Have you seen the first robin yet? We all know the first robin means that spring is here, but few people realize this idea evolved from traditional Saxon beliefs. In old English folklore the robin is always ”male”, and mated or married to the “female” wren. Both of these birds were sacred, giving rise to old English rhymes such as this:
Hurt a robin or a wren; never prosper, boy or man.
Harming a robin or stealing its eggs will bring bad luck. Traditionally the result could vary from personal injury to the death of the offender’s livestock. According to J.C. Cooper (Symbolic and Mythological Animals, Aquarian Press, p.194) the robin is sacred to the god Thunor.
The bird known to the pre-Christian Saxons as the réadda was the European robin, a species unrelated to the migratory American robin. This bird retained its status into the Christian era as a sacred bird, as did the wren. Hence this old rhyme:
The robin redbreast and the wren; are God Almighty’s cock and hen.
When the descendents of the Saxons eventually came to the shores of North America they named the indigenous red breasted thrush after the bird they were familiar with – the sacred robin. But this American robin disappeared in the autumn! Its behavior was entirely unlike the non-migratory European robin, a bird long associated with the Yuletide. Unlike the European robin, this North American réadda deserted the land with the coming of winter.
What a relief to see the sacred bird return in the spring. What a welcome symbol of divine blessing! Many North American avian species migrate south every winter, but it is the robin we look to as a sign that spring has returned. It is the réadda, the red-breasted bird sacred to red-bearded Thunor, that brings luck to the new year.