A Brief History of Augury by Nicole Canfield “Augury is the act of reading birds and their flight patterns to tell the past, present, and future. It is one of the most ancient forms of divination known to have been used in Ancient Greece, Rome, the Celtic Empire, and Egypt (among other ancient civilizations). It is also known as reading the auspices and ornithomancy. Birds were special creatures in that they could bridge the gap between man and heaven or the spirit world. Birds were messengers from the gods, but also thought of as psychopomps in various cultures, with the ability to guide the dead to the other realms. The Romans called it augury, the Greeks called it ornithomancy, but it was essentially the same thing – reading the type, number, flight patterns, and behaviours of birds to acquire messages from the gods or spirits. The Romans and Greeks treated people who could read auspices with high regard. They considered these augurs sacred spiritual leaders and sought them for advice on all matters of importance. It is thought that the ancient Celtic priests, the Druids, were also able to read birds and their flight patterns. “
“ The Robin redbreast and the Wren,
God Almighty’s cock and hen.
Him that harries their nest
Never shall his soul have rest.”
“Kill a Robin or a Wren,
Never prosper, boy or men.”
The Wren is a sacred bird to the Elves, Jenny Wren began sitting on my window sill every morning singing her message. Titty-todger, ackymal, kitty-lodger, tidley-tope, cracky wran and cuddy bear, are all just a few of the three dozen odd names which the Wren is known by in Devon along with the commonplace name of ‘Jenny Wren’. It has been suggested that the dialect words about relate to the size of the bird, namely, titty, tidley, cracky. The word ‘cuddy‘ alludes to the bird’s short and erect tail this being another distinct characteristic of the bird. Another name for the Wren that occasionally crops up on parts of Dartmoor is that of ‘Bran’s sparrow’, this is thought to stem way back to ancient times when the bird was connected to the old God Bran. It is due to this association that the Wren was said to be a messenger of the Gods and would deliver prophecies.
Sisterhood of Avalon – “ The Wren has always been a King as its name in European languages indicates: Latin, Regulus; French, Reytelet; Welsh. dryw, king; Teutonic, Koning Vogel, king-bird; Dutch, Konije, little, king. The Wren symbolised wisdom and divinity. At New Year it is said that the apprentice Druid would go out by himself into the countryside in search of hidden wisdom. If he found a Wren he would take that as a sign that he would be blessed with inner knowledge in the coming year. Finding a creature small and elusive to the point of invisibility was a metaphor for finding the elusive divinity within all life. Divination by the voices of birds was very generally practised, especially from the croaking of the raven and the chirping of the Wren: and the very syllables they utter, and their interpretation, are given in the old books. Legend has it that the Wren was sacred to the Druids who kept them in cages for divinatory purposes, and conducted augury with the birds in the wild, finding significance in the direction and place from which the birds sang. The Proto-Celtic word “drero” meaning “true” was the origin for the words for Wren, druid and soothsayer.
A Manx folk-tale recounts how it is the Wren became king. All of the birds had gathered together to decide, once and for all, who would be first among them. In turn, each bird came forward to state what gifts they had which set them above all of the rest. Although the Wren had proven her cleverness to the approval of the gathering, the eagle suggested that the bird who could fly the highest should be the one to rule over them all. The gathered birds agreed, and the eagle flew up as high as he could, far surpassing all of the rest. He called out to the assembly, “’I am King of the Birds, King of the Birds!” , but he didn’t realize that the Wren had hidden herself among his feathers, and as he made his proclamation, she jumped up to the top of his head and cried out, “’Not so, not so, I’m above him, I’m above him!” And thus, through her cleverness, the Wren became king of the birds.
In his classic work, The Golden Bough, Frazer talks about the hunting of the Wren along with several examples of similar ritual behaviour from other cultures around the world. He writes:
“The worshipful animal is killed with special solemnity once a year; and before or immediately after death he is promenaded from door to door, that each of his worshippers may receive a portion of the divine virtues that are supposed to emanate from the dead or dying god. Religious processing of this sort must have had a great place in the ritual of European peoples in prehistoric times, if we may judge from the numerous traces of them which have survived in folk custom.”
It may be that the Wren stood as proxy for an ancient tradition where the annual king would be sacrificed at year’s end to ensure the abundance of the crops and animals in the year to come. There are echoes of this found in other Wren Hunt traditions. One of the most complex celebrations occurred in Carcassonne, France, and was celebrated until around 1830. Whomever found and killed the first Wren during the hunt was “crowned” king, and brought the dead bird home affixed to a pole to proclaim his victory. Later, on New Year’s Eve, the king and the other hunters embarked upon a procession through town, accompanied by musicians and torch-bearers. Every so often, they’d stop to write the date and “Vive le Roi” in chalk on the doors of houses as they passed. Finally, on Twelfth Night, a date very often associated with the Wren Hunt, the king would don full royal regalia and attend High Mass, preceded by the body of the Wren displayed triumphantly on a garlanded pole. Afterwards, the king would spend the day visiting important town personages, who would gift him money with which he would throw a grand feast in the evening.
