TRADITIONAL BRITISH FOLK SONG
AMONGST those folk songs with the oldest links are undoubtedly those of magical significance, often associated with seasonal ceremonies. In order to put these songs in their proper perspective, we must necessarily digress to consider the wider foundations of British folk culture.
Central to early religion were the concepts of the Sky Father and Earth Mother, forming complementary axes of the cosmos.
Amongst the pre-Indo-European Mediterranids who spread the neolithic farming culture across Europe, attention was centred on the Earth Mother as a symbol of fertility. This tradition still survives amongst Southern European and other Roman Catholics with their cult of the Virgin Mary. The dual association of virginity and fecundity coupled with the idea of a miraculous birth was not original to Christianity.
The Mediterranid Sumerians had a 'pure (i.e. virgin) lady' who "gave birth painlessly to a number of deities after nine days of pregnancy" (p. 78, The Ancient Gods by E. O. James, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960).
From about 2,000 BC the Nordid Indo-Europeans burst across Europe in their horse-drawn chariots. These battleaxe bearers had a strong, authoritative, masculine, patriarchal warrior society and their religion laid emphasis on a supreme sun, sky and storm god, Dyaus Pitar.
The traditions of the conquerors and conquered merged, creating hybrid pantheons as well as hybrid populations. Nordic mythology, for example, had a hybrid pantheon consisting of the Aesir, who were Indo-European sky gods, and the Vanir, who were earth-bound fertility deities.
Their nomadic pastoral origins did not prevent the Nordid Indo-Europeans from developing and enjoying an intimate physical and psychological relationship with the soil, and where they settled and became farmers themselves they too turned to fertility deities.
In late Bronze Age and Iron Age Denmark prominence was given to a female deity. Describing some of the tribes of Denmark and Northern Germany circa 100 AD the Roman historian Tacitus related their worship of Nerthus, a typical Earth Mother goddess:
"... After them come the Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarini and Nuitones behind their ramparts of rivers and woods. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about these people in detail, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, or Earth Mother. They believe that she interests herself in human affairs and rides through their peoples. In an island of Ocean stands a sacred grove, and in the grove stands a car draped with a cloth which none but the priest may touch. The priest can feel the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies, and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her car is drawn by kine. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she honours with her advent and stay. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and then only, are peace and quiet known and prized, until the goddess is again restored to her temple by the priest, and when she has had her fill of the society of men. After that, the car, the cloth and, believe it if you will, the goddess herself are washed clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is allowed only to dying eyes." (From Chapter 40 of the Germania as translated by H. Mattingly in On Britain and Germany, Penguin, 1948).
When the Danish Viking descendants of some of these tribes were on the move, however, the Aesir sky gods had by then predominated over the Vanir earth gods. Although the priapic Frey was worshipped, the Viking raiders looked chiefly to the sky gods Thor, and – amongst the berserks – Odin.
When Christianity supplanted the old religions, it was the fertility aspects of these which people clung to most tenaciously. Discussing the conversion of Scandinavia, Bryindsted suggested that while Christianity triumphed because of its promises of hope and help for all, it took a long time to supplant the Aesir religion because:
"... the real strength of the old religion resided in such traditional elements as the fertility rites and practices. A change of gods at the summit of society might occur easily enough; but lower down the scale there was a natural resistance to any new religion which sought to interfere with the old religious habits and observances, based on experience of life's needs and the whole of existence, dating back thousands of years. Any changes at this level of society took a long time; and indeed the acceptance of Christianity in the North, as in the rest of Europe, only began to make real progress as and when Christianity took over old superstitions and usages and allowed them to live under a new guise." (The Vikings, Penguin, 1965, pp. 306-307).
This helps to explain how the pre-Indo-Furopean emphasis on fertility survived the introduction of Christianity better than the Indo-European sky gods. Thus while the female Earth Mother and the male Sky Father elements are both represented in British folklore, the female fertility aspect is rather better represented.
