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Old Tales of Wrens and Kings

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

Large orange fungus growing on a tree stump completely covered in dark green ivy leaves
Chicken of the woods fungus on tree stump in early May

Yesterday, we visited a favourite lane. It's the one which has the old ivy-covered tree stump which had, several weeks ago now, sprouted the most glorious chicken of the woods fungus. At its peak, the fungus was like a peachy-golden crown, firm and perfect. Yesterday though, it had withered and its bright colours had faded somewhat. Someone, or perhaps a clambering animal, had knocked it from its perch to the ground below. We marvelled at the swift change.

As Andy bent down to reach for it in the leaves at his feet there was a sudden movement, so fast it would have been easy to miss completely. The streak of a tiny brown bird darted from the log, went between Andy's knees, and out to the holly bush on the other side of the lane. A bird so small, well, it could surely only be a wren! She must be nesting.

Dark glossy green ivy leaves covering a mossy tree stump. There is an almost completely hidden opening between the leaves.
The same tree stump a month later with a hidden nest hole

I'd seen the direction she flew from and sure enough, there was a dark space behind the ivy leaves. If she'd stayed inside the hollow, we never would have known she was there! We endeavoured to be quick so as not to disturb her too much and stood a few steps away, angling our heads and straining our eyes to see what was concealed behind the leaves. I found myself holding my breath in anticipation.

Inside the mossy stump was a nest with four tiny eggs. They looked perfect! My eyes could just about pick out enough light to see that they were pale, speckled and looked no bigger than the end of my little finger. I couldn't help but feel that the wren had shown them to us, darting out like she did and making her presence known. I could hear her shifting about in the holly bush, creating just enough commotion to make us aware of her. A bird so small must be clearly choosing to make a noise to remind us of her impatience to get back to her nest.

Four tiny pale wren's eggs hidden behind ivy leaves in a mossy nest
Four perfect, tiny wren's eggs hidden inside

"C'mon, c'mon. You've seen them now, get on your way!"

We took a hurried couple of snapshots, smiled towards her and continued on down the path.

The wren is an interesting bird with some very intriguing folklore attached to it. In ancient Ireland, the Druids were said to practise many different forms of divination, ranging from looking at the patterns of clouds, to the casting of ogham-carved yew wands and also listening to the songs of birds. The wren's song was considered to be particularly prophetic and led to the Irish name of "drean", from "drui-en" which means, rather beautifully, "druid of birds".

Green verges with high trees and bushes at the sides and a trodden earth surface
The view down the lane

Similarly, in Welsh, "dryw" means both wren and druid or seer. The etymology is fascinating! Proto-Indo-European is a hypothetical (but carefully and knowledgeably reconstructed) ancestor of modern language families and was theoretically spoken around 4500BC - 2500BC during the late Neolithic to early Bronze Age. The Welsh word "dryw" possibly goes back to the Proto-Indo-European words "doru" (tree) + "weyd" (to see, to know), hence dryw (both wren and druid) means "tree-knower".

There was a rather disturbing tradition, possibly even up to the 1950s of an ancient "Hunting of the Wren" ritual taking place on St. Stephen's Day (26th December), also known as Wrenning Day. When St. Stephen was being pursued, the wren is said to have betrayed him by singing and giving away his hiding place. He was found and stoned to death, leading to the custom of hunting and stoning to death a wren on each St. Stephen's Day. There are also several Irish legends in which the wren betrays Irish soldiers to the invading Vikings.

Pale pink wild rose flowers with orange-yellow centres and a background of fresh green leaves
Wild roses in full bloom

The wren is sometimes paired with the robin. The robin is connected with oak and the light half of the year. The wren is associated with holly and the dark half of the year. It is thought that these rather disturbing midwinter wren ceremonies may even go back into prehistory as rituals and, one would guess, sacrifices to chase away the darkness. It may also be linked with the rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin" which is a rather dark tale about the murder and funeral of a robin. It was first published in 1744 but there is a similar tale called “Phyllyp Sparowe” from the early 1500s. These may be retellings of very old stories, again going back into time. Similarities have been noted with an early Norse myth about the death of Balder, the god of summer sunlight. As another twist, Cock Robin is actually an anglicisation of the Welsh "Coch Rhi Ben" which was another name for the Celtic sun god, Lugh.

Dry earth path ahead with green bushes and trees either side
Ancient lane

Other stories of the wren are much happier and certainly less dark! One tells of the tale of the wren bringing fire to mankind. In its quest to get the flame, it became scorched by the sun. All the other birds gave the wren the gift of a feather as thanks, apart from the owl who refused.

Another tale which has some similarities tells of how the little wren became known as the king of the birds. All the birds came together to discuss the important matter of who would be king. They decided it would be whoever could fly the highest. Several birds felt quite sure of themselves in this feat and the eagle had no doubt that he would easily win. He flew up and up, climbing higher, higher than all the other birds until he could fly no more. Exhausted, he gasped and as he did so, the clever wren who had been hiding in his feathers all along, climbed out and flew higher! Thus, the tiny brown wren became king of the birds.

I can't help but feel glad that we no longer have Wrenning Day and the wren can hopefully feel a bit safer in her hidey-hole nest. I'd love to hear the stories this humble little tree-knower could tell. Funny really how, after reading the tales above, it's rather fitting that the king of all the birds chose to nest in a log which grew a golden crown of chicken of the woods above it. Perhaps she sits upon a mossy throne within, thinking of long-past quests ...

Pale hearth-shaped wild rose petal which has fallen to the floor and is resting on a stony earth track
Wild rose petal

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