Thursday 29 December 2016

Can you see me?

Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danes") is a patriotic work of Danish history, by the 12th century author Saxo Grammaticus ("Saxo the Literate", literally "the Grammarian").

It consists of sixteen books written in Latin and describes Danish history and to some degree Scandinavian history in general, from prehistory to the late 12th century. In addition, Gesta Danorum offers singular reflections on European affairs in the High Middle Ages from a unique Scandinavian perspective, supplementing what has been handed down by historians from Western and Southern Europe.

The sixteen books, in prose with an occasional excursion into poetry, can be categorized into two parts: Books 1-9, which deal with Norse mythology, and Books 10-16, which deal with medieval history. Book 9 ends with Gorm the Old, the first factual documented King of Denmark. The last three books (14-16), describe Danish conquests on the south shore of the Baltic Sea and wars against Slavic peoples (the Northern Crusades), are very valuable for the history of West Slavic tribes (Polabian Slavs, Pomeranians) and Slavic paganism. Book 14 contains a unique description of the temple at Rügen Island and Slavic pagan rituals that took place there.

The original name of the island Rügen or Danish Rugia at the Baltic Sea was Rujan (meaning red in Old Slavic); thus the name would in translation imply 'The Red Island'. The autochthonous inhabitants of the island were the Slavic tribe, the Rujani, whose name was cognate with the island's; thus translating as "people from Rujan" or "red people" or "redheads"??? After the destruction and/or assimilation of the Rujani by the Danes, in 1168, the original Slavic name of Rujan was corrupted as Rügen in German and Rugia in Danish.

According to Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, and also Chronica Slavorum by Helmold, the main temple on the Island was located in Arcona, late renamed to Jaromarsburg. The temple was dedicated to the god Svantovit (Svetovid), the main Sun god of the Slavic pantheon, and was used from the 9th to the 12th century. It contained a giant wooden statue of Svantovit (Svetovid) depicting him with four heads (or one head with four faces) and a horn of plenty. 

The temple was also the seat of an oracle in which the chief priest predicted the future of his tribe by observing the behavior of a white horse identified with Svantevit (Svetovid) and casting dice (horse oracles have a long history in this region, being already attested in the writings of Tacitus). The temple also contained the treasury of the tribe and was defended by a group of 300 mounted warriors which formed the core of the tribal armed forces.

The main ritual was celebrated once a year, at the end of the harvest at the beginning of November (Samhain?). All the inhabitants of Arcona gathered in front of the temple on this occasion. On the eve of the celebration the priest, who contrary to the common people had long hear and beard, meticulously cleaned the chapel, to which only he himself had access. The ritual which took place the next day was described by Saxo like this:

"The following day, when the people camped out by the temple doors, the priest took the horn from the statue’s hand and carefully examined it to see whether the drink in it was evaporating, which was taken to be a warning that the harvest would be poor the next year, in which case he [the priest] obligated the people to save something of their current harvest for next year.  If the drink did not disappear, that foretold a bountiful year.  Thus, depending on what the horn predicted, he ordered the people either to save their harvests or to use them till they be sated.  Next he poured the wine as an offering at the feet of the statue, filled the horn anew and pretended as if he had drunk to honor him [the God], while at the same time he asked with lofty words for success/good luck for himself and the people of the country, for riches and for victory, and after that he brought the horn to his lips and drank all of it in one gulp, and thereafter he filled the horn again and placed it in the statue’s right hand.

There was also there as an offering an oval-shaped honey cake which stood almost as tall as a man. The priest would place it between himself and the people and asked thereafter whether they could see him [from behind the cake].  When they answered him, he then wished them that next year they should not see him, whereby the meaning of this was such that he did not mean death to himself or the people but rather that the next year should be bountiful [i.e., and the cake bigger].

Next he blessed his people in the name of their God, told them that they should honor Him with frequent offerings, which he expected as a the right payment for [their] victories on the land and sea.  And when this was done, they spent the rest of the day on a great feast, where they ate the offerings [for the God], so that that which was consecrated for the God they themselves ate.  At this feast, it was believed pleasing to the God to get drunk and as a sin to remain sober."

You can find the description of this ritual in "The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe" By Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer, David Warburton.

The "oval bread" the Slavic priests at Arcona were hiding behind is still made in Serbia as a traditional Christmas cake. The bread is called "česnica" and is an oval bread which is decorated at most with the cross, making it look like the "Celtic cross". 

This is actually the solar agricultural cross which symbolizes  solar year divided into four parts by two solstices and two equinoxes. Sometimes the cross will have small semi circles on the edges of the cross hands. These are called "hands of god".  They represent the three months of every season. You can read more about the solar cross in my post "Two crosses". Česnica can also contain additional decorations symbolizing various crops, farm animals...

