[1979:] Eines der ältesten Lieder, das [sic!] ich kenne, stammt aus England. Es heißt The hunting of the wren oder auch nur The cutty wren und beschreibt das Ritual der neujährlichen Jagd auf den Zaunkönig, dem [sic!] Symbol des Bösen. Ursprünglich also ein rituelles Lied, so zeigt der Text, daß das Ritual nun nur noch als Tarnung einer militanten Gesellschaftskritik fungiert. Der Zaunkönig ist nicht mehr der Stellvertreter für das Böse im allgemeinen, sondern er steht nun für den Feudalherrn, der vertrieben und dessen Besitz aufgeteilt werden muß, bevor ein neues Jahr erfolgversprechend sein kann.
(Hans-Günther Vogel, Folk Michel 7)
[1898:] Ditchfield in 'Old
English Customs', p. 32, informs us that a wren-box was sold at
Christies a few years ago which used to be carried in procession in
some parts of Wales on St. Stephen's Day. It is about seven inches
square, and has a glass window at one end. Into this box a wren was
placed, and it was hoisted on two long poles and carried round the
town by four strong men, who affected to find the burden heavy.
Stopping at intervals they sang [The Cutty Wren]. And so on for
eight more verses, taking the form of question and answer, as in the
ballad of "Cock Robin", and describing the method of
shooting the wren, cutting it up, and finally boiling it. (W.S.
Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs)
See also The Wren (The King); Wren Song
[1962:] Some of the most ancient, most enduring and at the same time most mysterious English folk songs are those concerned with the attributes and sacrifice of monstrous animals. At the end of the 14th century, when peasant rebellion was in the air, the old magical song of the gigantically powerful bird (presented by a kind of folklore irony as a tiny wren) took on a tinge of new meaning. For here was the story of a great fowl so hard to seize, so difficult to dismember but so apt for sharing among the poor; and what did that suggest but a symbol of seignorial property?
(A. L. Lloyd, notes Ian Campbell Folk Group, 'Songs of Protest')
[1967:] It is the nature of folklore that material once vital and momentous lapses into absurdity or childishness as it loses its ancient meaning. [...] The well-known Cutty wren or Hunting the wren is often thought of as an amiable nursery piece, yet when it was recorded from an old shepherd of Adderbury West, near Banbury, he banged the floor with his stick on the accented notes and stamped violently at the end of the verses, saying that to stamp was the right way and reminded of old times. What memories of ancient defiance are preserved in this kind of performance it would be hard to say, but we know that the wren-hunting song was attached to a pagan midwinter ritual of the kind that Church and authority fulminated vainly against - particularly in the rebellious period at the end of the Middle Ages when adherence to the forms of the Old Religion was taken to be evidence of subversion, and its partisans were violently persecuted in consequence.
(Lloyd, England 90f)
[1972:] This song is said to have been sung by the insurgents during the Peasants Revolt of 1381, although the words refer to a much earlier ritual of Pre-Christian origin. We can only guess at the tune that was used at the time. Green Bushes, the eminently suitable one given her, was put to the song by A. L. Lloyd. (Notes Ian Campbell Folk Group, 'Something To Sing About')
[1979:] In 1381 the peasants rose in armed revolt against the imposition of high taxes. Such was the strength of their united effort that, under the leadership of Wat the Tyler and John Ball, a priest, they were able to enter London unopposed where they were met by Richard II in person, who promised to fulfil all their demands. These promises, however, were not made to be kept and, after murdering Wat the Tyler, the feudal nobility took a bloody revenge on their insolent peasantry who had given them such a fright. Hundreds of peasants were executed, but even if the rising had not the success that at first seemed so certain, the hated Poll Tax was taken off the backs of the working people. [...] Today, the texts which express the authentic accents of these desperate and defiant people are rare indeed. [...] The wariness cloaking a mounting anger comes across clearly in The Cutty Wren, where the oppressive enemy is symbolized by the Wren, the King of all Birds.
(McDonnell, Protest 7f)
[1979:] 'By many European peoples', wrote Sir James Frazer, '- the ancient Greeks and Romans, the modern Italians, Spaniards, French, Germans, Dutch, Danes, Swedes, English, and Welsh - the wren has been designated the king, the little king, the king of birds, the hedge king, and so forth, and has been reckoned among those birds which it is extremely unlucky to kill. ... Notwithstanding such beliefs, the custom of annually killing the wren has prevailed widely both in this country and in France. ... Down to the present time the 'hunting of the wren' still takes place in parts of Leinster and Connaught (in Ireland). On Christmas Day or St Stephen's Day the boys hunt and kill the wren, fasten it to the middle of a mass of holly and ivy on the top of a broomstick, and on St Stephen's Day (26 December) go about with it from house to house, singing: "The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,/St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;/Although he is little, his family's great,/I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat." Money or food (bread, butter, eggs, etc.) were given them, upon which they feasted in the evening' (Golden Bough, 1 vol. ed. Macmillan, 1963 (originally 1922), pp. 536-7). - In England such rituals died out in the nineteenth century, but the song survived. (Palmer, Country 233)
[1988:] [This song] derives from a very ancient cult indeed, probably the oldest recognisable religion in Britain of which specific elements may still be traced. [...] however, the symbols derive from even older faiths and unknown racial roots.