The pagan ceremonies, many of which are still observed today, originally marked the solstices and equinoxes, though many have become displaced in time and their customs interchangeable.
The central theme of such ceremonies, particularly the mid-winter ones, was the ritual marriage of the Sky Father and Earth Mother, and the Sky Father's death and resurrection. The celebration of this theme ― aimed at ensuring fertility in plants, animals and men ― took the form of sexual rites, sacrifice and fire ceremonies.
Amongst the most obvious examples of this cycle of death and resurrection are the seasonal fertility festivals of Christmas and Easter, which were misappropriated by the Christians and are still celebrated today complete with pagan customs ...
Yuletide is simply the mid-winter solstice: the death and resurrection of the sun. Christmas carols with an obvious magical invocation of abundance and fertility are the wassailing songs, 'wassail' being a corruption of the Old Norse drinking salutation ves heill meaning 'be in good health':
Here we come a-Wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering so fairly to be seen.
Now is winter-time, strangers travel far and near.
And we wish you and send you a happy New Year.
We hope that all your barley will prosper fine and grow,
So that you'll have plenty and a bit more to bestow.
We hope your wethers they grow fat and likewise all your ewes,
And where they had one lamb we hope they will have two.
Bud and blossom, bud and blossom, bud and bloom and bear,
So we may have plenty and cider all next year.
Hatfuls and in capfuls and bushel-bags and all,
And the cider running out of every gutter-hole.
Down here in the muddy lane there sits an old red fox,
Starving and a-shivering and licking his old chops.
Bring us out your table and spread it if you please,
And give us hungry wassailers a bit of bread and cheese.
I've a little purse and it's made of leather skin.
A little silver sixpence would line it well within.
Now is winter-time, strangers travel far and near,
And we wish you and send you a happy New Year.
The sacrifice of a year king, later replaced by a mock king and then an animal substitute, survived in the hunting and killing of a wren, with which a song entitled The Cutty Wren was associated.
Such rites were attacked by Church and authority "particularly in the rebellious period at the end of the Middle Ages when adherence to the forms of the Old Religion was taken to be evidence of subversion, and its partisans were violently persecuted in consequence." (Folk Song in England by A. L. Lloyd, p. 100).
Ironically enough, the ritual dismemberment and consumption of a sacrificed king is echoed throughout the year in the Christian sacrament of bread and wine.
Easter, which has been said to take its name from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, is a time for 'pace egging' which occurs in various parts of the country. In Preston and Scarborough brightly coloured hard-boiled eggs are rolled down slopes on Easter Monday, the egg being an obvious symbol of rebirth.
Elsewhere, such as at Sowerby Bridge, pace-egg 'mumming' plays are performed. These folk plays, such as St. George and the Dragon, are also associated with mid-winter and are basically concerned with the combat, death and resurrection of heroes.
Another seasonal fertility festival, which has been misappropriated, not in this instance by Christians, but by Communists, was May Day. Philip Stubbs' Anatomie of Abuses (1583) relates how communal orgies took place on May Day eve in Shakespeare's time. On May morning the young revellers would return from the woods with garlanded Maypoles, and sing special songs at every door, a practice analogous to the door-to-door singing of carols at Christmas time.
The following stanzas are from a May song quoted by Lloyd (p. 112):
The life of man is but a span,
He's cut down like the grass,
But here's to the green leaf of the tree
As long as life shall last.
Why don't you do as we have done,
The very first day of May,
And from our parents we have come to roam the woods so gay.
Besides the rabble of foreign students, rootless cosmopolitans and 'patriots of the Soviet Union' who shuffle through London on the official May Day holiday, May Day is still celebrated in traditional style on the actual first day of May in the Cornish village of Padstow where the celebrations begin at midnight on the 30th of April. When the clock strikes twelve a party of men and women gather outside a pub from where they make their way around the town, singing:
Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is icumen today,
And whither we are going we will all
unite, In the merry morning of May. etc.