The significance of the Wren Hunt occurring near or around the Winter Solstice, saying that it is a “New Year ceremonial having as its purpose the defeat of the dark-earth powers and identification with the hoped-for triumph of light and life.” This connection with fertility and light may also have its roots in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, and indeed, cultures around the world have celebrated the rebirth of the light at this, the period of the year with the longest nights. Whether or not the Wren is a stand in for a human sacrifice, it is believed to have represented the energies of the old year, and through its killing, the New Year was able to begin.
From the Isle of Man, it is told that a beautiful fairy once held the fancy of the men of the island; they would become so enamoured of her that they would follow her into the sea where they would drown. A travelling knight sought to break the fairy’s hold over the men, which was leading so many of them to their doom. She was able to escape at the last moment by turning herself into a Wren, but not before a spell was cast on her, causing her to return every winter in the form of the bird – a form in which she would remain until she was killed by a human.”
The Wren’s nest as said to be protected by lightning. Whoever tried to steal Wren’s eggs or baby Wrens would find their house struck by lightning and their hands would shrivel up. Lightning was the weapon of the thunder bull-god Taranis, who often inhabited oak trees, and the Wren was sacred to Taranis.
R.J. Stewart – “ The oak is associated with long lifespan and wisdom. … It is associated with male aspects of the sacrificial Mysteries. … The Oak is the tree of Kingship, and was originally the soul-vessel of the sacrificial King. … The oak is associated with lightning and the gods of lightning, such as Zeus or Jupiter, and the Celtic wheel and thunder god Taranis.”
If the soul and symbol of the old sun and the Oak King was the Wren, the Robin represented the new sun. The Wren was said to hide in the Ivy, the Robin in the Holly. The Pagan Neolithic Festival of the birth of the new sun, symbolised by the Robin, was at the Winter Solstice (21st December). The Robin (the new sun) killed his father the Wren (the old sun) and that is how he got his red breast, from the blood of his father. A Robin coming into a house was supposed to be a sign that someone was going to die there in the near future. Despite this association with death, the Robin was praised for being the only bird capable of singing all the notes of the musical scale. And furthermore, the Robin can sing for half an hour without repeating the melody, unlike the other birds. Because of his red breast and this association with fire, the Robin is said to have brought fire from heaven. As such, in folklore, Robins are considered holy birds, and are beloved by gardeners for they remind him of paradise and the legendary Garden of Eden. A similar myth has it that the Robin was a storm-cloud bird held sacred by Thor, the god of Thunder in Norse mythology.
The Giant and the Red-Breasted Robin: A Fairy Tale for 2017, By Manju Lata Prasad
“ Once upon a time, a just king and his fair queen ruled a land of milk and honey. The lakes were full of fish, farms produced bushels of grains, and the cattle were fat and plentiful. People were happy and peace reined. One day a monster arrived, a giant with rope-like hair, walking on his two hind legs. He had a big mouth and teeth like scythe. He grabbed men with his claws, and ate them. His favourite body part was the human head. The king sent his fearless warriors to kill the monster. But the giant opened his mouth wide, bit off their heads, and chewed them like carrots. The brave king led his army to battle but the Giant massacred all the king’s men. He lifted the king off his horse, chomped on his head, and ate it. The grief-stricken queen went to bring the king’s body. But the Giant gulped her and burped. The people were horrified, terrified and desperate. They struck a deal with the Giant. They would send him one human sacrifice everyday in return for peace. The Giant loved a good deal. He relented. The people were divided into those who chose the sacrifices, and those who were to be sacrificed. A divided country presented little resistance to the Giant. He slept all day till lunch arrived and after feasting slept some more.
“Enough is enough,” said a brave fifteen-year-old one day. The giant had devoured her father and her mother. She set out to meet an old blind oracle that lived at the end of a thick black forest. It takes a fearless woman to live by herself, the young woman thought as she walked up to her. The oracle’s face lit up in recognition. She cackled the answer to the unasked question:
“The Giant’s heart beats In a bird that tweets, That lives in a castle on top of a hill. Twist the bird’s neck full circle to kill.” The secret to the Giant’s invincibility was that he hid his life, his Prana, in a little red-breasted Robin that he kept safely in a castle. Nothing could kill him, as long as the Robin tweeted unmolested. “Is that it?” the young woman exclaimed in amazement. “Killing a Robin is much easier than killing a Giant!” As she took her leave, the oracle gave her the power of invisibility for one time use only, but warned that she must be visible to kill the Robin.
