A lone voice echoed across an otherwise silent, frosted landscape - the quick-fire voice of jenny wren, surely producing a decibel level unmatched by any of the wee bird's avian compatriots. Ounce for ounce, gram for gram, the wren is probably the loudest songster of all. That the song is brief in the extreme can be judged by the fact that it is over in just over five seconds ... 5.2 seconds to be precise. Yet within those few seconds, no fewer than fifty-six different notes blurt forth! Not that anyone's ear is sufficiently tuned to count the notes. This remarkable statistic emerges only after tape recordings were made and slowed down!
The wren has a curious history in folklore across both Britain and Europe. The Irish believed the wren to be a magician or sorcerer, whilst the Druids believed the bird was a prophet. It was also frequently referred to as 'Our Lady's hen' or indeed 'God's bird'. Indeed, there was an old Scots verse, which promises dire consequences to anyone who should harm a wren. "Malaisons, malaisons mair than ten, that harry the Lady of Heaven's wren."
And yet, despite such warnings, the period between Christmas and Epiphany, might have at one juncture in our ancient history have been deemed the most dangerous in the life of any wren. Indeed, rather than singing to the world, there was a time when, at this time of the year, wrens would have been well advised to remain silent. This was a period during which everything was turned on its head - a complete reversal of the normal order of things when a Lord of Misrule would be appointed king for the time being and the most insignificant child in the community was accorded all the dignities of king!
Yet, revered though the wren was, again as the normal rules of life were overturned, the poor wren was unmercifully hunted and in many cases sacrificed. In Pembroke the wrens were luckier. Once captured, the wee bird would be paraded around the community in a cage carried by a boy dressed in ribbons proclaiming "Come and make your offering to the smallest yet the king." Happily for the Pembrokeshire wrens, the bird would then be released.
Elsewhere, the poor little wren was killed, yet here again, there were curious ceremonies, which like those days of Misrule, turned everything on its head. From distant Marseilles comes a tradition that the slaughtered wren was carried between two poles by four strong men, who pretended to labour under the weight of the dead wren. A similar scene was enacted in Devon where this time two men apparently struggled under the weight of the dead wren, singing a song about the immense weight of the bird as they went!
Of course, the best known story about the little wren comes from Greek mythology and tells the story of the wren becoming the king of birds when it concealed itself in the plumage of the eagle. The eagle soared the highest of all in order to claim the crown. However, when the eagle had reached its zenith, the wren revealed itself, flew those few feet higher and usurped the crown!
The wren hunts, once a common feature in the post Christmas period, appear to have reached Britain during the Bronze Age and have their origins in the Mediterranean region. Some experts believe that the wren hunts represented the death of the dark earth powers and the beginning of a new season of light and life. Curiously enough those ancestors of ours were probably more familiar with us with the rhythms of the earth. The solstices for instance, were probably automatically registered with them, whereas very few folk nowadays are even aware of such things.
The suggestion of course is that the wren hunts and all those traditions that went with them probably began, not after Christmas but at the winter solstice itself, which of course happens on December 21. That said there are still those, among them the druids, who gather to celebrate these events in the natural calendar. Such traditions persist and Stonehenge is a place noted for such gatherings.
For most of us, in our very artificial world, such events pass us by without as much as a glance, yet that winter solstice has its very own significance. For instance, I would suggest that New Year's Eve should actually take place on the night of December 20. After all, that is when the New Year really begins ,when at last, imperceptibly, instead of days shortening, at last they begin to lengthen. The birds and animals of our landscape are probably more aware of the subtle change that occurs, than are we.
However, I have seen one false dawn - a gorse bush in flower, a yellow oasis in an otherwise pretty grey landscape. However, gorse is a peculiar shrub for it is possible to see it in bloom somewhere literally in every month of the year. The Irish regard gorse as very special. They used it extensively as a hedge, its prickly nature helping to keep stock in and intruders out. Yet such were thought to be its powers that it was also seen to protect livestock from evil. It was also, curiously enough thought to be a good flea repellent!
Who but our friends from across the Irish Sea would add gorse flowers to both wine and whiskey, to improve its flavour but then according to another ancient myth, gorse actually belongs to the fairies who some believe invented whiskey in the first place! Along with hawthorn, blackthorn and blackberry, gorse was also believed by some to guard entrances to the other world!
As far as I can tell, my blazing gorse bush is not guarding the entrance to that other world. But it could well provide good shelter and when the time comes, nesting opportunities for the local wrens which like the gorse itself, seem somehow to be at the heart of so much myth and legend. I write this on Boxing Day - St Stephen's Day on the old calendar. Tradition has it that it was a wren that alerted guards to the escape of Saint Stephen. Perhaps that counts against it?
And of course, many of those wren hunts of yore were also held upon St Stephen's Day. The wren though is surely one of our resident birds that even on the bleakest of winter days, cheers us with that wonderful volley of music:
"The little woodland dwarf, the tiny wren
That from the root-springs trills her ditty clear,
Of stature most diminutive herself" ......Grahame
There they go again. 'Poor old 'Jenny' wren emasculated once more! It's him not her that sings!