The claim that the rhyme is related to pestilence is even younger; the folklorists who diligently recorded the rhyme itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never mention the plague interpretation, although they surely would have had they known it. The first evidence I’ve seen that people were connecting the rhyme with death and disaster is from 1949, when the newspaper The Observer ran a parody of the rhyme beginning “ring-a-ring-o’-geranium, a pocketful of uranium” and referring to the bombing of Hiroshima.
Why mention this? It is just another example of the perils of looking for “ancient survivals” in folklore.
Then there is the Furry Dance itself. According to Ronald Hutton, the first mention of any Mayish activities in Helston is in 1600, but the dance is the last surviving Cornish Processional Dance (of which there were once many). It became popular, and formalised, in the nineteenth century, a legacy that remains, giving it the feel of something out of Trumpton.
There are four dances throughout the day, each processing right round the town and in and out of select shops and houses. They’re driven along by the Helston Town Band playing that tune.
If it’s a contender for the most irritating tune ever written then that’s only because some of us are old enough to remember Terry Wogan’s ghastly 1978 chart-topping rendition of the song (which is a later addition). In fact the tune is full of pomp and brilliantly infectious. It echoes round the streets and does the job of spurring the dancers on.
¶ Apuleius Platonicus tries to put to rest the idea that Hitler and his inner circle were some kind of Nazi Neo-Pagans with a post titled “Hitler Hated Heathens.”
I disagree though with his flip over to the position that Hitler was therefore pro-Christian. In fact, he regarded both Catholic and Lutheran clergy and those would revive ancient Germania as useful idiots — fine if they helped the cause; otherwise, they got a nice holiday at a camp in the countryside. Since the majority of Germans were Christians, it helped to have compliant clergy give the Nazi message a Christian garnish— pray for the troops, etc.
The shock value of Satanic transgression, ironically—and ideally—will lead to greater discussion about the place of religion in the public sphere. Will it lead to acceptance for marginalized groups? I’m not sure. But it illustrates quite clearly that the laws are for all.
Gwen Thompson (Craft name of Phyllis Healy), 1928–1986, founded the New England Coven of Traditional Witches in the late 1960s. It went on to have various offshoots.
Central to her position as founder of the NECTW tradition was a “grandmother story.” She claimed to have been taught “the Old Religion” (in Margaret Murray’s sense) by her grandmother, Adriana Porter (1857–1946), an underground Craft teaching that supposedly originated in the West of England, in Somerset. Porter was born in Nova Scotia, married William Healy, a bookkeeper and insurance broker, in 1888, and moved with him first to Rhode Island and then to Melrose, Mass. They had one son, Walter, Gwen’s mother’s first husband.
According to Gwen Thompson, her grandmother’s family “were carriers of a secret tradition of Folk Witchcraft,” although her mother had broken with it upon marrying her second husband. Nevertheless, by then Adriana had initiated her and given her the Craft name of Gwen. When Adriana died, Gwen found some of her papers, which she considered to be a Book of Shadows, and which she copied. But she always “refused to tell her initiates anything about the identity of her living relatives, saying, ‘They don’t want to talk to you!'”
Mathiesen faced one daunting obstacle — he was not allowed to look at Gwen’s Book, except for a part, the Rede (Old English for “counsel”) that had been published in the Pagan magazine Green Egg in 1975. Most of the Rede is traditional folk wisdom, such “With the fool no season spend / or be counted as his friend.” Other couplets contain wisdom more appropriate to seamen in the days of sail rather than farmers, which could connect them with a port such as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
The collection as published starts and finished with other couplets that sound a great deal like Gerald Gardner or Doreen Valiente. As Mathiesen writes, they “use the false archaism Wiccan and strongly echo Gardner’s form of Wicca.”
Mathisen researched Adriana Porter’s family history extensively, and he notes that when she came to the Boston are in the 1880s, she had the leisure and income to have investigated Spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and other esoteric currents in that city. Since this book’s publication, he has found hints that she might have known Paul Foster Case, in the 1920s. Case was a ceremonial magician and founder of the mystery school Builders of the Adytum, which still exists.
But the so-called Old Religion? The authors conclude that between 19 and 21 of the 26 couplets in the Rede might well have been written down by Adriana Porter, or else some other 19th-century person. The rest, those that give it a Wiccan flavor, were added almost certainly by Gwen Thompson.
