Friday, 7 January 2011


I think that virtually all nursery rhymes and fairy tales originated before the era of Disney and the modern urge to sanitize the world. People used to have a more direct connection to the world, including unpleasant things like death and disease, and didn't feel it necessary to shield children from them.

However, during the era of Victorian prudery, many rhymes were re-written to make them safe for children. This often made them totally nonsensical.

There's something quite fascinating about nursery rhymes. On the surface, they're simple little songs with simple little words sung by children still basking in the light of their simple little lives. Yet scratch the surface of any nursery rhyme and you'll reveal a much more complex 'adult' history. These rhymes were often born out of a desire to instruct or teach, or to pass on a moral lesson. The rhyme “London Bridge is falling down,” is laced with the whispered notion that children were buried alive in the foundations of the bridge.

In the days when controlling naughty children was achieved through frightening them, I think that such a threat would probably have been effective.

But the superstition was based around the idea that 'primitive' cultures believed that a bridge would collapse unless the body of a human sacrifice were buried in its foundations.

Yes, the meanings and histories behind many nursery rhymes are sinister. The ancestor of Ring a Ring o Roses is the Black Death. There are many variations of the rhyme -- this is the version we used to sing.

Ring a-ring o' roses,
A pocketful of posies.
a-tishoo!, a-tishoo!.
We all fall down.

From Wiki.

“Many have associated the poem with the Great Plague of London in 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death in England. Interpreters of the rhyme before World War II make no mention of this; by 1951, however, it seems to have become well established as an explanation for the form of the rhyme that had become standard in the United Kingdom. Peter and Iona Opie remark: "The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and 'all fall down' was exactly what happened. "The line Ashes, Ashes in alternative versions of the rhyme is claimed to refer variously to cremation of the bodies, the burning of victims' houses, or blackening of their skin, and the theory has been adapted to be applied to other versions of the rhyme. In its various forms, the interpretation has entered into popular culture and has been used elsewhere to make oblique reference to the plague.”

It does seem macabré, that generations of children sing this song, when you think that plague victims were dumped en masse in to open graves. Blackheath, a huge open space in South East London, was actually the site of what was once a mass grave during one particular plague epidemic - hence the name Blackheath, and perhaps also accounts for all those blood-chilling stories of people being buried alive, hands scraping hopelessly at the dirt, leaving behind their suffering ghosts to groan in perpetuity.

And then there’s Wee Willie Winkie. Who is this strange person running around the town in his night gown?

Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town,
Upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown,
Tapping at the window and crying through the lock,
Are all the children in their beds, it's past eight o'clock?

“The origins of the words and lyrics to this nursery rhyme were to allow children to associate every day tasks with their own lives. Before the days of radio, TV and indeed the Internet and also due to levels of illiteracy within the population great reliance was made on the Town Crier who was paid to walk the streets crying out the latest news and information. 'Wee willie winkie' was a child's version of the Town Crier! The author of the nursery rhyme was William Miller (1810 - 1872)”

Perhaps Wee Willie Winkie is a counterpart to the Sandman.

The Sandman is a mythical character in Western folklore who brings good dreams by sprinkling magical sand onto the eyes of children while they sleep.

Traditionally he is a character in many children's stories, invoked to help (or lull) children to sleep. He is said to sprinkle sand or dust on or into the eyes of the child at night to bring on dreams and sleep. The grit or 'sleep' (rheum) in one's eyes upon waking is supposed to be the result of the Sandman's work the previous evening.

E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) wrote an inverse depiction of the lovable character in a story called Der Sandmann, which showed how sinister such a character could be made. According to the protagonist's nurse, he threw sand in the eyes of children who wouldn't sleep, with the result of those eyes falling out and being collected by the Sandman, who then takes the eyes to his iron nest on the moon, and uses them to feed his children. The protagonist of the story grows to associate this nightmarish creature with the genuinely sinister figure of his father's associate Coppelius. The complete, gruesome story is here;

Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clements
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martins
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich
Say the bells of Shoreditch
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney
I'm sure I don't know
Says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head

Chip chop chip chop the last man's head!

From Famous quotes.

“The words and lyrics have been much loved by generations of British children. The place names relate to some of the many churches of London and the tune that accompanies the lyrics emulates the sound of the ringing of the specific church bells. The words of the nursery rhyme are chanted by children as they play the game of 'Oranges and lemons' the end of which culminates in a child being caught between the joined arms of two others, emulating the act of chopping off their head. The reason for the last three lines of lyrics are easily explained. The 'Great Bells of Bow' were used to time the executions at Newgate prison, which for many years were done by means of beheading. The unfortunate victim would await execution on 'Death Row' and was informed by the warder, the night before the execution ' here comes the candle to light you to bed' of their imminent fate and to make their peace with God. The executions commenced when the bells started chiming at nine o'clock in the morning. When the bells stopped chiming then the executions would be finished until the following day.”

We played this game of Oranges and Lemons at kids’ parties. Yes, it was fun but the anticipation of being the kid caught and the following, symbolic execution, was horrible.

There are a few explanations for the nursery rhyme, “Mary mary quite contrary.”

From Wiki.

“It is a religious allegory of Catholicism, with bells representing the sanctus bells, the cockleshells the badges of the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in Spain (Santiago de Compostela) and pretty maids are nuns, but even within this strand of thought there are differences of opinion as to whether it is lament for the reinstatement of Catholicism or for its persecution.