The preparation of this bread used to be always accompanied by various rules and rituals all indicating the Pre-Christian origin of this bread: 

The česnica is baked on Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning by the head of household or the woman of the house. The person who will prepare the česnica must bathe before that. In eastern and southern Serbia, after they kneaded the dough for the česnica, the head of household or the woman of the house take hold with dough-stained hands of the fruit trees, beehives, and cattle to make them more fertile.

Dough is usually made with wheat flour. But the flour is taken only from a full sack or the flour is milled from the last sheaf of wheat from the previous harvest. The water for the dough is in some areas collected on Christmas Day before sunrise from a spring or a well, into which a handful of grain is thrown. It is called the "strong water" or "living water" and is believed to be imbued with beneficial power. Or the water for the dough is collected from three springs. 

A coin is put into the dough during the kneading, some families using the same coin from year to year; it may be a valuable piece. In some regions, little figures carved from cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, and the like, are also put into the dough. In other areas, the inserted objects include grains, broad beans, walnuts, tufts of wool, twigs, and splinters from various wooden buildings. In Semberija, families insert a piece of the first splinter produced in felling the badnjak (young oak tree which is the traditional Serbian Christmas tree). Badnjak is ceremonially burned through Christmas eve on the house fire. In Jadar, western Serbia, the number of embers of the badnjak equal to the sum of grain and livestock sorts grown by the family are taken out of the fire and placed on the česnica. Each of the sorts is associated with its own ember on that loaf. The sort whose ember retains its glow longer than the others should be the most productive in the coming year. In Bosnia, when the dough is shaped and ready for baking, a number of notches are cut in the upper surface of it, and seeds of various crops are placed into the notches. The more a notch has risen when the česnica is baked, the more productive the crop whose seed is in it will be in the following year. To ensure an abundance of grain, some people place a bowl filled with grain on the česnica.

All of this indicates that česnica is directly linked with fertility and particularly grain fertility. 

The word "česnica" could be derived either from the noun "čast" meaning honor, or "čest", meaning "share". Both roots describe this bread perfectly. It is a bread made in honor of Dabog, Triglav, the Sky father, the father of grain who was in Christianity replaced with Christ. The bread is also made to be shared. 

In Serbia Christmas dinner is the most festive meal of the year. It begins about noon, or even earlier. The family members seated at the table stand up when the head of household gives a sign. The head makes the Sign of the Cross and lights a candle, before blessing the gathered relatives and saying a prayer, after which they all kiss each other while saying, "Peace of God, Christ Is Born." The head of the family and another man of the family hold the česnica between themselves, rotating it three times counterclockwise. The fact that česnica is turned three times shows that the bread was originally dedicated to Dabog - Triglav. The counterclockwise rotation of česnica is an example how an old Pre -Christian ceremonies and symbols which could not be eradicated where in Christianity turned into its opposites. Originally česnica must have been turned clockwise, to the right, the way the sun moves across the sky. Making people turn česnica counterclockwise implements magical way of destroying the symbol's power by either turning it upside-down, or the other-way-round. We see this being used over and over again with Christianized pagan symbols, rituals and beliefs...Anyway, after it is rotated, the česnica is then carefully broken among the relatives, so that each of them gets his own piece of the bread, without a crumb falling off. Bread falling onto the ground, and throwing bread away are still considered a big sin in Serbia. 

Up to three pieces of the loaf may be set aside: one for the absent relatives (if there are such), one for a stranger who might join the family at the dinner, and one for the položajnik (polaznik), their first visitor on Christmas Day (if he is not present). The rest of the česnica is consumed during the dinner. The family member who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. The head may try to buy the coin from this lucky relative. Each of the other objects hidden in the bread indicates the segment of the household economy in which the person who finds it in his share of the česnica will be especially successful. 

Now remember the giant bread from Saxo's description of Slavic pagan fertility ritual? They are still made in Serbia too. These are giant communal česnica breads which are ceremonially broken and shared among all the members of the community. Or at least everyone quick enough to get a piece :) 

And we have ethnographic evidence that česnica breads were in the past used for the same "peekaboo" grain fertility ritual described by Saxo. 

In his dictionary, Vuk Karadzić says this about the verb "milati": "I have heard that in Herzegovina people "milaju" at Christmas with česnica (large round flat Christmas bread, cake). This is what they do: Two people take česnica, one of them holds it in front of himself and asks the other: "Milam li se"? meaning "Am I visible? Can you see me? Am I sticking out from behind the cake?" The other man then says: "Milaš malo" meaning "you are visible a little, you are sticking out a little". The man holding the bread then says "Danas malo a dogodine ni malo" meaning "This year a little, but next year hopefully not at all". 