This curious song, which might seem to be a question-and-answer game for children, was collected from a group of adults in Adderbury West (Oxfordshire) in the early 1900s. They were not re-living childhood games but were seriously carrying out an annual custom or ritual, traditional to their home area. At first glance there might be no conceivable reason why they should thump staves on the floor of their village hall in rhythm, gathering speed to a frantic climax, and finally rush out to actually hunt a wren. The people taking part accepted this as an annual event that was 'always done' and had no logical reason for doing so. Nor was this ritual action limited to one place in particular, but it is merely one example of many similar odd events that were still practised in Britain during the early years of the century.
Some are still continued to this day. The hunting of the wren, and occasionally its cruxification, obviously carries a greater significance than the excitement of having a rowdy good time. If there was no more to it, continual opposition by both civic and religious authority would have banned such actions centuries ago, or at least channelled the energy into more permissible outlets. The essential questions concerning the reasons for this survival, and the origin of much of the material collected, still remain a mystery.
[...] A simple examination of the music and text of the songs themselves, however, reveals some startling parallels with ancient British myth and symbology, and with a religious system that is essentially pre-Christian.
The oral tradition of handing on music and lore of various sorts by word of mouth through successive generations is known to be astonishingly accurate, but this alone could not possibly explain the survival of basically Celtic or even pre-Celtic religious themes into the twentieth century. [...] However, the compelling chant form of the melody of The Cutty Wren - with its hypnotic call and response pattern - is far superior to the text that it expresses. Thus it is possible that powerful forms of music may help in the retention through time of poetry linked to them, and such a means is a more acceptable argument than is the conscious inheritance of myths.
The words of The Cutty Wren, however, do reveal remarkable content and pattern, worth examining in detail.
The pattern of the song is a progression of formalised questions and answers, worked by characters who have clear roles of relationship to one another. Unfortunately their identity is not at all clear and can be sought only through the way in which they act within the pattern of the song. This is, in fact, a typical ritual pattern, one common to the magical rituals of both primitive and sophisticated peoples from the aboriginal hunting rite to the modern mass communion. Although everybody taking part knows the answers to the questions, the real content lies in the accumulation of riddles created by the pattern of the ritual. The drawn-out progression and the rhythm and chant elements are typical means of focussing awareness on the matter in hand, widely used for many purposes today, from education to formal liturgy, not to mention television commercials and popular music. The close similarity between the construction of many folksongs and liturgical chants is significant, though usually ignored. One might begin to suspect that some of these songs are liturgical chants or ritual music, no matter how corrupt or altered the form. The similarity discovered is not with the hymn-singing or congregational music of the present day or even recent centuries, but which much earlier forms. It cannot be seriously argued that folksong is derived from the influence of early church music. There is, however, a mass of evidence that plainsong modes were naturally developed from the types of scale and song used by the common people.
The symbolism of The Cutty Wren bears a close relationship to various forms of mythological, religious and mystical modes of thought. Add to the powerful vehicle of the music the drive of these basic racial symbols, and we may discover the secret of survival through all changes of language and custom. As the material itself is from simple levels of awareness that are essentially non-verbal [...] crude symbols that are consistent with an agricultural society. Such a way of life existed in Britain until the early years of this century, and in a few regions still survives.
The formalised characters of the Wren plot challenge and respond to each other. Their purpose is to hunt the Cutty (little) Wren, a common small bird [...]. This bird, it seems, cannot simply be chased and caught - mere bows and arrows are insufficient - big guns and big cannons are needed; carts and wagons will be necessary to bring it home, and hatchets and cleavers to cut her up. The repeated emphasis on something small that is also very great is a common type of mystical utterance or way of thinking, but obviously such a comparison alone is not enough to suggest that the song might be 'religious'. The final fate of this tiny bird is that it can be cooked and utilised to feed the poor. It has been suggested from this conclusion that the song is political, but internal evidence proves that it is religious. [...] The crucifying of the hunted wren (once actually carried out by the country folk), is unlikely to be a reference to the fate wished on the capitalist landlord, but is quite possibly a direct link with the typical sacrifical forms of religion known to use the cross as a symbol, including Christianity. The Cutty Wren may have been used at political gatherings, but it certainly did not originate at one. [Text given (p 15f) does not contain a reference to cruxification.]
The wren is often known to be a symbol for the King, a concept well represented in various songs and rituals that relate to the basic Cutty Wren theme. Folk-lore of the wren is abundant, and it is usually accepted that the wren-king is likely to be a form of symbolism or substitution for the human sacrificial victim. In the Christian ritual a substitution was also made for the body and blood, and the relationship of the symbology is very clear on certain points. The killing of the wren in folk custom was supposed to bring fertility to the fields and good luck to everyone, and a revealing key is the cooking and eating of it, in a brass cauldron. The division of the sacrifice to feed many people, or to bring many people salvation, is well represented in religious thought and legend. The spare-rib alone, of the wren, will feed the poor, after the workers of the ritual killing and cutting and cooking have taken their share. The cooking in a 'by our lady' [bloody!] brass cauldron bears a close resemblance to certain Celtic myths concerning the magical cauldron of Kerridwen, the ancient British mother-goddess, and the British version of the Harrying of Hell. In this, the spoils are not souls, as in the Christian myth, but an inexhaustible cauldron is included.
The cauldron of Kerridwen was the source of immortality and divine wisdom, and the customary promise of salvation through the death of a saviour. If we remember that the ritual death of certain individuals was a common practice of salvation and god-seeking, not by any means unique to the Christian faith, we shall see that The Cutty Wren is concerned with such practices.
[Follows transformation of cauldron into Holy Grail]
The particular appearance of the cauldron in our folksong is strictly apposite to its theme. The wren was the totem symbol for the Celtic god Bran [...]. He was an oracular hero, a being who linked the outer world with the Underworld. [...] The Cauldron is typically cross-identified with the Underworld itself, both the 'subconscious' of modern psychological theory and the Abyss of mysticism. Christ's Harrowing of Hell [...] followed directly from the worship of cults such as that of Bran and his classical and Eastern counterparts. As cultures evolved, the actual human sacrifice was replaced by various substitutes: within living memory, the Oxfordshire folk and people of the White Horse Vale were still singing the song of this substitution sacrifice [...].
Whatever the personal beliefs of the people working folk-ritual in the twentieth century, these beliefs did not seem to conflict with the ceremony. It is probable [that] the link was established intellectually and comfortably by those who enacted the ritual through succeeding generations. The functions of the characters of The Cutty Wren are those of a principal officer (John the Red Nose) [...] and two teams of liturgists, Milder & Malder and Festle & Fose. These two teams or choirs create the question-and-negation pattern which the principal officer grandly solves at the end of each verse.
The survival of ancient lore in folksongs and rituals is due to a combination of various factors. The accuracy and retention of the oral tradition need not be totally ignored, but perhaps the idea of a racial memory of tradition would be a better means of explaining the survival of myths. One vital factor is the agricultural way of life. [...] The sacrificing of the wren was supposed to bring fertility. This would be a natural part of the life-cycle, where death leads to new birth through the ceaseless round of the seasons. There is no dark ancient religious secret involved here, but simply the epitomising of the process by which the rural community lived. The line of survival of racial myths could, poetically speaking, come out of the land itself, through the humans who live upon it. The link with later sophisticated religious concepts is hardly surprising when we consider that these concepts grew naturally out of the roots of the human existence.
[...] The impact and vitality of The Cutty Wren is enormous. Its power is striking to the modern listener no matter how far removed he is from the life-cycle which it represents.
Quite possibly the attraction of such material for modern scholars and musicians is not primarily in the depth of curious lore that it holds, but in the life forces from which it grows. In the 'pagan' songs we can feel the essential flow of life expressing itself directly, in a quality long departed from most formal religious music.
[...]The fragment of ritual surviving in The Cutty Wren, in its various English versions, stops short with the death and eating of the victim. It does not continue the tale, as do the Irish legends, with the magical revival and rebirth, although the wren-hunt was still associated with the growth of crops.
(Stewart, St. George 15-23)
[1992:] There is a Manx legend that during the Irish rebellion, when English soldiers and Manx Fencibles were in Ireland, the noise made by the wren on the end of a drum woke a sleeping sentry and thus saved them from being taken unawares; this was the reason for hunting the wren on St. Stephen's Day.
(BR, UWP Archive, www.leo.org)
[1994:] [The] story in which the King of the Birds is whichever bird can fly highest, and the wren wins by hiding in the feathers of the eagle. (Treglown, Roald Dahl 18f)