Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Rhymes Older than Gods

This is all from the Oxford DIctionary of Nursery Rhymes;

[Line breaks added by my and Umlauts and other things I can't easily repoduce removed in transcription as adding them back in was a bitch.]

Image by Darrell Raw


"Ladybird, ladybird,
Fly away home,
Your house is on fire
And your children all gone;

All except one
An that's little Ann
And she has crept under
The warming pan."

Child's warning to the ladybird. Traditionally the insect is set on a finger before being addressed. This is what the present writers used to do, and what a woodcut of the reign of George II depicts. When the warning has been recited (and the ladybird blown upon once), it nearly always happens that the seemingly earthbound little beetle produces wings and flies away.

The names by which it is popularly known in this and other countries show that it has always had sacred associations: 'Lady-bird' (from Our Lady's bird), 'Marygold', 'Gods Little Cow', 'Bishop that burneth'; the German 'Marienkafer' and 'Himmelskuchlichen'; the Swedis 'Marias Nyckelpiga', the Russian 'Bozhia korovka', the French 'Bete a bon Dieu', the Spanish 'Vaquilla de Dios', and the Hindu 'Indragopa.'

The rhyme is undoubtedly a relic of something once posessed of an awful significance. It is closely matched by incantaations known in France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden, sometimes even to the detail of the name Ann:

Goldchaber, flug uf, uf dine hoche Tanne,
Zue diner Muetter Anne.
Si git dir Chas und Brod,
's isch besser as der bitter Tod.

Another German version is:

Himmelskuchlichen, fleig aus!
Dein Haus brennt,
Deine Kinder weinen alle miteinander.

And in France, where the words are also addressed to the cockchafer:

Vole au firmament bleu,
Ton nid est en feu,
Les Turcs avec leur epee
Vont te tuer ta couvee.
Hanneton, vole, vole,
Hanneton, vole.

Varieties of the Coccinella are found in most parts of the world, and are almost everywhere regarded as friendly. To kill one is unlucky. This would seem to rule out the hypothesis that a witch or evil spirit is represented and that the rhyme is a form of exorcism. (A much-practised method of ridding oneself of witches was to tell them that their dwelling was on fire.)

A theory in Germany is that the rhyme originated as a charm to speed the sun across the dangers of sunset, the house on fire symbolizing the red evening sky. In the Rosicrucians the beetle is compared with the Egyptian Scarab and the rhyme thought to be a remnant of beliefs associated with Isis. It has also been pronounced to be a relic of Freya worship. In England country children also employ the insect for divination."


"Snail, snail,
Come out of your hole,
Or else I'll beat you
As black as a coal.

Snai, snail,
Put out your horns,
I'll give you bread
And barley corns.

This chant is comparable to 'Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home' (q.v.) in its inexplicableness and probable antiquity. The rhyme was said, or sung, or sometimes the snail was held at arms length and swung round. Douce says (c. 1805), 'It was probably the custom, on repeating those lines, to hold the snail to a candle, in order to make it quit the shell. In Normandy it was the practice at Christmas for boys to run round fruit-trees, with lighted torches, singing these lines:

Taupes et mulots,
Sortez de vos clos,
Sinon vous bruerai et la barbe et les os.'

This conjuration of field-mice and moles was still eployed in France in the present century, the summons sometimes being lengthier:

Taupe et mulot,
Sor de mon clos,
Ou je casse les os;
Barbassione! Si tu viens dans mon clos,
Je te brule le barbe jusqu'aux os.

On the first Sunday in Lent (la Fete des Brandons ou des Bures) the peasant walked through the fields and orchards with lighted torches of twisted straw, accompanying their threats with discordant tin horns and cat-calls, in order to be rid of the pests. A similar motive may have provoked the threat to the snail.

Chambers (1842) remarks 'In England, the snail scoops out hollows, little rotund chambers, in limestone, for its residence. This habit of the animal is so important in its effects, as to have attracted the attention of geologists, one of the most distinguished of whom (Dr. Buckland) alluded to it at the meeting of the British Association at Plymouth in 1841. The ... rhyme is a boy's invocation to the snail to come out of such holes.' Chambers adds that in Scotland good weather is prognosticated by the creature appearing to obey the injunction,

Snailie, snaile, shoot out your horn,
And tell us if it will be a bonny day the morn.

