Robin and wren

robin and wren

I'm currently sitting in front of a window that goes all the way to floor level. As usual, every now and again as I'm sitting here, birds come up close to the window, trying to get into the space they can see through the glass, or sit on the fence a few yards away, looking in sceptically. 

Just now, a wren came along, flying low to the ground, and hopping every now and again, along the length of the window, sitting on the window ledge for a moment before flying off.

The birds in these parts are incredibly large, compared to other places I've lived. It's bound, in part, to be the fluffing up of feathers against the chill of the wind, but even taking that into account, we have some beefy birdies. I've always put the rest of it down to the sheer quantity of insects available for them to eat over the summer. 

(To which I say, eat away, little birds, eat away! The fewer midges to bother me the better.)

It means I always second guess myself when I see a wren. In all the other places I've seen wrens, they've been tiny, truly tiny. Here, they're almost the size of sparrows, so I always double check the features that make it definitely a wren. Pale and dark variegation on the wing? Check. White bar above the eye? Check. Tail tipped up perpendicular to the ground? Check.

Amusingly enough, just a few seconds after the wren went on its way, a robin appeared on the fence, big and round, with his beady eye looking at me. 

Why amusing? Because the wren and the robin are important birds in English, Welsh and Irish folklore, with a strong relationship to one another.

The wren is known as the king of the birds, and its name in many European languages means king, king-bird, or little king. This may be because, according to legend, the wren became the highest flying of all the birds when he hitched a lift on the back of an eagle, then launched himself from it's back to fly just a little bit higher. This legend also illustrates the wren's fabled cunning.

The wren is both protected from, and associated with lightning, as well as with oak trees, and the deity Taranis. If you steal a wren's egg or a baby wren, your house will be struck by lightning. The same may apply if you mess with a Druid, as druids and wrens are closely associated.

The robin has much more Christian legend associated with it. One version of how the robin got his red breast recounts how he sang in Christ's ear as he hung on the cross, to distract him from his suffering, and that drops of Christ's blood landed on his breast, permanently marking him. Another version tells how he tried to stop up the wound in Christ's side with his breast, and that is how it was stained red. 

Yet a third story tells of the robin's merciful nature: out of pity for the souls trapped in Hell, he would carry water to them in his beak. In the process, his breast was burned by the fires of that place.

Another story of the robin and fire also brings in the wren. In this tale, the robin stole fire from heaven, and caught fire himself as he brought it to earth. In gratitude for this act, all of the other birds gave him one of their feathers, to cover over the areas where his own had burned away. In the robin's enthusiasm, he did not notice the tiny wren in the crowd, got too close, and so the wren, too, caught fire. The singe marks can still be seen on the wren's wings today.

The robin and the wren are also brought together in a whimsical tradition that if a dead person be left unburied, the robin and wren together will cover over its body with leaves. 

The most famous story of the relationship between the robin and the wren, however, is not one of cooperation, but of conflict. In this tradition, the robin is associated with the rising of the new sun at the winter solstice (around 21st December), and the wren is the old year, which must die for the new to be born. In some tellings of their tale, the robin kills his father, the wren, and gets his red breast from the wren's blood. 

This could also be the origin of the Medieval tradition of hunting and killing a wren on St. Stephen's day (26th December) by stoning. Supposedly, this was in remembrance of the stoning of St. Stephen, but it is easy to see how it could have a more Pagan origin, in the killing of the old year to allow the new one in.

Thankfully, this is a tradition that died out some time back, although 'The Hunting of the Wren' is a festival still celebrated in the Isle of Man, and various places around England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, with a wreath or other object taking the place of the wren.


Image credits: "robin" by jans canon, and "Wren" by John Benson, both used under license CC BY 2.0.


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My grandfather’s story

My grandfather's ID from 1945

My grandfather, Władislaw Zbegniew Prędota, was born in the tiny village of Bilcza, in southern Poland, on 18th October, 1921. He didn't complete school, but did join the Aviation School in Bydgoszcz in his teens. It was during a leave of absence for sickness that German forces invaded Poland.

What comes next is an incredible story of fortitude, persistence, and sheer bloody-mindedness. He joined the Polish Army, was captured by German forces, send to a labour camp, escaped, joined the Resistance, was captured and sent to several further labour camps twice more, and possibly escaped twice more, before at last sending the final months of the war in Dachau.

Liberated by the US Army in April, 1945, he eventually settled in England. The ID card above is from that period, detailing his time in the Polish forces under English command from 1945 to 1947.

I am working on a telling of his story, not just of his valour, but of the way in which he built an ordinary life after the war, yet never forgot his family in Poland. If you'd like to hear about my progress, about the joys and challenges of turning a real life into a storytelling performance, and of how working on it is changing my relationship with my grandfather, become a patron:

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Gathering meadowsweet

Today has been my first day back in the swing of everyday life since teaching at Witchcamp in Shropshire. It's mostly been made up of unpacking and laundry, but I did make the opportunity to gather some meadowsweet while it's in bloom. 

