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About the Author
Liz Evers is a writer and is the author of I Told You I Was Ill: Dying for a Laugh, I Used to Know That: Shakespeare, and It's About Time.
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Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head
The Dark Side of Childhood Rhymes and Stories
By Liz Evers
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Liz Evers
All rights reserved.
SOWING SUPERSTITION: HOW TO TURN YOUR CHILD INTO A NEUROTIC
'Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with tales and old wives' fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history!'
– Charles Lamb
In his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim (1903–90) tells us that the dark themes in fairy tales (e.g. death, abandonment and imprisonment) help children to cope with their fears in symbolic terms and support their emotional growth. He says the stories provide a reassurance that, though a process may be difficult, things will be all right in the end and that fears and anxieties can be overcome, i.e. that one can live 'happily ever after'.
But in my experience fairy tales taught me not that good would win out in the end and all would be well, but that bizarre misfortunes could befall me at any moment and that creatures with magical powers bent on my destruction lurked unseen in every corner. The rhymes I rhymed off turned everyday items, animals and birds into potential sources of danger and taught me that just one sneeze could portend my doom.
Basically, I learned that the world is a terrifying place, governed by strange and opaque rules with woe betiding those who, for example, had the audacity to cut their nails on a Sunday or find themselves in the presence of a lone magpie.
PART I: NURSERY RHYMES
ONE FOR SORROW
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
Thanks to this rhyme and the associated superstition, children (and adults) have long been fearful of the sight of a lone magpie, frantically looking for a second, third or fourth magpie to save them from 'bad luck'.
A member of the much-maligned crow family, magpies are considered bad omens – and references to this long-standing superstition can be found from the sixteenth century onwards, in Western cultures anyway. In China and Korea, the magpie is seen as a symbol of good luck and good fortune.
Magpies are best known for stealing things, killing smaller birds and mimicking other birds' calls (well rattley, harsh-sounding ones anyway). The character of the thieving magpie shows up in the folklore of countries including Italy, France, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Sweden.
They are also associated with witchcraft in Britain. In Yorkshire, you might make the sign of the cross to ward off the evil associated with this pariah bird. While, in Scotland, a lone magpie lurking near the window of a house is meant to portend the passing of one of the inhabitants. And throughout England greeting the lone bird with 'Good morning/afternoon/evening, Mr Magpie, how is your lady wife today?' is considered a safeguard against ill fortune.
Legend has it that the magpie was the only bird that didn't sing to comfort Jesus on the cross. What comfort their rattling caw would have brought is another thing.
I had never understood why one magpie on its own would be bad luck or a source or sorrow. And why this misfortune could be negated by a few of the magpie's friends showing up. But then a superstition-loving friend told me about the rhyme's melancholic nature. Magpies mate for life – so, if you see one on its own, something unpleasant may have befallen its other half or, indeed, it may not yet have found its magpie love.
The best-known version of the rhyme counts just seven magpies. But there are many different versions of the One for Sorrow rhyme, some of them going as high as twenty magpies.
The very first recorded version of the rhyme is in John Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities published in 1780. It is short and bleak:
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
And four for death.
In some versions 'death' is swapped for 'birth', changing the meaning substantially to make a rhyme with 'mirth'.
The devil makes an appearance in some variations of the rhyme. In MA Denham's Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons (1846), we find:
One for sorrow,
Two for luck,
Three for a wedding,
Four for death,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Not to be told,
Eight for heaven,
Nine for hell,
And ten for the devil's own self!
Which has subsequently been shortened to:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral
Four for a birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven's the Devil his own self.
A version from Manchester adds the following additional lines to the usual seven, linking the devil with the number thirteen, maxing out the superstition quota for one rhyme:
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss
Eleven for health
Twelve for wealth
Thirteen beware it's the devil himself.
Putting aside this cruel abuse, magpies are thought to be not just one of the most intelligent birds, but one of the most intelligent creatures in the world – with an impressive brain that is big in all the right places. As well as being adept thieves and clever enough to hide from their predators, there are accounts of magpies opening locks, working together in groups (to fend off a cat for example) and even rescuing their own kind by communal airlifting to safety. They also build nests of twigs with a domed roof to protect them from predators (and presumably stash their stolen jewels).
A further superstitious proverb about magpies is found in the wildly popular 1840s book A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer: 'A single magpie in spring, foul weather will bring'.
