The power of the song thrush: life, death and the feast of St. John

“‘Twas on the twenty-fourth of June
Oh, as I sat weaving all at my loom,
‘Twas on the twenty-fourth of June
Oh, as I sat weaving all at my loom,
I heard a thrush, singing on yon bush,
And the song she sang was the jug of punch.”

Image by Jose Sousa, used under Creative Commons license.

These words are the first verse of a traditional Irish drinking song, The Jug of Punch, in its simplest form. I’m thinking of it today, St. John’s Eve. The feast of St. John, celebrated on the 23rd and 24th June, is a Christian gloss over the celebration of the summer solstice, in the same way that Christmas is a Christian gloss over the celebration of the winter solstice.

This song has puzzled me as long as I’ve known it. Even before I was aware of the feast of St. John, I was sure the meaning of the song had something to do with the magic of the summer solstice: the date mentioned was too close for it not to be. The song is seemingly a jolly one, but at its most basic it is about sex and death, themes that all of us Pagans are familiar with being bound up together, whether we’re comfortable with the connections between them or not:

“What more mirth can a man desire,
Than to sit a drinking-o by the fire?
What more mirth can a man desire,
Than to sit a drinking-o by the fire?
And in his hand a jug of punch,
And on his knee-o a pretty wench.

“When I am gone and in my hole,
At my head and feet place a flowing bowl,
When I am gone and in my hole,
At my head and feet place a flowing bowl,
And every friend that passes by
Can take a cup and remember times gone by.”

And what has any of it to do with the song thrush mentioned in the first verse, and the final verse, a simple repeat?

There are plenty of song thrushes about here in Eskdalemuir at present. They can be seen sometimes, and recognised always by their doubled song, the distinctive way they repeat refrains.

Their Latin name, Turdus philomelus, refers to the Ancient Greek story of Philomela, a princess of Athens whose tongue was cut out when she threatened to speak up about her brother-in-law, Tereus, raping her. Transformed into a song thrush, she was able to escape him, and to shout his crime abroad.

Song thrushes’ lives are most evident in these parts through the broken shells of snails that they leave strewn about the stone track, their living contents eaten up. The song thrush breaks open the shells on a rock, or on hard ground. It is a fastidious bird, wiping the flesh of each snail on the ground before eating it up.

I’m careful to look out for living snails, so I don’t tread on them while out walking the dog, but in the twilight of morning and evening, often I’ll hear a ‘crunch’ underfoot. I’m always relieved when it’s only the discarded shell that I’ve crushed. As if it made any difference to the snail whether it was killed for food or from carelessness.

Song thrushes have come into my consciousness most strongly and most recently, though, through their deaths. Within a fortnight of moving back into my new/old home — finally rebuilt and habitable again after more than two years — no fewer than three song thrushes have met their deaths by flying into windows around our house.

I spent a long time pondering this, looking up meanings of song thrushes in different traditions (variously: voice, music, warning, confidence, vision, communication, pride, love, devotion, fertility, peace, writers, poets, singers, songwriters) and any stories from cultures around the world. In the end, I decided these poor dead thrushes were not a message for me, but simply the result of the birds’ inability to distinguish glass from free air.

Do I have any conclusions from all of this? Have I made anything of The Jug of Punch, the place of the thrush within it, and its relationship to the summer solstice?

Not many: that life, sex and death are all part of one another; that as the song of the thrush is repeated, and the first verse of The Jug of Punch becomes the last, so all things come around again to the same place, which is also a different place, because it’s a different time; that conviviality, celebration, joy are everywhere, if we can grasp them; that singing in the sunlight of summer, or in the darkness of winter, is still singing all the same.

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