great Fire of 1666. The Scottish folk singer, Karine Polwart, has written a beautiful song, with Sir Christopher and the symbol of the wren as its central motif. The song is called ‘King of Birds’ and, if you only listen to one ‘wren song’ mentioned in this article, I urge you to make it this one. Polwart has dedicated this song to the Occupy Movement, ‘especially at St Paul’s in London, for ringing a bell that needs ringing.’[15] It is set against the backdrop of The Great Fire of London, The Blitz and The City of today and it is the perfect example of how folksong continues to transform in the great Cauldron of Inspiration, constantly evolving and adapting to the concerns of our age. (135) Karine Polwart – King of Birds ! – YouTube


At Ludgate Hill

where the towers of smoke and mirrors bruise the sky

the pilgrims huddle in

as the tiny King of Birds begins to cry

the people start to sing

to light glory in the dark

to ring the bell

and to breathe hope in every heart.

   I cannot read or sing these words without feeling the hairs on my arms and neck rise up. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves interprets this reaction to poetry, song or music as being in the presence of Goddess or the Muse,[16] and I believe that the little wren, which flits in and out of Karine Polwart’s song is indeed a bird of the Goddess, bringing hope (in this instance, in the form of protest movement) during difficult times. However, I will leave Paul McCartney, who is surely a Bard of the twentieth century, with the final word. In his song, ‘Jenny Wren’, he describes his favourite bird in what has often been viewed as a follow-up to his 1960s song, ‘Blackbird’. (135) Jenny Wren – YouTube While many folk singers have tapped into the ‘King of Birds’, McCartney gives the female wren voice:

Like so many girls, Jenny Wren could sing

But a broken heart took her song away

Like the other girls, Jenny Wren took wing

She could see the world and its foolish ways

How we spend our days, casting love aside

Losing sight of life, day by day

She saw poverty breaking up her home

Wounded warriors, took her song away

But the day will come, Jenny Wren will sing

When this broken world, mends its foolish ways

Then we’ll spend our days catching up on life

All because of you, Jenny Wren

You saw who we are, Jenny Wren.[17]

   As priestesses, voices in the community, tradition-bearers and sometimes ‘just women’, perhaps the most important thing we can do is sing our own song of life and love out into the darkness in the dead of winter and beyond, just as the wren has always done. Our communities will hear it.

   Blessed Be and may you hear the song of the Wren this Solstice.

Wren on twig

Image by TheOtherKev from Pixababy

[1] The wren: 8 things you ought to know about Britain’s most common bird – Country Life (accessed on 21/11/22)

[2] The wren: 8 things you ought to know about Britain’s most common bird – Country Life (accessed on 21/11/22)

[3] Elizabeth Lawrence, ‘Hunting the Wren: A Sacred Bird in Ritual’, in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science and Ethics, ed. by Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (Columbia University Press, 2006) pp. 406-412 (410).

[4] How Wren Became the King | Little Brown Wren (accessed on 21/11/22)

[5] Jerry Bird, ‘Hunting the Wren’ in Landscape of Memory: Living Folklore in England (Somerset: Green Magic, 2009) pp. 117-122.

[6] Mona Douglas, ‘Ceremonial Folk-Song, Mumming, and Dance in the Isle of Man’ in Mona Douglas: Manx Folk-Song, Folk Dance, Folklore: Collected Writings edited by Stephen Miller (Onchan: Chiollagh Books, 2004).

[7] Bird, ‘Hunting the Wren’, p. 119.

[8] Bird, 2009, p. 122.

[9] J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (London: MacMillan Press, 1922) pp. 529-531.

[10] Bird, 2009, p. 118

[11] Terry Pratchett, The Hogfather (London: Victor Gollancz, 1996).

[12] ‘The Cutty Wren’, Damh the Bard, Tales from the Crow Man (Caer Bryn Music, 2009). ‘Hunting the Wren’, Steeleye Span, Live at Last (Chrysalis, 1978).

[13] ‘The Cutty Wren’, Chumbawanba, English Rebel Songs 1381-1984 (Agit Prop Records/MUTT, 2003)

[14] See album liner notes of ‘Hunting the Wren’, Lankum, The Livelong Day (Rough Trade Records, 2019).

[15] See album liner notes of ‘King of Birds’, Karine Polwart, Traces (Neon Records, 2012)

[16] Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), p. 25.

[17] Paul McCartney, ‘Jenny Wren’, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (Parlophone, 2005)


Elan Clark, Priestess of Cerridwen

West Lothian, Scotland

Elan Clark - Priestess of Cerridwen

Instagram: @elan_and_the_hare

Elan is a scholar, writer and editor in the field of Celtic Studies. She has a PhD in Gaelic poetry and teaches university classes in Celtic culture and literature.

One thought on “The Wren – Seer, King and Singer

  1. What an incredible work, my dear Sister!
    You made me truly journey through time; touching the very fabric of myth, seeing stories and songs becoming alive in front of my eyes… amazing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *