The wren, the wren the king of all birds
St. Stephen's Day he was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle down with the pan
Give us a penny to bury the wren.
If a mariner wears the feather of a wren killed on New Year’s Day, he will not drown at sea, claims an old superstition. According to the legend, a mermaid who enjoyed luring sailors to their death transformed herself into a wren when pursued. Eventually, the gods took notice of the mermaid’s misbehavior, and condemned her to appear every New Year’s Day as a wren, hunted by the sailors once lured to shipwreck and death by her songs.
In pagan times, the wren was considered a sacred bird. The Irish noun for wren, Dreoilín, is derived from drui-éan, meaning “Druid bird.” The Celtic goddess of love, Clíona, frequently took the form of a wren, and the birds themselves were considered messengers of the gods. The Oak King, who is sacrificed to the sun god Bel on the summer solstice, also takes the form a wren.
Christians consider the wren a bad omen, perhaps because it was held sacred by the pagans. A wren is supposed to have led the Romans to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane; another is said to have betrayed the martyr St. Stephen to the mob that stoned him to death. More recently, a wren was supposedly beat a drum betraying the location of an Irish army subsequently massacred by Oliver Cromwell’s troops. A French folk belief holds that touching a wren’s nest will cause pimples.
These latter beliefs led to the hunting of wrens, the main day for which was December 26, or St. Stephen’s feast day. Boys who caught and killed wrens would take them from house to house and receive money from the families living there. If a household refused to pay up, the boys would bury the wren in front of the house, causing the family disgrace.
Wrens are not the only birds to figure in sailors’ superstitions. Perhaps best known is the albatross, which are supposed to carry the souls of dead sailors. Killing an albatross is considered bad luck for the entire ship, thus the phrase “an albatross around his neck.” Other common mariners’ superstitions involving birds:
- Sighting a cormorant or a curlew at sea is considered bad luck
- Sighting a swallow, robin, or dove is considered good luck
- If a robin flies over a woman on St. Valentine’s Day, she will marry a sailor.
- Three seagulls flying together, directly overhead, signify impending doom.