I received a comment from reader Chet the other day which inspired this particular blog post. So, many thanks, Chet! He mentioned that he’s been listening to his daughter’s music, which includes many nursery rhymes, and hearing not-so-subtle references to fairly adult topics (such as the sexual undercurrents in a song like “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”). This idea may be old hat to some, but I thought it might be worth taking a few nursery rhymes and dropping them into the cauldron to see what bubbled up. Please note that my witchy exegesis here may be entirely wrong, but it may also provide some new perspectives on old songs and rhymes. I welcome all comments on these interpretations (well, all civil comments, that is).
You can find a great list of Mother Goose rhymes here, along with some brief explanations of each one.
Now, onto the rhymes!
Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over
This little rhyme was first published in the 18th century, according to one source. It may have referred to a clever and quick pirate called “Black Jack,” but it also likely has something to do with the practice of jumping over fires, as is sometimes done at May Day (or Beltane) celebrations. In these instances, the leaper jumps over a bonfire in order to gain blessings—like fertility and an easy birth for women—or protection, or to purify one ritually. Afterwards, the ashes would be scattered over the fields to ensure a fertile crop. In its diminished form with a candle-stick, a person could leap the candle forwards and backwards three times (or nine times in some cases) while asking for such blessings, and if the candle remained lit, the wish would be granted. This might make for an interesting spell, though I cannot recommend it for safety reasons—if you choose to do it, you do so at your own risk and would be well advised not to wear loose-fitting or flowing clothes.
Peter Pumpkin Eater
Peter Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her!
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well!
This rhyme fits in very well at New World Witchery, because it originates in North America. While many nursery rhymes came from the UK, the mention of the pumpkin in this one tells of its roots (pumpkins are a New World fruit unknown in Europe prior to the colonial era). But what is it all about? Well, if a man has a wife he can’t “keep,” it means that she is being generally unfaithful to him, and turning him into a cuckold. My take on this particular rhyme is that our good fellow Peter knows of his wife’s infidelity and decides to put a stop to it. He does this by putting something of hers—likely something very intimate like used underclothes—into a pumpkin shell, which as it rots, prevents her from being able to dally with other men. This sort of spell is common enough in hoodoo, and is generally referred to as binding someone’s “nature” so they cannot sexually perform with another partner. This is my take only, of course, and your mileage may vary.
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
This rhyme is used, according to some, as a way of chastising children who do not see the consequences of their actions. I certainly agree that in that light, this rhyme is a wonderful didactic tool. However, I also like to think there’s something a little more magical that can be gleaned from this little bit of lore. For example, there is a great deal of sympathetic magic which focuses on using something small, like a poppet, to affect something bigger, like a person. Examined thusly, this chant might be a great way to amplify magical activity. For example, if you were trying to banish something—like a disease—you could take something from the ill party (hair, fingernails, or clothing worn while sick) and bind it into a charm which might be buried, burned, or otherwise permanently disposed of while chanting this rhyme. In this way, you’d be telling the disease that it no longer has the power to ravage the entire body, because you’ve taken away a part of the “body” from it. The disease would then give up, having lost its “kingdom.” The healing example may be a bit of a stretch, though, as the primary way I can see this little spell being used is to banish unwanted persons from your life.
Pat a cake, Pat a cake, baker’s man
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Pat it and prick it and mark it with a ‘B’,
And put it in the oven for Baby and me.
I see two ways that this lovely little rhyme might be given a magical connotation: 1) By baking food and marking it with someone’s initial, you’re essentially creating a poppet of that person, which can be used in many kinds of spells, or 2) This could be a lovely way to help someone with fertility or family blessings, as having a “bun in the oven” is a common euphemism for pregnancy. In this latter case, when the mother-to-be devours the cake marked with an initial (perhaps the future baby’s, or her own if she hasn’t picked a name yet), she would be putting the “baby” in her belly. A newly pregnant mother might also do a spell based on this to ensure a healthy baby, and a new mother might then play this game with her child as a way of continuing the blessing for her child (as well as endlessly amusing the little one, which is really what I think this rhyme is all about in the end).
There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.
And they all lived together in a little crooked house
Finally, we come to one of my personal favorites. I know that some interpretations put a meaning on this rhyme referring to the unification of Scotland and English under a single ruler, but I tend to think of the rhyme in more esoteric terms. The repetition of the word “crooked” seems to be almost a mantra, or a chant for moving into another state of mind. And I think that the “crooked mile” could well be the “crooked path” of witchcraft. The “crooked stile” is likely the gateway between worlds, too. So my best use of this charm is to act as a “road opener” between the mundane world and the world of spirits. There are also plenty of stories about paying a “tithe to hell” before crossing over (see Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer), and it’s usually something nominal (or at least, something that seems nominal at the time), so a sixpence would fit the bill. I also wonder if the crooked house is the proverbial witch’s cottage, or something a little more significant. Perhaps the “house” is the line down which a tradition is passed? And because that line sometimes veers out of strict blood ties and into adoptive relationships, it could be seen as a “crooked house.” Of course, these are all just my speculations, but I like them.
I could go on and on with these rhymes, looking at them through the lens of witchcraft, and probably find something of value in most any nursery rhyme I read. However, it’s probably best to say here that just because I interpret something with a witchy twist doesn’t mean that historically it has any such meaning. In many cases, these rhymes are just entertainments for the very young, and a bit of whimsy for the slightly less young. I like to think that magic and childhood go together, though, so I will happily continue scouring these rhymes for a bit of hidden wonder. If you do the same, I’d love to hear what you come up with!
Thanks for reading!