After catching a few hours' sleep, the celebrants reform at about 10 o'clock and a hobby-horse is taken through the streets:
"The 'horse' is a fearsome creature, constructed out of black tarpaulin. It has a tall painted cap, a ferocious face-mask, flowing plume, and savage-looking jaws or 'snappers'." (p. 123, The Story of Cornwall by A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1934).
An illustration by George Cruikshank of how May Day used to be celebrated. Customs of pre-Christian pagan origin ― aimed at ensuring fertility in plants, animals and men ― are still observed in some parts of Britain.
The hobby-horse, or 'Oss as it is known, repeatedly sinks to the ground as though it is about to expire, and then ― after attention ― it revives. The crowd incites it to charge with the cry of " 'Oss, 'Oss, we 'Oss!", and the 'Oss responds by "chasing, catching and engulfing pretty girls in its hood." (A Year of Festivals by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd, Frederick Warne & Co., London, 1972). This is supposed to bring the girls luck ― that is plenty of children.
The horse, which features in a number of surviving folk customs and songs, has strong Indo-European connections and solar associations. Readers may recall the Scandinavian Bronze Age horse and solar disc rock carvings and model figurines ― such as the one found at Trundholm in north-west Zealand, though British readers will be more familiar with the famous chalk horses cut into English hillsides such as at Uffington in Berkshire.
Professor P. V. Glob states: "The idea of the horse-drawn sun on the blue fields of heaven is of Indo-European origin and is known from ... early Greek mythology. An echo of it is found two thousand years later in Viking mythology which tells of Skinfaxi, the horse with the shining mane, who draws the light of day each morning across the world of man."(p. 103, The Mound People, Faber and Faber, 1974).
Dr. Anne Ross notes: "... there is sufficient evidence from the British Isles, as from Gaul to show that for the Celtic peoples, as for the entire Indo-European world, the horse played an important role in the religious imagery of the pagan period." (p. 417, Pagan Celtic Britain, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967).
Another folk song concerned with fertility though not of a specifically seasonal nature is the Derby Ram, which depicts a beast of gigantic proportions, echoing the image of the genial horned god worshipped by the Celts and relegated by Christians to a manifestation of their devil:
As I went out in Derby,
'Twas in the month of May,
I spied the biggest ram, me lads,
That ever fed on hay.
And it's true, me lads,
It's true, me lads,
I've never been known to lie;
If you'd have been in Derby
You'd have seen it the same as I.
The wool on this ram's back, me lads,
It reached up to the moon;
A little boy went up in May,
And didn't come down till June.
The ram it had two horns, me lad,
And they were made of brass;
And one grew out of his head, me lads,
And the other grew out of his arse.
This ram it had great legs, me lads,
On them it did stand;
And every one of these great legs
It covered an acre of land.
The butcher that killed the ram, me lads,
Was drowned by the blood;
And the little boy that carried the bowl
Was washed away in the flood.
It took all the boys in Derby
To bear away his bones;
It took all the girls in Derby
To roll away his stones.
(A version quoted from Bawdy British Folk Songs, compiled an arranged by Tony McCarthy, Wolfe, 1972).
The cult of a horned god is often associated with cattle-breeding, the chief occupation of the ancient Indo-Europeans, but traces of such worship also go back to the hunters of Palaeolithic times.
Despite Christian suppression or the adoption of a Christian veneer, the songs and customs of seasonal ceremony and magic shine through as joyously and refreshingly pagan: free of the disarming and debilitating Judaeo-Christian doctrine of original sin, which still manifests itself today both in its original form and in the tortured 'we are all guilty' conscience of the modern liberal internationalist.
We will see later how the natural world, originally personified in the concept of the Earth Mother, continued to provide poetic imagery for the celebration in song of human eroticism and the eternal cycle of life and reproduction.