Another theory sees the rhyme as connected to Mary, Queen of Scots, with "how does your garden grow" referring to her reign over her realm, "silver bells" referring to (Catholic) cathedral bells, "cockle shells" insinuating that her husband was not faithful to her, and "pretty maids all in a row" referring to her ladies-in-waiting - "The four Maries".

These explanations vary; it is identified with Mary I of England for roughly the same reasons as with her Scottish counterpart.

The "How does your garden grow?" may make mocking reference to her womb and the fact that she gave birth to no heirs, or to the common idea that England had become a Catholic vassal or "branch" of Spain and the Habsburgs, or may even be a punning reference to her chief minister, Stephen Gardiner ("gardener").

"Quite contrary" could be a reference to her unsuccessful attempt to reverse ecclesiastical changes effected by her father Henry VIII and her brother Edward VI.

The "pretty maids all in a row" could be a reference to miscarriages as with the other Mary or her execution of Lady Jane Grey after coming to the throne.

"Rows and rows" may refer to her infamous burnings and executions of Protestants.

Alternatively, capitalizing on the Queen's portrayal by Whig historians as "Bloody Mary", the "silver bells and cockle shells" referred to in the nursery rhyme could be colloquialisms for instruments of torture.

I can vaguely recall my dad reciting "Who Killed Cock Robin" I remember feeling sad. It’s a bizarre story to have as a nursery rhyme -- the tale of a murder, and subsequent trial.

"Who Killed Cock Robin" is an English nursery rhyme, which has been much used as a

murder archetype in world culture.

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
Who saw him die?
I, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.
Who caught his blood?
I, said the Fish,
with my little dish,
I caught his blood.
Who'll make the shroud?
I, said the Beetle,
with my thread and needle,
I'll make the shroud.
Who'll dig his grave?
I, said the Owl,
with my pick and shovel,
I'll dig his grave.
Who'll be the parson?
I, said the Rook,
with my little book,
I'll be the parson.
Who'll be the clerk?
I, said the Lark,
if it's not in the dark,
I'll be the clerk.
Who'll carry the link?
I, said the Linnet,
I'll fetch it in a minute,
I'll carry the link.
Who'll be chief mourner?
I, said the Dove,
I mourn for my love,
I'll be chief mourner.
Who'll carry the coffin?
I, said the Kite,
if it's not through the night,
I'll carry the coffin.
Who'll bear the pall?
We, said the Wren,
both the cock and the hen,
We'll bear the pall.
Who'll sing a psalm?
I, said the Thrush,
as she sat on a bush,
I'll sing a psalm.
Who'll toll the bell?
I said the bull,
because I can pull,
I'll toll the bell.
All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin.

Although the song is not recorded until the eighteenth century there is some evidence that it might be much older. The death of a robin by an arrow is depicted in a stained glass window at Buckland Rectory, Gloucestershire and the rhyme is similar to a story, Phyllyp Sparowe, written by John Skelton about 1508.

The use of the rhyme 'owl' with 'shovel', could suggest that it was originally used in older middle English pronunciation. Versions of the story appear to exist in other countries, including Germany.

A number of theories have been advanced to explain the meaning of the rhyme.
That the rhyme records a mythological event, such as the death of the god Balder from norse mythology, or the ritual sacrifice of a king figure, as proposed by early folklorists as in the 'Cutty Wren' theory of a 'pagan survival'.

That it is a parody of the death of William Rufus, who was killed by an arrow in the new forest in 1100.

That the rhyme is connected with the fall of the government of Robert Walpole in
1742, since Robin is a diminutive form of Robert and the first printing is close to the time of the events mentioned.

More recently internet speculation has associated the rhyme with Robin Hood, largely, it seems on the basis of a shared name.

All of these theories are based on perceived similarities in the text to legendary or historical events, or on the similarities of names. Peter Opie pointed out that an existing rhyme could have been adapted to fit the circumstances of political events in the eighteenth century. As with many such theories there is no textual or supportive evidence that the rhyme is connected to the selected events, or that the phrase 'Cock Robin' was used before the rhyme was first published.

And there’s so many, many more. Little Jack Horner, There was a Crooked Man, Georgie Porgy, Jack and Jill, the list goes on and on…

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t really find any erotic origins for nursery rhymes.

Suite 101 gives the lyrics for the Nursery Rhyme Goosey goosey gander. I had some hopes for this one. Surely here there was steamy sex.

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs.

But not so. The traditional interpretation of this rhyme regards it as an account of the religious upheaval in England during the sixteenth century.

The lady’s chamber is the private room of a high born lady. The lady in this rhyme, apparently had a ‘Priest Hole’ in her room to hide a Catholic Priest. A Priest Hole is a very small hidden room. Priest holes were necessary at this time because those found harbouring a priest were executed along with the priest.

The old man who wouldn’t say his prayers refers to the fact that Catholic Priests said their prayers in Latin instead of the using correct language for prayers which according to Protestants was in English. Those who did not ‘convert’ to the Protestant way were executed.

Of course, I could pick a Nursery Rhyme and give it an erotic reading, you can give anything an erotic reading. How about “Little Miss Muffet”? But it doesn’t really prove anything, other than that I’ve got a dirty mind.

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