Whatever is the significance of the snail to engender such invocations, it must lie deep in the history of the world. The diversity of languages in which the rhyme is found is almost unparalleled. JOH quotes equivalents from Denmark and Germany; a writer in _Notes & Queries_ (1851) from Naples and Silesia. Countess Evelyn Martinengo-Cesaresco (1886) adds verses from France, Tuscany, Russia, Roumania, and China. The call is also known in Spain.

The English rhyme is found in print from 1744 onwards, and may have been referred to by Shakespeare. In The Merry Wives of Windsor (IV.ii) Mistress Page tells how Mr. Ford, considering himself a cuckold, 'buffets himself on the forehead crying, "Peer out, peer out", meaning, appear horns. A version of the rhyme still known is,

Peer out, peer out, peer out of your hole,
Or else I'll beat you as black as a coal."

There is more information in the notes for both entries but there is a lot of it and its dense.

Points of curiosity.

  • Both Living Things. Not pure objects or integrated natural events like rain or whatever.
  • Both Haptic Rituals. Both are small enough to hold in, or on the hand. And on the hand of a child. And they are common and slow enough that a child can get hold of them easily.
  • Both Transform. The Ladybird looks like a slow, plodding, earth-bound, but colourful thing, then turns into this flying dot with blurs for wings and disappears out of vision into the air. The snail is hard and smooth, regular, fluidly geometrical, like a perfect stone. But inside is this cthonic *thing* strange, alien, mysterious and slimy.
  • Air and Earth. One from deep in the earth, but appears on the ground. Could be a stone but isn't. It's ritual involves threats and bribery to get what you want. The other beautiful, appears on earth but transforms into air, its ritual is sad but noble. This is a "good" avatar of something.


  1. In portuguese, the ladybird is called Joaninha (Little Joana [fem. of John]). I could not find who is this Joana but found a rhyme:

    Joaninha voa, voa (Ladybird fly away, fly away)
    Que o teu pai foi para Lisboa (Your father went to Lisbon)
    Que lá está tua madrinha (There is your godmother)
    Que te dá pão e sardinha (Who gives you bread and sardine)

    1. This could be reference to Joanna of Castile, daughter of Maximilian I (Emperor of Portugal at the time).

      Really had done by lady, inheritor of several kingdoms, declared insane by husband then son, with later evidence suggesting that she was sane, just locked up & tortured so that she wouldn't be able to have a hand in running the kingdoms she owned.

      Or it could be an unrelated Joana, who knows!

  2. We were told that if a ladybug landed on you, the number of spots was the number of years until you met your True Love. Also, if it flew away, your True Love would come from that direction.

    For all I know it could be 100% reliable; I don't think anyone has audited the results.

  3. Swedish: Flyg, flyg, nyckelpiga/ I morgon blir det vackert väder/ Då får du nya kläder (Fly, fly, ladybug/ Tomorrow the weather will be fair/ Then you'll get new clothes)

  4. "She will give you Cheese and Bread/ which is better than a bitter death." German is such a pretty language.

  5. And it's probably "Himmelskäferlein, flieg aus!". I can't find "Himmelskuchlichen" anywhere.

    1. Himmelskuchlichen (with an umlaut over the U) is direct from the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes so you may complain to them if you wish.

    2. I shall! (I kid.) Then I extend my apologies. On more thing, which you probably know: The German language has the option of transcribing Umlauts into double vowels: Ä = ae, ö = oe, ü = ue. So if you are understandably to lazy to copypaste Umlauts, that's another possibility. Cheers!

  6. In russian it goes:
    Ladybug fly to the sky.
    Bring me bread.
    Black or white
    As long as it not burned.

  7. It's often been suggested that 'burning/barn' part of the 'Bishy-Barny-Bee' is named for Bishop Bonner, a Catholic bishop in the reign of Mary Tudor, who had previously been a vicar at East Dereham in Norfolk. The story I was told (may not be true of course) was that he was an amateur entomologist and studied the things, but of course, that would be before he became a Bishop. Still, there may be some connection between the burning of the Ladybird's house and the fact that the children are gone, and Bonner's presiding over the burning the burning of Protestants and the fact that as a Catholic he didn't have any family. But as the German version also mentions burning, it seems unlikely, unless it was taken to Germany in the 1500s by Protestants fleeing the persecutions. As there's no indication when that German version originated it's difficult to demonstrate.

  8. Hi, this image is my intellectual property.
    I'm not requesting a take-down as this is non-commercial use and I'm not a complete ass, but please credit me in the caption. Thanks.

    1. Sorry Darrell, took me a while to see this comment as blogger isn't informing me when they turn up. Will amend and put in your link. My apologies.