THIS LITTLE PIG WENT TO MARKET
One for Sorrow is just one of many 'counting rhymes'. My favourite as a child was the 'Little Piggy' toe-counting rhyme, which involved gleeful foot tickling at the end. Thankfully, the rhyme I recall had a happier ending than the first printed version, which appeared in James Orchard Halliwell's The Nursery Rhymes of England in 1842:
This little pig went to market;
This little pig staid at home;
This little pig had a bit of bread and butter;
This little pig had none;
This little pig said, Wee, wee, wee!
I can't find my way home. ['All the way home'
in later, happier versions]
Another version in the same book sees one of the pigs' mothers meet a rather unusual end:
Let us go to the wood, says this pig;
What to do there? says that pig;
To look for my mother, says this pig;
What to do with her? says that pig;
Kiss her to death, says this pig.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Counting rhymes don't get creepier than the one that featured in the 1984 horror movie A Nightmare on Elm Street. It is based on the innocent original One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (first published 1805), which involves nothing more sinister than a 'big fat hen' at the end. The film version is sung by otherworldly little girls in white matching dresses playing jump-rope. We presume they are one-time victims of the burned-faced, knife-fingered Freddy Krueger. Their alternate lyrics run:
Freddy's coming for you.
Better lock your door.
Grab a crucifix.
Better stay up late.
Never sleep again.
SEE A PIN
See a pin and pick it up,
All the day you'll have good luck.
See a pin and let it lay,
Bad luck you'll have all the day.
This is a considerably nicer rhyme, albeit another that breeds superstition in the young, impressionable mind.
Pins were a relatively expensive item a few hundred years ago. So much so that in 1543 King Henry VIII passed an act banning the importation of pins from outside his kingdom in an effort to encourage more to be manufactured domestically. And these pins had to be of a certain quality too: 'no person shall put to sale any pinnes but only such as shall be double headed, and have the heads soldered fast to the shank of the pinnes, well smoothed, the shank well shapen, the points well and round filed, canted and sharpened'.
If a married woman needed to buy them, she might ask her husband for 'pin money'. So finding such an item by chance was indeed quite a lucky thing, and ignoring one
a little foolhardy. The rhyme has morphed into 'See a penny pick it up', which is more relevant to a contemporary audience – imbuing pennies with an extra good fortune not linked to their face value.
Pins are linked with several good and bad luck superstitions. A pin left in a wedding dress is thought to be very unlucky and to be prescient of ill fortune for the marriage ahead. Also, a pin found on a ship was feared by sailors as a potential source of a leak. On the other hand, pins were once thought to protect a household against witchcraft if stuck in a doorframe or placed under the floorboards.
Pins, needles and warts
When I was a child, my family used to go on Sunday outings to a place called Trim in County Meath in Ireland. The town is home to a once grand Norman castle as well as the impressive ruins of the thirteenth-century monastery, Newtown Abbey. In a graveyard near the monastery is the altar tomb of Sir Lucas Dillion and his wife Lady Jane Bathe, locally known as the 'Jealous Man and Woman'. This sixteenth-century couple are so named because of the sword that menacingly divides their reposing stone figures. Local legend has it that, if you leave a pin in one of the many rainwater puddles that gather on the tomb, any warts you have will disappear.
On a recent nostalgic visit to Trim, I saw that my old weather- beaten, ruff-wearing stone friends were still in situ. A great number of rusty, good luck pins fill the space between them, alongside the jealous sword.
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one who is called little Ann,
For she crept under the frying pan.
This rhyme conjured rather terrifying images for me as a child. I imagined a distraught ladybird learning that her home was ablaze and her children 'gone' – I assumed burned to death – while little Ann cowered under a frying pan for safety as the flames licked ever closer ...
Others may not have had the same panic-stricken reaction. And in another version of the rhyme it states that the children have 'flown' so have presumably escaped death by burning.
The rhyme was first published in 1865 but certainly predates that by at least 200 years, if not longer.
It is considered good luck to have a ladybird land on you, and killing one is bad luck. The ladybird has long been a friend to the farmer and gardener, eating aphids (green fly) and thus protecting their crops. So one explanation for the rhyme is that it serves as a gentle warning to ladybirds to leave the land at the end of the harvest when stubble may be set on fire to make way for the next crop. This rhyme is meant to be recited to one that lands on you before blowing it gently from your finger to help it on its way.
So far, so benevolent.
However, one theory of origin links the rhyme to the persecution of Catholics. Ladybirds represent the Virgin Mary ('Our Lady') or otherwise have holy connections in religious traditions in Britain, Ireland, Germany, Spain and France.
It is thought that the rhyme may serve as a warning to Catholics who refused to attend Protestant services in mid-sixteenth century Britain. This persecuted group instead conducted clandestine masses away from prying eyes, but those caught attending or officiating would face severe recrimination, including burning at the stake. There will be lots more on rhymes about the brutalising of Catholics by various British monarchs to follow in Chapter 3.
