Come on in! A little bird has something to tell you, a little bird of myth and mystery!
The wren claims the title of King of the Birds. For they say that, when the birds met to choose a King, they decided that the crown should go to the one who could fly the highest. The eagle soared highest of all, beating its great wings and straining ever upwards. When it had put forth its greatest effort and could go no higher, the little wren, that had hidden in its feathers, crept out and launched itself on its tiny wings, flying a few feet above the eagle. Thus the wren became King of the Birds.
But, like any sacred King, the Cutty Wren must die. It is a Midwinter sacrifice and in english folk tradition St.Stephen’s Day is often chosen for the Hunting of the Wren. At all other times of year, of course, the Wren is sacred and not to be killed. As a Midwinter sacrifice the Hunting of the Wren ensures the sun’s return, the onset of spring and the success of all agriculture.
This metaphor of sacred death and harvest plenty is probably the original meaning behind the folksong known as ‘The Hunting of the Wren’ or ‘The Cutty Wren’.
To hear a version of the song with good clear lyrics go here.
The song has frequently been associated with the Peasant’s Revolt. The earliest written mention of this is in 1944 in A. L. Lloyd’s ‘The Singing Englishman’. There has been much effort spent since to support or de-bunk this suggestion but somehow it seems right to me. A subversive message of taking back the land and resisting enclosure added into a song already subversive by way of its pagan roots. The slightly menacing tune and the call and response pattern of letting you on in a secret only add to the effect.
Myth, metaphor, subversion all packed in one little Cutty Wren!
Header photo based on Wren by Kev Chapman CC by 2.0