A meadowsweet plant seeded itself in my berry bush bed last year, and I've let it stay there, as an easy access source of flowers and leaves. (Otherwise I have to wander into soggy hillsides and past Roman nettles.) I went out to gather some this afternoon, in clear sunshine. Of course, as soon as I started picking it started raining; however, that's a complaint / contemplation for another day.

Meadowsweet was used in Culpeper's time "...to stay all manner of bleedings, fluxes, vomitings and women's menses, as also their whites...". Gerard also suggests it for eye irritation. 

Medicinally, in modern times, its prime use is for pain relief, especially to relieve cramps of the smooth muscles (gut and uterus). It is gentle on the stomach, and is also a mild astringent, which makes it an excellent choice for diarrhoea, and for heavy, painful periods. It can also help to bring down fevers and has been suggested as a treatment for ulcers — although those with sensitivity to salicylic acid should proceed with great care, and the advice of a fully qualified medical herbalist. 

Emotionally and magically, according to both Gerard and Culpeper, it makes "a merry heart". It falls under the influence of Venus, and is therefore useful in spells for love, money and beauty, especially where a gentle action is required. It is a specific for softening the heart of someone who has it out for you, and is generally good for peace, happiness and harmony. 

It is also a good herb for sweetening the atmosphere of a space. Traditionally, it was added to the straw used to keep floors of great houses fresh. The stalks and seeds, when burned, have a scent very like sweetgrass, which suggests it can be used for similar purposes. 

Meadowsweet has a wide range of culinary uses. It can be made into a very tasty cordial, and is often added to mead and herb beers. It goes very well with strawberries and with milk, and can be used in rice pudding, creme brulée, ice cream, panna cotta, and many other dishes.

It also has mythical fame in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, as one of the three flowers used by Math ap Mathonwy and Gwydion to make a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, when his mother could not be tricked into lifting her curse on him. Said wife, Blodeuwedd, is a figure of great fascination to me, and part of a broader storytelling work in progress, giving voice to women from myth and legend who were created by or for men.


Important note: none of the information provided in this piece constitutes medical advice. Please do your own research, and consult a qualified medical herbalist if in any doubt.


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Bird messengers, bird messages

A European buzzard gliding in a blue sky, photographed from below.

This morning, I started my day (as I have for the past three days, and hope to continue to do so for the foreseeable future) by greeting the Guardians of the east. I do this by facing east, engaging my attention, using my voice and my body, and resting in stillness.

As well as paying attention to what I am doing, and the Great Beings with which I am communicating, I also pay attention to the world around me, alert for any signs and portents. These often come to me as animal visitors -- although I am always aware that animals are not primarily here for my edification: they have their own lives and goals to pursue.

This morning, I noticed two birds in particular.

First, a dunnock, which looked at me curiously from the fence during my vocal and bodily prayers. 

Dunnocks are what bird-spotters call LBJs ('little brown jobs'), but despite this, they have their own quiet charisma. The brown line above their eyes makes them unmistakeable.

The one I saw was far more sleek and delicate-looking than the one in this picture: it is summer here, so it didn't need to puff itself up to keep warm, which is what the one in this photograph is doing. 

The folklore surrounding dunnocks is charming. According to Tony Locke

"By day it is a happy little bird that tries to outdo every other bird with its song. However, at night particularly at midnight their sad and tender songs are said to reflect the cries of unbaptised babies that have returned from the spirit world in search of their parents. The dunnock’s blue-green eggs were regarded as charms against witches' spells when strung out along the hob. They were especially good for keeping witches and spirits from coming down the chimney."

I take this as an invitation to me to pay attention to the balance of joy and loss in my life (a constant theme), and to refresh the shields around my home.

After I had finished my prayers and was resting in stillness, a common buzzard flew into view (like the one pictured in the header to this post), and proceeded to hover over the hill which stands to the east of my home. 

It glided high in the air for a while, then brought in its wings slightly, took an upright 'stance', and fanned out its tail -- a pose for selecting prey. 

After a moment, it returned to a hover, then glided down a little lower and returned to its hunting pose. It repeated this twice more, before dropping, silently and, to my surprise slowly, onto its selected prey. 

There is no folklore around common buzzards, so I derived a message for my life from this encounter purely from the buzzard's behaviour. What I took from it is this. There is no need to rush. Look at the situation from far away as well as close up. Be still and pay attention. Once you have decided, act calmly and without hurry to achieve your goal.

Of course, another person seeing those exact same birds, in the exact same place, would be bound to interpret them at least a little differently. That is as it should be: no sign, symbol or portent has an entirely fixed meaning; each instance of its arising has a different context, and therefore different significance. 

Just like stories, just like poems, just like art.