The young woman crossed the river and the mountain, and reached the Giant’s castle. She slipped through the iron gates unseen. The giant was sleeping in a large courtyard. His snores were rattling the windows and the doors. In the back was a gold-plated tower. She stepped around the Giant to enter its base. In the dark stairwell she heard the tweets that grew louder as she stole up the steps. At the top was a small terrace where she saw the little red-breasted Robin in an exquisitely filigreed gold cage in a small alcove. The Robin fluttered and twittered nervously. Her frantic activity gave the Giant a severe palpitation and he woke up in distress. The young woman reversed her invisibility as she reached the cage. The tower shook as the Giant pounded up the stairs. She slid back the bolt on the cage door. She could hear the Giant breathing and grunting. She grabbed the bird and pulled it out. The Robin’s tweets grew desperate. The Giant roared in mortal fear. The young woman grasped the Robin’s head in her right hand and twisted it a full circle just as the Giant’s fiery breath singed the hair on the back of her head. The tweets stopped. The Giant teetered, his knees buckled in and he dropped dead.”
In an ancient Irish fable, when there was only two people in the world and only one fire, one day while the folk slept a wolf crept up and kicked earth on the flames to put them out. Seeing the fire dying, a brave little Robin gathered up twigs and kindling and placed them on the embers, and then perched close by and fanned the embers back into flame with its wings. Hence once again Robin’s kindness resulted in him getting burnt bright red.
Native American story of Nukumi and Fire
One cold, autumn morning in a low valley a great, gray stone sat covered with dew. The rock was very old and had sat there for many, many moons. It had seen the passing of many animals and many seasons but this day as Niskam heated the rock and the dew rose as a mist from it Niskam decided to give life to this rock. So as the rock grew hotter and the steam from the dew hovered over it this one old rock was given the body of an old, old woman. This was Nukumi. Kluskap had been watching the birds and the plants and the animals and learning all he could. Now there came a day as he travelled that he wandered into this valley and there he met Nukumi. As Kluskap talked to Nukumi he realized how much wisdom she had and he wanted to learn all that he could from her. Nukumi explained that she would be happy to be his grandmother and share her wisdom but as an old woman meat was necessary for her. She could not live only on plants and berries.
Kluskap was so happy to have a grandmother that he called to Marten swimming in the river. He asked Marten if he would give his life so that Kluskap’s grandmother could live. All of the animals were friend to Kluskap and Marten said he would do this for his friend. Now Kluskap told Marten that for this sacrifice he would make Marten his brother. So Nukumi snapped Marten’s neck and placed him on the ground but Kluskap felt so bad that he called to Kisúlkw to return Marten to life. Now Nukumi used her wisdom to speak with Kisúlkw and Kluskap and Marten was brought back to life so he could return to his river but where he lay on the ground was the body of another marten. Nukumi told Kluskap that from this point the animals would be brother and friend to Kluskap. They would be there willing to provide food and clothing, shelter and tools but always they must be treated with the respect given a brother and friend because they would only be there to provide what is necessary for life. Marten will always be the first of Kluskap’s friends.
Kluskap asked Robin to fly to the place where the lightning had hit the ground to give Kluskap life, and bring the sparks that were there to him. Robin flew to the place but he had to use two dry sticks to carry the sparks because they were so hot. As he flew the wind caused the sticks to burn and Robin’s breast turned red. Still he brought the fire to Kluskap and Nukumi put more wood on this fire and Niskam breathed on the sparks so that they burned the wood and created Great Spirit Fire. But all Robins after this had red breasts and when two dry sticks are rubbed together they make fire. So the first meat was cooked over fire and Kluskap and his grandmother started their time together. Kluskap would help his grandmother survive and she would share her wisdom and knowledge with him.
The Oak King, who is sacrificed to the sun god Bel on the summer solstice, also takes the form of a Wren. In some traditions, this weakening of the Sun is linked to the weakening of the old King. At Midwinter, the Holly King is at his low point. The Oak King, resting since his Midsummer defeat, comes again to challenge Holly to battle. At the Winter Solstice, the Holly King is defeated and dies, making way for the reinvigorated Oak King who will usher in the waxing of the renewed Sun. The Holly King has as his emblem the Wren, and the Oak King’s bird is the Robin. Traditions surrounding Robin and Wren are many and ancient. “The Robin and the Wren, God’s cock and hen” have been linked in mythology and with Christian lore throughout Europe. To the early Celts, trees, especially the Oak tree were considered sacred. Oak trees are deciduous, meaning that they go into a dormant state during the winter months. English Christmas Holly trees are evergreen, and maintain their foliage year round. As the cold weather approached and the Oak trees lost their foliage, the Holly trees, which had been hidden amid the leafy Oaks now stood out in their full beauty in the barren landscape.
At Midwinter, it seemed that the Holly King had won and his brother, the mighty Oak King now stood naked in defeat. But, the Holly King did not really win the battle, because as the Sun begins to return once again, The Oak King rallies, and begins to re-establish his supremacy, even though it won’t be until Midsummer when the Oaks will once again be in full foliage. The battle continues at Midsummer and the Oak King appears to win, overshadowing and pushing his opponent out of sight, but once again appearances are deceptive as the Sun begins to leave once more and the Holly King rallies and begins to make his full appearance once more. Interestingly enough it is at the time when each King is in his full strength and splendour that he is defeated by his opponent. Despite being enemies, without one, the other would no longer exist.
NB * This is an ongoing project , these are the first chapters more to come
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