I had heard the ‘Milder to Molder’ version of the The Cutty Wren within folk circles, but not taken much notice of it. According to MainlyNorfolk, the 1940 version by the Topic Singers was the first of the folk revival recordings. The many that followed (Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, Bert Lloyd) all used largely the same lyrics.
- It is Milder to Melder (as opposed to Molder)
- There is a duplication of the first line which ends with ‘the younger to the elder’
- The verses about portioning out the spoils is not included
The Cambrian version also includes a score, with a melody which isn’t quite the same as the revival version.
After posting my version, someone made a comment criticising Bert Lloyd’s assertion that the song had been used during the Peasants’ Revolt against Richard II in the 1300s, and also generally criticising any assertion of pre-Christian origins of the ‘Hunting the Wren’ custom across Ireland, England and parts of Europe. Here Bert even brings witches into the picture.
This led to more research and the discovery of this digitized copy of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book with a publication date around 1744. The song in this book is called Robbin to Bobbin and is structurally quite different but with the same theme. Here is my recording of these lyrics.
The song has a modern history of being used in protest movements and commentary on class warfare. The play Chips with Everything, 1962 by Arnold Wesker, makes fascinating use of the song as a taunt to Royal Air Force officers by enlisted men, to remind them of the risks associated with high station. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick appear performing this song in one of the TV adaptations (1969). Apparently, this version was aired in serial form, but there is also a full length film from 1975.
Linking the Wren Hunting custom to ritual sacrifice of a king around the winter solstice is probably the fault of Robert Fraser in the Golden Bough. Fraser discusses instances of this wren hunting custom in France, Scotland, England and other parts of Europe. The stories are strange, because on the one hand the Wren is considered sacred, and to harm it or its home during the year a cause for serious bad luck:
“Malisons, malisons, mair than ten, That harry the Ladye of Heaven’s hen!” (Fraser)
Interestingly, in the 1744 version of the lyrics, the wren is a woman, and in Scotland the wren is called the ‘Lady of Heaven’s Hen’. However, in the 1857 lyrics the wren is a male, and often referred to as the ‘King of Birds’. The idea of killing a divine animal as a mechanism to threaten or get the attention of a god is common throughout Frasers work.
There are several stories which explain how the wren came to be both king and reviled.
Eagle and the Wren
In Plutarch’s Moralia, from around the first century, he refers to Aesop’s story of the wren who wins the contest of who can fly the highest by riding on the back of the eagle. Interestingly, Plutarch uses this proverb in the context of encouraging junior leaders not to get ahead of themselves but to realise that they rise on the achievements of others (and should be humble).
St. Stephen’s Day
St. Stephen’s Day is notionally held to commemorate the stoning of the first Christian Martyr in 36 AD and is held all over Europe. In Ireland the day is called ‘Wren Day’ and coincides with the hunting of the wren, but as far as I can find, there is nothing to connect St Stephen’s story with the killing of a wren.
Robin and the Wren
In some traditions, the Jenny Wren is the wife of Robin Redbreast, which aligns with the wren being female in the 1744 lyrics.
Viking Betrayal, Druids and Cromwell
The statement is made without reference in pages like this that the wren was responsible for making a noise and betraying Irish soldiers to Norsemen. There is also the suggestion that the Gaelic name for wren, dreoilín, is related to draoi ean (Druid Bird), and somehow connects with Druids. In some instances the accusation of making a noise is linked back to St Stephen, but he was never in hiding before being stoned to death. This blog post at The Wild Geese repeats many of these stories, blaming the wren for disclosing someone’s location both in a 750 CE Viking raid and also during Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1641. I have been unable to find any scholarly references to these stories.
Clíodhna the Seductress
This is a theory I find very interesting. Clíodhna is an Irish goddess and queen of the Banshees. Part of her mythology is that she has three brightly coloured birds that eat otherworldly apples. This page provides a detailed history of Clíodhna, but most importantly that she can transform into a wren, and that she has a habit of seducing and drowning men by the sea. One of the stories from the Isle of Man is that the goddess was cursed to turn into a bird at Christmas and is hunted as revenge for killing sailors. This story, however, is fairly localized in Ireland would struggle to explain the widespread Wren Hunting across the rest of Europe.
My general conclusion here is that no one really knows what led to such a cruel practice around Christmas, and I am very happy that people no longer harm these beautiful birds. Why people did it, seems to remain a mystery.