Ljubomir Pećo noted the same custom among Croats in the village Zabrđe in Bosnia. 

Similar custom was recorded in Old Serbia. Jastrebov, in "Obыčai i phsni tureckihь Serbovъ. S. Petersburgъ", 1886, str. 41, upor. i RJA talks about the custom called "milanje": A househusband hides behind a pile of breads and asks his family: "do you see me?". The family members reply "We see you this year, but we hope not to see you at all next year", meaning "We hope the grain harvest next year is so big, and that we can make so many breads, that you can hide completely behind them". 

In some parts of Old Serbia and Makedonia, the househusband hiding behind the Christmas cake says "You see me now, but may god give such huge ears of wheat this year that you wont see me at all behind them. Sometimes the "milanje" ritual was performed in Serbia at the end of the harvest with newly harvested grain. In the village of Grmljani in Lika near Trebinje this ritual was performed during the threshing of grain on the threshing floor. A pile from newly threshed grain was made on the threshing floor. Two people would stand on the opposite sides of the pile. The first man would then ask the second: "Do you see me?" and the second would answer: "I don't see you", to which the first man would reply "May god give that you don't see me next year either!"

The word "milanje" comes from "maljanje" which comes from "malo" meaning "a little". So the meaning of "milanje" is "sticking out a little"...

This is a magical ritual which is performed with the intention to give god a hint to make the next years grain crop even bigger. In a way people are trying to trick god, as bread used in the ceremony is never big enough for a person hiding behind it to fully disappear from view, no matter how big the harvest was. 

This custom was also preserved as a a new year or all souls (samhain), end of harvest, thanksgiving tradition in some other Slavic nations. 

Ukrainians and Belarusians have the same custom, except that they use a shief of wheat instead of bread. 

Karpatho Rusyns have the same custom. In the article about Christmas and New Year customs of the Rusynes, written by Mykola Musinka on "" we read that most magic customs were connected with Christmas Eve (Svjatyj vecur, Korocun, Vilija). On that day the husbandman covered the floor with straw. An unthreshed grain sheaf, usually oats (called in some localities "Didko" or "Diduch" meaning grandfather), was placed on the honorable seat at the table, i.e., "into the corner" under the icons. According to historical and ethnographic literature, in the archaic Slavic homes one corner was reserved for a representation of the pagan gods. Oats or straw were also used for decorating the festive table on which there had to be seeds from all crops. In the spring these very seeds were used in the first sowing. The oats and straw had a magical function in pagan society: they were expected to secure plenty of fodder and grain. Christianity provided another rationalization for the custom, stressing the birth of Jesus on straw and oats, thus transforming the two into symbols of that event. Also placed in the place of honor was the festive bread (korocun, kracun) decorated with wintergreen or periwinkle (barvinok) and various small figures. Prosperity was symbolized by a "mountain" of bread at the end of the table. At the beginning of the evening meal the husbandman hid behind this "mountain," asking: "Can you see me from behind the bread mountain?" The children replied in a chorus: "We can't," after which the husbandman concluded: "Let us wish you'll not see me either in the spring from within the hay or in the summer from within the wheat!"


So lets recapitulate. 

Serbs are people whose main deity was once Dabog (giving god) also known as Hromi Daba, and Triglav (the three headed one). They have a special votive bread called "česnica" which they bake for Christmas, the Christianised Winter Solstice, the end of the solar year. They use this bread for magic ritual related to fertility and good fortune. The bread is round made from sweet dough. This bread seams to have also been made at the beginning of November, for the thanksgiving ceremony marking the end of the harvest and the end of the agricultural and vegetative year. Saxo Gramaticus in the 12th century mentions this bread as the votive bread made by Pagan Slavic tribe known as Rujani, (red, redhead people???)  who lived on an island of Rujan (red, redhead people???) island, which lies just of the coast of South Baltic, which Slavs call Pomorje meaning seaside. People from Pomorje are known as Pomori, Pomorci. 

The Irish are people whose main deity was once Dadga (giving god) who is believed to be another name of Crom Dubh, and who is possibly the god who was represented by three headed idol found in Ireland. The Irish have a special votive bread called Barmbrack which is today made for Halloween, Christianised Samhain. Samhain, which was originally celebrated at the beginning of November, was the thanksgiving ceremony marking the end of the harvest and the end of the agricultural and vegetative year. Samhain was also the time when Fomorians extract their taxes of corn, milk and live children. Fomorians were an evil race of people who came from across the sea and their name is said to mean "sea (seaside???) people". Samhain is also the time when the Irish sacrificed first fruit, including first born children, to the evil god Crom Cruach (Crom Dubh). Samhain was also the time when a demon known as Aillén Tréchenn (from trí ceann, three-headed) came from Cruachan in Roscommon, and caused havoc in all of Ireland, especially Emain Macha (Armagh) and Tara.  O and in Irish the word "rua" means red-haired person. 

But the best part is still to come: 

The etymology of the word "barmbrack". In Ireland "barmbrack" is sometimes called "Bairín Breac", and the term is also used as two words in its more common version. The official translation of "Bairín Breac" is 

"bairín - a loaf - and breac - speckled (due to the raisins in it), hence it means a speckled loaf, a similar etymology to the Welsh "bara brith". Bara brith comes from Welsh "bara" meaning bread and "brith" translating as speckled"

But this Welsh name could just be a direct transliteration of the Irish Bairín Breac. The Irish Laigin, who gave their name to the province of Leinster, used to rule the north Wales Llŷn Peninsula, which was named after them. So I believe that they might have brought this bread and the name with them. 

But that is beside the point. The important bit is that I don't think that the translation of the "Bairín Breac" as "speckled bread" is correct. Sure now raisins are added to the dough, but I don't think that the ancient Irish had access to grapes and raisins. I believe that this is a recent addition to the recipe and that originally the "Bairín Breac" was made from plain sweat leavened dough. I believe that the correct translation for "Bairín Breac" is patterned bread, bread which has patterns inscribed on it. Why? Because believe or not the word "breac", apart from meaning speckled, which by the way also means patterned, has another very interesting meaning: carve, engrave, mark with letters, figures, to write...Now this is most interesting because it perfectly describes "česnica" which is always marked with letters, figures, patterns...Decorating of special votive breads with patterns has been practiced in the Balkans since early Neolithic. Special bread stamps were developed for stamping breads probably to standardize and make easier the inscription of the religious patterns used by all the members of the community. Some of the patterns and patterned stamps actually haven't changed since neolithic and are still used on votive breads today. Some are new, like these Christ symbols on prosfora breads in Serbia. 

Vinča culture was one of the cultures which decorated their breads with patterns and which had bread stamps and votive breads. I mentioned one of these votive breads in my post about Newgrange, because a giant stone copy of the small Vinčan clay votive bread stands in front of the entrance into Newgrange. 

This is small Vinča votive clay bread:

This is giant Newgrange votive stone bread:

Both of these votive breads are decorated, inscribed with patterns and symbols. Both of them are "Bairín Breac". Both of them are "česnica" breads. 

Now remember the Redhead Rujani people from South Baltic. On Samhain, they would bring a giant, inscribed, patterned česnica bread in front of the temple entrance, and the priest would hide behind it and would ask his people: "Do you see me"? Serbs performed the same ritual on Christmas day, the Christian replacement for Winter Solstice. 

Newgrange tumulus is aligned with the sunrise on the Winter Solstice so originally it was probably used for ceremonies on Winter solstice morning, beginning of the new Solar year. However Irish tradition strongly associates Newgrange with Samhain, so it is possible that the original alignment and use of Newgrange was over time forgotten and the date on which Newgrange was used for ceremonies shifted from Winter Solstice, the beginning of the new Solar year to Samhain evening, the beginning of the new Agricultural year. Regardless of how and when Newgrange was used for ceremonies, I believe that Newgrange was used as the temple of the divine marriage of Heaven and Earth, the marriage which produces grain, bread. Hopefully lots and lots of big breads, as big as the votive stone bread standing in front of the tumulus entrance. Or bigger. So is it possible that similar to the Slavic tradition, a pagan priest would come out of the Newgrange tumulus on Winter Solstice or Samhain, stand behind the giant votive stone bread and ask his people: "Do you see me?". 

Well we will never know, but... 

Sources for "milanje" ritual in the Balkans:

"Српски рjечник, истолкован њемачким и латинским риjечма" Вук Стефановић Караџић (Dictionary of Serbian language by Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic)

"Srpski Mitoloski Recnik - Grupa Autora" (Serbian mythological dictionary)

"Stara slovenska religija u svjetlu novijih istraživanja posebno balkanoloških" - Akademija nauka i umjetnosti Bosne i Hercegovine, 1979

"Christmas in Croatia" by Dunja Rihtman-Auguštin

"Kalendar srpskih narodnih obicaja" by Mile Nedeljkovic. Not available online

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Wren or wran?

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds...

This is wren. The Wren is small and rather inconspicuous. But it lives life at a fast, relentless pace and it sings this way too - it trembles as it puts everything into its song, which lasts about 5 seconds and usually ends in a trill.They are either the first or one of the first birds to start singing at dawn and once they start their song is so loud that it drowns out everything else. So they are known as the heralds of the rising sun. 

In European folklore, the wren has always been considered the king of the birds, as its name in European languages indicates. Aristotle and Plutarch called the wren basileus (king) and basiliskos (little king). In Latin he was known as Regulus - prince. In French, Roitelet - little king. Celtic names of the wren (draouennig, drean, dreathan, dryw etc.) all mean druid bird, and in Welsh the word dryw actually means both druid and wren. It is the same in Germanic languages. In Teutonic wren is Koning Vogel meaning king-bird. In Old German wren is Schneekönig meaning snow king, in Modern German wren is Zaunkönig meaning king of the hedge and in Dutch wren is winterkoninkje meaning winter little king. The same situation is in Slavic languages. In Serbocroatian wren is carić maning little tzar, in Russian wren is korolek, in Ukrainian wren is korolik, in Sorbian wren is kralik, In Slovenian wren is kraljiček, in Slovak wren is hrdlik all meaning prince, little king. 

It was generally believed that wren brought good fortune and harming the bird or its nest was strictly forbidden. It was also believed that anyone who broke this taboo would die from a lightning strike. 

Well wren was considered the bringer of good news everywhere except in Ireland where he was considered to be the bringer of bad news. This is the list of local beliefs related to wren from Ireland from "Pagan Celtic Britain", by Ann Ross, Chapter VI, page 260:

"...if it call from behind you importuning of your wife by another man in despite of you. If it be on the ground behind you, your wife will be taken from you by force. If the wren call from the east, poets are coming towards you, or tidings from them. If it call behind you from the south, you will see the heads of good clergy or hear death tidings of noble ex lay men. If it call from the south robbers and evilkinsmen are coming. If it call from the north west, a noble hero of good lineage and noble hospitallars and goodwomen are coming.
If it call from the north, bad people are coming whether warriors or clerics or bad women and wiched youths are on way..."

So no wonder that in Ireland on Christmas day wren was hunted and killed...

Long ago, on Christmas day, in Ireland, group of men an boys, called "wren boys" go out "hunting the wren". Pursuit of the bird persisted into the early years of the 20th century. Accounts relate that for a day or two previous to the holiday wren was, ‘hunted and knocked over with stick or stone. Two or three of them were tied to a branch torn from a holly bush, which was also decorated with coloured ribbons. Sometimes a pole or a basket was used to carry the dead wren. If the group as "unlucky" and couldn't find and kill a wren, an effigy, a bird doll was used. 

Yates drawing of "wren boys"

Then on the St Steven's day, the "wren boys" or as they are sometimes called "straw boys" get dressed up in masks, straw suits, and colorful motley clothing, and go from home to home displaying the dead birds and begging for money "to bury the wren." They play music instruments, sing and make a lot of noise. At the door step of each home the 'Bean an Tí' (the woman of the house), is beseeched:

The wren, the wren, the King of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.
So up with the kettel and down with the pan,
and give us a penny to bury the wren.
The house that is least generous is likely to have the wren buried under their door, "through which no luck would then enter for a twelvemonth". 

Here are some pictures of "wren boys" or "straw boys" from Ireland:

Similar traditions of hunting the wren have been performed on the Isle of Man on Boxing Day and in Pembrokeshire, Wales on Twelfth Day (6 January, the old Christmas day) and, on the first Sunday of December in parts of Southern France, including Carcassonne. 

What is the explanation for this strange custom? Why, of all birds, is this tiny bird chosen as the martyr for display by groups who take their name from it? 

Apparently because of its treachery. Here are the explanations given in Ireland for this custom:

When the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwells troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldiers drums made a noise that woke the sleeping sentries just in time, thereby saving the camp.  

Another explanation is that wren betrayed St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, by flapping its wings to attract his pursuers when he was hiding in a bush. 

Another explanation for the hostility towards this most harmless of creatures says that it is all the result of the efforts of clerics in the middle ages to undermine vestiges of druidic reverence and practices regarding the bird. Medieval texts interpret the etymology of wren, the Irish for which is dreolín, as derived from 'dreán' or 'draoi éan' the translation of which is 'druid bird'. So once venerated and protected bird, whose harming was by the Irish believed to be punishable by death by lightning, became the target of the ritual killing on the same day when it was originally celebrated. 

The last explanation for the hatred towards wrens is also the explanation for how wren got to be called the "little king".This explanation is associated with the fable of the election of the "king of birds". The story goes like this. The birds decided to elect the king of birds and decided that the bird that could fly to the highest altitude would be made king. The eagle out-flew all other birds, but he was beaten by a wren that had hidden in his plumage. And when the eagle tired, the wren flew out above him and won the race. 

This fable is already known to Aristotle (Historia Animalium 9.11) Plutarch (Political Precepts xii.806e) and Pliny (Naturalis Historia 10.74). 

Plutarch implied that this story teaches us that cleverness, trickery is better than strength. Hmmmm...Great lesson....

What is interesting is that this old fable is actually still told as a fairy-tale in Ireland and in Slavic lands. 

In Irish version, god wished to know who was the king of all birds so he set a challenge. The bird who flew highest and furthest would win. The birds all began together but they dropped out one by one until none were left but the great eagle. The eagle eventually grew tired and began to drop lower in the sky. At this point, the treacherous wren emerged from beneath the eagle's wing to soar higher and further than all the others. And this is why wren is hunted and killed. In Irish the word Dreoilín means wren and the word dreolán means trickster...

In the Slavic version the bird which flies the highest, while carrying the wren hidden in his feathers,  is eagle (in East Ukrainian and Polish version) or heron (in West Ukrainian version) or stork (in Sorbian version). Once the eagle (heron, stork) out-flies all the other birds, wren flies out of its plumage and out-flies the eagle (heron, stork). 

That wren is seen as trickster in Slavic mythology can be seen from the fact that wren is also known as "obluda" meaning "trickster", "durisvit" meaning "charlatan, fool", "zvoditelj" meaning "joker". But in Slavic version of the story, the trick is discovered and wren is forced to run and hide in order to avoid punishment. In Ukrainian and Sorbian versions of the story, this is not the end. Angry birds decide that because they could not find the king of the bird through a "who can fly the highest" competition decide to stage a context in "who can get the deepest". The bird that can get the deepest into the ground will be the king of the birds. And again wren won the contest. The wren scientific name Troglodytidae is derived from the word "troglodyte", which means "cave-dweller". The wrens get their scientific name from the fact that they forage in dark crevices and hide from the cold in holes just like mice. This small, brown bird that scurries through the undergrowth and into log piles and holes in search of insects and any other small animals, particularly beetles and spiders, from a distance actually looks like a mouse. Thus in Ukrainian and Polish tradition, wren is also known as mouse king. It is interesting that Icelanders also consider wren to be the "mouse's brother". 

The Celts and the Slavs seem to have understood the story slightly differently from the Greeks. Wren's trickery was not seen as virtue but as a crime, a sin...punishable by death...

Are Slavic wren stories versions of older Celtic stories preserved in Central Europe when Celts morphed into Slavs? Or does this story about the cheating wren predate both Celts and Slavs? Or is this story about the cheating wren a later corruption of a much earlier story which doesn't involve wren at all but another bird whose name sounds very much like wren, making the wren an unfortunate victim of a mistaken identity? 

Let's see what we can dig out. 

Remember that wren forages and hides in holes in the ground, in "the underworld". This makes wren, the bird that can be under ground, on the ground and in the air "the bird that connects the three worlds". 

As I already said, wren is the first bird to start singing in the morning. And the loudest. This is why wren is known as the herald of the rising sun. 

So every evening both the sun and wren go underground. And every morning wren emerges from the underground before the sun does, effectively out-running the sun during their race from the underworld to heaven. Now the bird most associated with the sun is eagle, who is the solar bird pretty much in every religion in the northern hemisphere. So wren racing the sun can be nicely represented with wren racing an eagle. Is this the origin of the story about the bird race in which a wren beat an eagle?

Also because wren announces the arrival of the sun, during the Pagan times, wren, the "little king of birds", was announcing the arrival of the Sun, the "big king of heaven". That is a particularly important role in sun worshiping religions. No wonder wren was so venerated and protected. 

European Wrens are migratory in some parts of Europe, flying anything up to 2500 km (1500 miles) with some migrating all the way from Scandinavia down to Spain. But in British Isles wren is one of the few non migratory songbirds and is often the only bird singing during the winter solstice period. Its song on the Winter Solstice morning, not only announces the sunrise, it announces the beginning of the new solar year, the birth of the new sun, new sun god, new little king of heaven.

Christmas is repackaged Winter Solstice and that many old rituals related to winter solstice were moved to Christmas. So instead of the birth of the new sun, new sun god, little king of heaven which happens on the Winter Solstice morning, we have the birth of baby Jesus, the son of God the king of heaven, which happens on Christmas morning. Now correct me if I am wrong, but the son of the "king of heaven" is defacto the "prince of heaven" or the "little king of heaven". Right?

When the Winter Solstice celebration of the birth of new Sun God was replaced by the Christmas celebration of the birth of the Son of God, Christians didn't want to be reminded of the old Sun God by the wren, who was still announcing his arrival. So Is this why wren had to die on the day the new Son of God was born to replace Sun the God? Look at the day on which the dead wren, the dead herald of the old Sun God was paraded around. That day is the day after the Christmas day, the St Stephen's day. Now who is this St Stephen? St Stephen or St Stephan is traditionally venerated as the Protomartyr or first martyr of Christianity. Now this means the first one to be killed in the name of Christ, Son of God. And the first to be killed in the name of the Son of God is Sun the God. New young Sun God, old "little king of heaven", which used to be born on the day of the Winter Solstice is now killed on Christmas day, replacement for the Winter Solstice, and is replaced by Son of God, new "little king of heaven". And the day when this "first victim of Christianity" is celebrated is St Stephen's day. Funnily name Stephen or Stephan was originally a title meaning "crowned" or king, the origin of which is in the  Ancient Greek word "στέφανος" which means crown. It was the title given to many kings in medieval Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Poland. So the death of the old "little king" and the enthronement of the new "little king" is celebrated on the day of Stephen, the day of the "crowned one" the day of the king. Do you think that there is some kind of symbolism here? 

But this is not all.

Why is the killing of wrens or disturbing of their nests punished by thunder? And why is it said that wren is the bird of Lugh, the Celtic thunder god? Well to understand this we need to look at what happens to the newly born Sun God after the Winter Solstice.

Remember my post "Two crosses"?

As soon as he is born on Winter Solstice, the Sun God starts its ascend to the throne. He finally sits on its throne on Summer Solstice. This is the day when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky above the northern hemisphere. This is the maximum sunlight day. One would expect that the day after the Summer solstice, as the days start getting shorter the weather would start getting colder. But that is not the case. The days start getting shorter but the weather continues to get warmer. Until the 2nd of August. This is the maximum heat day. This is the sun at its maximum strength. After that the days finally start getting cooler.

In Serbia the 2nd of August is Perun day, but also the day of Ilija Gromovnik, the Thundering Sun, the Thunder Giant. In Serbian Thunder Giant is Grom Div. In Ireland 2nd of August is the day of Chrom Dubh, the Sky God and the main agricultural deity of the old Ireland. But also the day of Lugh, the thunder god.

Now if we look at wren life-cycle we will notice something very interesting. This is an excerpt from Edward Armstrong's THE WREN (1955) which talks about wren's singing patterns:

"Usually there is little song in January apart from imperfect phrases, lacking in verve, during the day, especially in the morning if the weather is mild, and some rallying songs at dusk, if it is severe. .... Favourable weather in February elicits a fair amount of morning song, a song or two in the afternoon and a little regular song before roosting. ... In March [if the weather is mild] there is intermittent singing for two or three hours in the morning, an increase in the evening output and a general advance towards day-long song .. at the end of the month, when nest-building has begun, song is in every way well developed. ... In April there is still more territorial song ... apparently there is some diminution in May [when females are incubating or, towards end of May, feeding young] ... it is difficult accurately to assess the output of song at this stage as individuals vary according to the phase of the breeding cycle. ... In June many reach their highest daily production of song and a few young Wrens begin to sing at the end of the month. During July song decreases and deteriorates, and some adults go almost out of song, but the number of juveniles singing increases. The moult in August is accompanied by an abrupt diminution of song, so far as most adults are concerned, but the birds of the year frequently utter their broken ditties, mainly during the hour and a half after sunrise. This may continue until about the beginning of October when song becomes bolder and clearer, though still incomplete. In November if the weather is [mild], there is little change: Wrens are heard for about half and hour after sunrise and a few phrases are uttered in the late afternoon and towards sunset. Song diminishes in December, but even when it is freezing Wrens occasionally engage in song duels."

So wrens sing the most around Summer Solstice period as befits the herald of the Sun. But they get almost completely silent around Crom Dubh, Lugh, Ilija Gromovnik, Perun day. And this is the only time when these loudmouths shut up. Why? The reason for the sudden silence of wrens, is the annual moult: a complete change of feathers after the final wear and tear of the breeding season. Even juveniles are changing into adult plumage. Moulting takes energy, as the bird's metabolism speeds up to grow new feathers and push out the old ones. The birds become lethargic, reluctant to fly very far, and spend much of the day resting in deep cover. Keeping their beaks shut.

And this coincides with the period when Summer turns into Autumn and the beginning of the harvest. For early farmers this must have been very auspicious. As I wrote in my post about the Sky Father, the beginning of the harvest is the most critical period of the whole grain vegetative cycle. Sudden storm, heavy rain and particularly strong winds can destroy everything farmers worked for the whole year. On Summer Solstice Sun God was powerful and merciful. On the 2nd of August he is even more powerful but he is angry, angry because his reign is coming to an end. This is why 2nd of August is the real seat of the Sky God. Because this is when he is most dangerous.

And in Serbia, on the 2nd of August people celebrate St Stephen the Wind maker. This saint is Christianized version of Stribog, the old Slavic wind god, the destructive face of Perun. 

So during this "dangerous" harvest period, during the reign of Perun the destroyer, Stribog, wren doesn't sing. It hides and it looks like it has disappeared. Well this looks like a fitting announcement of the arrival of the old cranky god, don't you think? Run and hide... And then it starts singing again when the harvest is finished and the reign of the sun is over. Right on time for the arrival of the Lady, Virgo. Is this why there is the link between the Storm god and wren and why those who harm wrens are punished by thunder? I also believe that the fact that wren is in Slavic countries also known as "bull's eye" is another thing that confirms this link between the Sky god in his terrible Destroyer role and wren. The sacrificial animal of both Perun and Crom Dubh was bull...

O and by the way in Japan, the wren is labelled king of the winds...

But it is possible that the hunt actually originally happened on winter solstice day but that the bird that was hunted was not wren but wran, vran meaning crow, raven.

In English tradition, "the cock robin and the jenny wren are the Queen of Heaven’s cock and hen".
The shape-shifting Fairy Queen took the form of a wren, known as "Jenny Wren" in nursery rhymes.

In my post "Babje leto - Grandmother's summer" I talked about the transformation of the old mother goddess into Mary the mother of god, the Queen of heaven. According to the old Serbian and Celtic tradition, the year was divided into two parts: the white, light, warm part dominated by the Sky father and the black, dark, cold part dominated by the Earth Mother. These two opposites mix during the year and produce life. But in their extremes they are both destructive and bring death. 

The period between the Summer solstice (21st of June) and the beginning of Autumn (2nd of August), is the extreme Sky Father period. This is the period symbolized by the Eagle. The period between the Winter solstice (21st of December) and the beginning of spring (2nd of February) is the extreme Earth Mother, Baba, Cailleach period. This period is symbolized by crow and raven. In my post "Bran Vran" I talked abut the word "bran, vran, wran, fran" which is found in both Slavic and Celtic languages and which means "crow, raven" but also "black".  Crow and ravens, the ominous black birds of death are sacred birds of the mother goddess in her most extreme form as the old hag of winter. 

The eagle, the big king of the summer skies and the crow, the usurper, the little king of the winter skies. Interestingly crows are the only birds which are not afraid of eagles and are known to gather in groups and attack eagles...On top of this crows and ravens are the smartest birds. So if any bird was to outsmart an eagle and use smartness against strength it would have been crow (wran) and not wren. 

In Ireland the "wren boys" don't actually sing "The wren, the wren, the king of all birds...". They sing "The wran, the wran, the king of all birds...". Is this just the mispronunciation or were the original "wren boys" actually "wran boys" who didn't hunt wrens but "wrans", crows and ravens?

Crows and ravens can devastate the grain fields during the winter and early spring. They gather in huge flocks, land on fields and can basically poke and pull every last seed out of the ground. This is why farmers since the time immemorial considered crows their enemies and built scarecrows

Now here is again the picture of the "wran boys":

Don't they look like scarecrows dressed in old mismatched colorful clothing? And look at the "straw boys". Don't they look like walking grain stacks? 

Giant grain stacks, good harvest, is reason why crows (wrans) are killed... 

The "wran boys" go through the fields, bang drums, blow pipes and shout. Just what you want to do if you want to scare the crows and ravens (wrans). And if you also manage to kill a crow and raven (wran) or even many crows and ravens (wrans) even better. And to prove that you have done your job of protecting the fields well, you attach the dead crows and ravens (wrans) on the holy branch and parade them through the village and you ask for money to bury them. And you kill the crows and ravens (wrans) on the day of the Winter Solstice, the day when the Sun is reborn, to help the Eagle win over crows, to help light win over darkness, to help the summer win over winter...

Remember how in Ireland wren was considered the bringer of bad news, which is the role dedicated to crows and ravens in Slavic countries where wren always brings good news? Did someone seriously misunderstand something here? I believe so. I believe that the old custom of killing crows and ravens on Winter Solstice was, when the meaning of the word "wran" was forgotten, replaced with killing of wren, which is the closest English word that sounds like "wran"...

What do you think?

I will leave you with this great song by Snakefinger and Residents called "Kill the great raven". You can hear the song here.

Kill the Great Raven 
Kill the Great Raven 

His tiny eyes, they search the skies 
He looks so alone, so he must die 
"Oh, does he really have to die?" 
"Oh yes, he really has to suffer" 

Kill the Great Raven 
Kill the Great Raven 

And when he dies, 
to his surprise 
The sun will set 
and he will rise
"Where will he go?" 
"He'll become the sun of course. 
We must have one you know...

Kill the Great Raven 
Kill the Great Raven