“O ne’er go down where the willow-wrens gather
So late on a midwinter’s eve
For wailin’ and weepin’ will follow down after
And ne’er you more shall be seen”
-Folk rhyme of unknown origin
A little while back, on a rather foggy afternoon, I was driving down a back road on my way home when a flicker of movement caught my attention. I glanced at the trees, but didn’t see anything. Something told me to stop and check it out, but I was in a hurry so I ignored it. Still, it bugged me for the rest of the night. Something about it had seemed familiar, but in that way like when you’re trying to remember a dream, and I couldn’t pull the memory up. Eventually I decided that either I’d remember eventually or come across it again, and life went on.
The other day, on a different road, something else caught my attention; a small flutter of red among the winter-dead plants at the edge of a small marsh. This time, I pulled over to investigate. (I may have had to do a little light trespassing to get to it…nothing much, just a little dip through a fence onto some conservation land that was closed for the evening.) I was glad for the fact that it was really cold as it meant I wasn’t slogging through mud, though I could have done without the bone-gnawing edge of ice to the wind that cut through my gloves like they weren’t even there. But I digress…
I climbed through the fence and walked over to the edge of the water, boots crunching on the ice-coated grass, looking for the flash of red in the rapidly failing light until I found what I was looking for. To be honest, it was so small that I have no idea how I saw it from the road. On a tree branch there was a small object of grass and string, fluttering frantically in the breeze. While it was a very crudely done thing, clearly done by someone not entirely sure what they were doing, it was nonetheless recognizable as a very specific folk charm. Memory clicked into place, and I realized what was familiar about the thing I had seen the other week.
This was a willow-wren charm and, based on the colors, a warning that there were willow-wrens gathering in the area. No, not the normal little birds you’re probably thinking of. Willow-wrens are…something else. There’s almost nothing written about them, being an extremely obscure and almost entirely oral lore. I ran across them decades ago, but haven’t thought much about them in years. To say I was surprised to find this would be an understatement.
There’s very little known about willow-wrens or where they came from. Some say that they were originally a bastardization of will-o-wisp myths. Some say they’re based on some random event that happened that got twisted over the retellings. Others say they’re exactly what it says on the tin. There’s even a theory that they’re actually some sort of magical construct, though anyone with a half-ounce of respect for folklore and myth looks sideways at that one.
Willow-wrens are the same rough size and shape as a normal wren, but are said to have feathers of long, narrow, willow-like leaves. They’re never seen during the day, appearing just as the sun sets and are often described as having a faint bluish-green glow, similar to that of phosphorescent fungi (hence the suggestion of being a variant of will-o-wisp).
Tradition is that seeing a lone willow-wren is a kind of good luck, and hearing one call is an omen (of what, the stories don’t actually say, because that would be useful or something, I guess). Seeing a flock of them is Very Bad and you should be getting away from there as fast as you can possibly manage. (Again, what the Bad is is a point of contention and ranges from death, memory or dream theft, permanent bad luck, kidnapping, that sort of thing.) There’s a third theory that the willow-wrens are some kind of guardian spirits that protect a place, as well.
One of the fascinating things is that the use of physical charms has persisted into modern times, with very few changes, aside from purpose (some to ward against, some to call, some to warn people away). A willow-wren charm consists of three stalks of grain grasses (rye, barley, oat) braided and formed into a circle, tied at the top with a knotted or braided yellow or gold cord symbolizing the sun. This is consistent across all versions. Tied to the bottom of the charm, there are 3, 6, or 9 cords, each with a seed threaded onto it, though there’s conflicting stories about what type and how many seeds. Different colors denote different meanings (red for warning, blue for calling, silver or pale green to ward against, etc.). Types of seeds used include apple, squash, buckwheat, mustard, and others.
The one I found was, as I mentioned, extremely crudely done, being a single stalk of wild rye coiled and tied with unknotted thread and no seeds, but was still recognizable as a warning charm. Someone was trying to warn people that willow-wrens were seen flocking, and either was in a hurry or didn’t have all the information on how to construct the charm properly. The fact that it was there at all was strange enough, given the obscurity of willow-wren lore.
Stranger still was the fact that what I saw the other night was the right size, shape, and color to have been a willow-wren landing on a branch, watching as I drove by. I don’t know why the willow-wrens are gathering, or who the charm-maker was, but willow-wrens are being seen again, and that is always an omen. Of what, I can’t say. I suppose that we’ll have to wait and find out.
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