It is another example of what I call “the Gardnerian magnet.” Because books by Gardner and his associates became available from 1957 on, many people not part of that initiatory lineage “borrowed” from it heavily.
Adriana had opportunities to become well acquainted with various occult and esoteric teachings. But there is nothing to prove that she carried forward a deep ancestral tradition of Witchcraft as an alternative religion.
My own larger conclusion is that I still have seen no credible evidence for anyone practicing a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft prior to 1951 in the English-speaking world.* What we find, instead, are cases such as these:
A Craft leader drops bits of information about their own or an ancestor’s involvement in an esoteric school, ceremonial magical group, etc. and passes that off as an ancestral tradition. Such may well have been the case with Gwen Thompson.
A person’s ancestor knew herbalism, root-working, card-reading or other divination, spell-casting, water-witching, conjuring, astrology, etc. — even in a Christian context — and their descendent describes this involvement as an ancestral tradition of Witchcraft in order to legitimize their own position in the new religion of Pagan Witchcraft.
Research projects such as The Rede of the Wiccae are needed, therefore, to settle some of these historical questions — inasmuch as they can be settled — and free scholarship on contemporary Paganism to view it through other lenses.
Religion scholar Philip Jenkins has suggested these two sources—contemporary Satanic Panic and the “weird tales” of pulp horror—are connected. He suggests that it was the weird tales authors of the 1920s, notably Lovecraft and Herbert Gorman, who first introduced the idea of secret, murderous cults into the American consciousness.
From time to time, I’m asked if The Long-Lost Friend has anything to do with hex signs, those beautiful star and flower figures that decorate the barns across much of eastern Pennsylvania and adjacent areas where German settlers made their homes. The answer is, “Not really,” with a follow-up about the possibility of a mystical link that might or might not be present. Hex Signs provides us with answers to these questions, and much more.
Here is the table of contents of the latest Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics ( vol. 7, no. 1 ), published in Finland, “a multidisciplinary forum for scholars. Addressed to an international scholarly audience, JEF is open to contributions from researchers all over the world. JEF publishes articles in the research areas of ethnology, folkloristics, museology, cultural and social anthropology.”
Sound is so fundamental to life that some scientists now think there’s a kernel of truth to folklore that holds humans can commune with plants. And plants may use sound to communicate with one another.
Do beetles eavesdrop on drought-stressed pine trees? Maybe so.
I don’t know if the custom of hiding used shoes and clothing in a house under construction to ward off evil influences ever crossed the pond to North America from Britain. If you know of instances—or of people still doing it—let me know in the comments.
I think a key issue for me was that transmission of symbols, images and ideas from the pagan past are very fragmentary, complex and ambivalent. People are very quick to throw the “Pagan Survival” label around because they so badly need to feel a connection to the past and a feeling of pastness in what they do. People can also be very quick to deny connection to a Pagan past when debunking. One thing that was really apparent to me when doing my research on the Black Dog of Bungay from a local history perspective, was that it is not a zero sum game. Let’s look at the Black Dog of Bungay for example. There are fragments in the myth from the Celts, Vikings and Romans for example. However, if I was to speak to a 16th century Puritan in Bungay he may not even know what a Celt was and would certainly take offense at the suggestion his view of the attack on St Mary’s church by a Black Dog or “Devile in such a likenesse” was Pagan.
He makes some interesting points about how folklore incorporates outside interpretations, digesting them, and presenting them as truly indigenous and original. Worth a read.
The story of Little Red Riding Hood, usually dated to the 16th or 17th century, may be much older, says an anthropologist who studied multiple versions from around the world.
Professor Jack Zipes, a retired professor of German at the University of Minnesota who is an expert on fairy tales and their origins, described [Dr. Jamie Tehrani’s] work as “exciting”. He believes folk tales may have helped people to pass on tips for survival to new generations.
He said: “Little Red Riding Hood is about violation or rape, and I suspect that humans were just as violent in 600 BC as they are today, so they will have exchanged tales about all types of violent acts.
“I have tried to show that tales relevant to our adaptation to the environment and survival are stored in our brains and we consistently use them for all kinds of reference points.”
I had heard it argued lot of the classic European fairy tales reflect the social destruction of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648)–disease, fighting, looting.
But apparently “Little Red Riding Hood” counts as ancient Pagan wisdom.