The battle of the robin and the wren

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Solstice Battle of the Robin and the Wren

There’s a lot of fascinating folklore around the robin and the wren. At the winter solstice, the Holly King is driven away and the Oak King takes his place until the summer. Similarly, I have read that the robin rules once the wren is vanquished in December.

Jean Harrowven writes in her book Origins of Rhymes and Sayings that ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ is about King William Rufus, killed in the New Forest by an arrow, citing his red hair or the blood on his breast as explanation.

There is also a poem by John Webster, as stark and beautiful as you would expect…

Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o’er shady groves they hover
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And (when gay tombs are robb’d) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men,
For with his nails he’ll dig them up again.

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3 thoughts on “The battle of the robin and the wren

  1. Nature always has a dark side and there are grim tales about birds – the Hunting of the Wren is another, although that shows the dark side of human nature as far as I remember. I like the illustration – one of yours?

    • The hunting of the wren is indeed quite grim – Ronald Hutton is very interesting and reliably objective in Stations of the Sun. He suggests that because the wren was held as a sacred bird, to kill a wren was unlucky, but it was ‘allowed’ at Christmas as part of the suspension of the normal order of things (Lord of Misrule etc). The boxing of the wren was widespread in Wales and Ireland, and in some cases was carried on a bier (a tradition used by Susan Cooper in The Dark is Rising). Apparently the wren was also called ‘The Magus Bird’, a lovely title! I was just messing around in Photoshop – partly thinking of those croaky old special effects from TV dramas of old, and it ended up a bit gothic!

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