Monday, 10 December 2012

The Fabled Folklore of the Robin Redbreast


                     There are three kinds of birds that regularly feed in my garden. There are a pair of blackbirds that come and eat the berries from the Rowan tree – they leave their droppings on the brick wall near the door. There is a wren that comes early in the morning and hops from bough to bough in the bushes. And there is the Robin, who comes and sings by the kitchen window, sitting in the Firethorn, his breast as red as its berries. 

Robin Postman

We see a lot of robins at this time of year, particularly on Christmas cards, because in the past the postmen wore red tunics and were nicknamed ‘Robins’, so they appear on the kinds in their bird form as tokens of the deliverymen. The Robin was originally called the Redbreast but as people began to add proper names to the names of animals and birds they became Robin Redbreast, later shortened simply to Robin; much the same happened with the Jenny Wren and the Jackdaw. In Lancashire there is a rhyme,
“The robin and wren
Are God's cock and hen.
The spink and the sparrow
Are the deil's bow and arrow.”
(The spink is a dialect name for the chaffinch or sometimes the yellowhammer).

Robin Redbreast

The Robin is held to be a special bird in British mythology and should never be harmed. Even when egg-collecting was a popular hobby, it was very rare for anyone to take Robin’s eggs. The reverence comes from the way in which the bird got its red breast. In some legends, it was an all-brown bird until it was touched with the blood of Christ as he hung on the Cross, in some versions singing into his ear to alleviate the agony of his final moments, in another version attempting to pluck out the nails or the thorns from the crown, and another version has the Robin trying to staunch the wound in Christ’s side made by the legionary’s lance. Another legend says that the Robin scorched its breast in the fires of Purgatory, mercifully taking drops of water in its beak for the lips of the parched souls in torment, in Wales this act has earned the bird the name of brou-rhuddyn – ‘breast-burnt’. 

The Robin

A variation of this is that the wren stole fire from heaven and returned to earth aflame, so the other birds all contributed one feather each to replaced those burnt away, but the Robin was anxious and came too close to the poor wren thus he also caught fire, the remains of the burn remains on his plumage. Yet another legends tells that if the Robin and the Wren find the unburied body of a dead person, they will work together and cover it with leaves. This act of kindness is mentioned in the old English ballad of the Babes in the Wood,
“And when they were dead.
The robins so red
Brought strawberry-leaves,
And over them spread.”

The Babes in the Wood

There is a folk legend that says if a Robin dies in your hand, that hand will always shake uncontrollably.
“‘How badly you write,' I said one day to a boy in our parish school; your hand shakes so that you can't hold the pen steady. Have you been running hard, or anything of that sort?' 'No,' replied the lad, 'it always shakes: I once had a robin die in my hand; and they say that if a robin dies in your hand, it will always shake.”
C A Federer – Notes and Queries April 4th 1868.

Notes and Queries - April 4 1868

Of course, the most famous of the rhymes about the Robin must be ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’. The rhyme in print dates to about 1744 with the form familiar to use coming from about 1770, although it may be a much older tale. 

Death of Cock Robin c1860

It is a favourite nursery story and is used in early reading lessons as it follows a repeated, familiar pattern. The short verse form allows ample opportunity for illustration, giving some delightful period versions. Claims that the rhyme is an allegory for some actual historical event are unfounded and are another example of the present applying hindsight to the past.

Death of Cock Robin c. 1830


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