Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice, Etc.: The Cutty Wren

Steeleye Span: The Cutty Wren


There are two ways I can think of to find songs for Solstice. One can look among the works of neo-pagan singer-songwriters. Here you will find many appropriate songs. There are some musical gems, but also a great deal of music that is unlistenable. I am not plugged into this scene, so I don’t know how to tell the difference.

But, another method should be available. Surely, in places where solstice was once observed, there should be a vast body of traditional material. But, try and find it. At a glance, there would seem to be no trace left of these songs. Actually, there is indeed a vast body of traditional songs for solstice hiding in plain sight. What happened was, most of these songs are considered Christmas songs, and their pagan origins have become obscured over time.

Think about the current example. Maybe you know your scripture better than I do. Is there any reason a wren should be hunted on St Stephen’s Day? Not that I know of. And yet, in parts of the British Isles, that is exactly what happens. There are a number of wren hunting songs, and a ritual procession that goes with the hunt. The wren is placed atop a pole, wrapped in holly and ivy, and taken in ritual procession to be buried. A picture of one such procession can be seen above. You can see the holly and ivy bundle containing the wren. More pictures, as well as a fuller description of the procession and accompanying rituals, can be found here.

I have found references that indicate that the wren in these traditions was originally a gold-crested wren, like the one pictured above. These birds are now simply known as goldcrests. It’s easy to see how this bird could be thought of as the “king of all birds”, given the golden crown he wears. It’s also easy to see how he would be associated with the sun. Solstice, in pagan belief, marks the death of the old sun god, and the birth of the young sun. The old god was ritually sacrificed so that the young one could be born. This sacrificial victim would have been a special effigy made for the ritual. (The notion that the druids practiced actual human sacrifice comes from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and was probably nothing more than wartime propaganda; there is no archeological evidence to support this idea.) So it makes all the sense in the world that the wren hunt would be a survival of old solstice customs.

So there is probably more than you ever wanted to know about the hunting of the wren. Enjoy the song, and have a blessed St Stephen’s Day.

blog comments powered by Disqus