Header image: "Common Buzzard" by John Plumber. Used under Creative Commons license.

Dunnock image: from The Folklore and Traditions of the Irish Hedgerow.

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The creation of a story

On Saturday, I spent the day in Dunblane, at the Scottish Storytelling Centre Storytelling Development Day. There was a packed and thought-provoking programme, with discussion of our relationship with the stories we tell, ways to approach work with funders, community projects, and schools as storytellers,  and the relationship between oral tradition and literacy.

I was put in mind several times during these conversations of a story I created and told last autumn, as part of a partnership between the Dig It! 2015 project of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, The Surgeons' Hall Museums, and myself as an apprentice of the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The story was created to highlight tattoos at the Surgeons' Hall Museums, mortuary art at Greyfriars Kirkyard, and also included a cursing bone from the National Museum of Scotland (shown below).

cursing bone - National Museum of Scotland
Cursing bone - National Museum of Scotland

I started with the tattoos: from a 19th century sailor, and an army deserter (which you can see here and here -- behind links in case you're squeamish!). I researched these tattoos' background, the place of tattoos within the British navy at that time, and came across a particularly striking (and gruesome) story about tattoos and the spread of syphilis.

This gave me the germ of the story, which I then developed to connect it with the cursing bone and the graveyard. Eventually, the story took my protagonist, Jack, from Scotland to Portsmouth, from South America to Japan, and back again.

It was a very interesting process: very different from telling a traditional tale. Not only was I creating a story from scratch, but also in partnership with the needs and requirements of partner organisations, who wished to highlight certain elements of their work. It was much more akin to my previous work in social research and community development.

I share a little bit about the process with Joshua Graham below:

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Thinking about death

There is a lot of sudden transition in my life right now: my partner is making fundamental changes in her life, I have had to abandon my PhD, and, in under a week's time, I will be conducting the funeral service for a member of my family, whose death was not unexpected, but came long before anyone might have wished it.

As part of facing these various upheavals, and the grief that is inevitably arising, I have been researching myths, legends, and traditional tales about how death came into the world.

Moon and banana

In a tale from Madagascar, the first humans are faced with a choice between dying and renewing like the moon -- shrinking and growing on a monthly cycle, until the end of time -- or dying and renewing like the banana tree, which has many, many offspring, but then shrivels and becomes bowed, and eventually dies.

They liked the idea that they would live forever, but they thought that it might become terribly lonely, and so they chose to die and renew like the banana tree, and have the pleasure of children and grandchildren*.

A choice between life and sex

Death and the Maiden 2 by CapCat
Death and the Maiden 2 by CapCat

In southern America, one indigenous tale I read once** tells of how originally all peoples were immortal, in both body and spirit. But because people enjoyed sex, and had many children, the land became overfull with humans. There was not enough space or food or water for all the peoples -- human and otherwise -- to live comfortably together.

The grandmothers and grandfathers held a council to decide what to do. Some were willing to give up sex and having children, in order to make life liveable for all. Most, however, wanted to keep sex, children and to have a comfortable life.

Clearly, this was untenable. The wisest of the council, realising that convincing everyone to give up sex and children was never going to happen, went deep into the forest, questing for an answer. After many days, they came to a great river, which they knew they must cross to find what they were seeking.

The river was wide, and deep, and wild, and some of the grandmothers and grandfathers were not strong enough swimmers to cross it. They were dashed against rocks, or drowned as they were overcome by the waters.

When those who survived finally reached the other side of the river, they were met by the Spirit of the land: of the forest, and the river, and all of the plants and animals with whom the humans shared space and life. They put their difficulty before the Spirit, and It told them, "You already have the answer you seek."

The wise grandmothers and grandfathers looked at one another in confusion. "Spirit," they asked, "what do you mean?"

"In the waters of the river," the Spirit replied, "some of your number have met with the solution you have sought. Its name is death. Through it, you may continue to enjoy your bodies, and bear children, yet not become too many in number for this land to hold."

And the Spirit touched each one of them upon the head and heart and belly, and gave them the gift of death.The Spirit carried them safely across the river, and they carried death back with them to their settlement.

As people began to die, one by one, a great sorrow came over the people. The wise grandmothers and grandfathers felt just as sad, but they were also relieved, for they knew that now, they could enjoy their bodies, and each other, and the company of their children, and their grandchildren, without fear for the future of life.

Death learns love

The final tale of death I want to share with you isn't a tale in words, but a short, wordless animation, about how death feels about its work in the world. I think it is rather beautiful. It is also very sad -- get your hankies ready:

The Life of Death from Marsha Onderstijn on Vimeo.

There are also versions of this tale from the islands of the Pacific and among many groups of Australian Aborigines.

** I cannot remember where I read this story, so it may not in fact be from southern America. I will also, inevitably, have changed the detail of it through my recollection and retelling.

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