But none of this explains little Ann under the frying pan.
It would appear that Ann is a relic from some older rhyme still. Her name appears in a German version of the rhyme, which is quite similar to the English.
JACK BE NIMBLE
Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
Way back whenever (the rhyme was first published in 1798 but is of much older origin), jumping over a candlestick was supposedly a way of telling fortunes. The outcomes were pretty limited – if you jumped over it and the candle stayed alight, then good luck would be yours all year. If the candle went out ... bad luck. This odd ritual was usually performed at Christmas time or at weddings.
The jumping theme makes it an ideal companion for children's skipping games, especially when you include the additional verse:
Jack jumped high,
Jack jumped low,
Jack jumped over
And burned his toe.
So, on the surface, this is a relatively light-hearted little ditty about not much of anything – unless the candle goes out on your wedding day that is (and heaven forbid a pin is found in the bride's dress on the day too, see pin superstitions p23). But candle-leaping has its origin in the pagan tradition of fire-leaping to ward off evil spirits. Fires would have contained animal bones as an additional symbol of sacrifice to keep wickedness at bay. And indeed the word 'bonfire' (bone-fire) is thought to be derived from this practice.
Other theories of origin link the rhyme to the equally charming subjects of disease and piracy.
Yellow fever, also known as Yellow Jack, is a very dangerous and highly infectious disease which was rife in Europe from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century – and according to lore the feverish symptoms could be drawn out of the body with the heat of a good fire. It was also believed that the presence of a fire or candle could ward off the disease, and so, during epidemics, candles might be lit to keep the disease away from children – hence the connection with the rhyme.
Another theory of origin relates to a pirate called Calico Jack Rackham who did his marauding in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Known for his colourful clothing, Calico Jack's supposed quick-wittedness and nimble ways kept him out of the hands of the law – for a while anyway. He was eventually caught, and executed. Other sources say the nimble, law-evading pirate was one Black Jack, whose marauding took place in the sixteenth century.
CUT YOUR NAILS ON MONDAY
Cut your nails on Monday, cut them for news;
Cut them on Tuesday, a pair of new shoes;
Cut them on Wednesday, cut them for health;
Cut them on Thursday, cut them for wealth;
Cut them on Friday, cut them for woe;
Cut them on Saturday, a journey you'll go;
Cut them on Sunday, you'll cut them for evil,
For all the next week you'll be ruled by the devil.
This version is from The Home Book of Verse, Vol 1 edited by Burton Egbert Stevenson (1912). There are a few versions of this rhyme with different things associated with the different days, but cutting your nails on Sunday is always a bad thing to do. Friday's not great either.
In Japan, cutting your finger- or toenails at night is bad luck. And the bad luck is very specific. Clipping those nails in the evening may mean you will not be with your parents at their deathbeds.
I've heard tell of an old English superstition about not cutting a baby's nails before the age of one as it is meant to be bad luck. I suspect, however, that's just an excuse to chew off babies' fingernails, which, while it might sound a little disgusting, can be preferable to the nerve-wracking experience of using a clippers or scissors to trim the nails on those tiny, dainty fingers.
There is a very similar rhyme for sneezing, which also promises sorrow on a Friday and being bedevilled for a week if you're silly enough to sneeze on a Sunday.
RING-A-RING O' ROSES
Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Continuing the sneezing theme, this nursery rhyme has been around since at least the late eighteenth century, with similar versions in other European languages. It first appeared in print in 1881 and since the middle of the twentieth century has been associated with the 'Great Plague' of 1665 or even the Black Death of the 1340s. Sneezing and falling down are obvious signs of illness. It has further been suggested that the 'ring o' roses' is a red rash associated with the plague and that posies were used to cover the smell of the disease.
But modern folklorists reject this interpretation, chiefly because the symptoms don't match the disease. But whether they do or not, the rhyme has now been shared with several generations of children, including mine, in the belief that it was about the plague – and that's enough for me in terms of strange traditions to pass down to your children.
Excerpted from Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head by Liz Evers. Copyright © 2014 Liz Evers. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Sowing Superstition: How to Turn Your Child into a Neurotic,
Chapter 2: Sex Education: Chastity, Child Marriage and a Little Incest,
Chapter 3: History Lessons: Bloody Aristocrats, Rotten Royals, Politics and Class,
Chapter 4: Crime and Punishment: Execution, Sacrifice, Cannibalism and Other Acts of Cruelty,
Chapter 5: Model Families: Domestic Disharmony, Evil Stepmothers and Child Abandonment,
Index of Rhymes and Tales,