In keeping with my celebration of the 2000th anniversary of the death of Ovid, the greatest and most influential storyteller the world has ever known, I’d like to post one of my monologues. It’s based on the story of Diana and Actaeon, which is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book 3), in which Actaeon accidentally comes across Diana, goddess of the hunt and one of the most powerful of the gods, while she is bathing. For this singular act of impertinence she turns him into a stag and has his own hounds chase and devour him. This act is not forgotten by my Diana, who is now quite elderly but still powerful. She has retreated to the woods when a modern day hunter comes across her, just as Actaeon did. She speaks to him:
‘Ah! So you’ve found me. It had to happen. My senses are not what they were. Even gods can lose them to some degree. Read more
I’ve written before about my affection for crows. As this year is the 2000th anniversary of the death of the Roman poet Ovid, whose Metamorphoses have thrilled and inspired people for over two millennia, I thought I’d pay homage by retelling one of his stories which explains why crows and ravens are black. You see, in the beginning they were not black at all but white as a dove, as pure as the driven snow. It happened like this:
The raven was a special pet of Apollo, god of music and one of the greatest in heaven, and was much favoured by him. Read more
Of all the birds in the hedgerow that might qualify for that epithet, beloved of birders, little brown job (lbj), there is one above all that stands out. Not so much for its visual impact – it is indeed little and brown, and it spends much of its time flitting in and out of dense undergrowth such as dense ivy and is difficult to see – but for its song. The wren is justly famous for its mighty vocal prowess.
Not that its song has much in the way of variety. It has pretty much one song lasting just a few seconds and repeated over and over, Good job it’s a nice song, because it blasts it out at a volume that is loud enough to drown out a jet plane or a road drill. It’ll do it all year round, too.
The wren might be diminutive in size and mighty in song, but it has other qualities that mark it out. The male is an attentive lover and dedicated parent, albeit to a number of broods. During the mating season he will build half a dozen or more nests and invite a female to inspect them. If she chooses one she will stay and he will help her rear her chicks, though he will have other females to care for as well. If she doesn’t, well there are still those nests to advertise: sooner or later another female will take him up. Meanwhile he will violently defend his territory against other males. Small he might be but he is one of the most macho of birds.
More complimentary is Shakespeare’s reference to the tenacity of the bird in defending its home. In Macbeth Lady Macduff wonders why her husband has seemingly deserted her:
…He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch. For the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
All is the fear and nothing is the love,
As little is the wisdom, where the flight
So runs against all reason.
Macbeth, Act 4, scene 2
Sadly for her, though her husband might have had good reason to be away she will soon find herself unprotected and at the mercy of a determined aggressor.
The wren has a long history of association with people, and hence a long history in folklore. Its scientific name Troglodytes means cave dweller, which suits its habit of using any nook or cranny in which to feed or breed. The bird has one of largest range of habitats in the northern hemisphere, and was first recorded in Anglo Saxon times, though the relationship probably goes back further than that. In Anglo Saxon the bird’s name was ‘dreán’ or ‘draoi éan’ which means ‘druid bird’.
Quite why the wren should have particular significance for the druids isn’t quite clear, though it might as well be the wren as any other bird that associates so closely with humans. Wrens, like robins, nest in all sorts of places and make no distinction between the nooks and crannies of human dwellings or the hidden, often damp recesses of woodlands and hedgerows.
John Clare, of course, had something to say about the wren, which for him sang as sweetly as that other more famous lbj, the nightingale, and was a companion to him in his sometime troglodytic life.
Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poet’s rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to extacy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught:
With mine, there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought.
Such the wood-robin singing in the dell
And little wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early spring the tennant of the plain
Tenting my sheep and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.