Saint Lucy: the beginning of the Winter Solstice

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December 13 marks the beginning of Christmas in Sweden and Norway, the day on which Saint Lucy is celebrated: a messenger of light just like its name (lux, lucis). In Italy it is said “Saint Lucy the shortest day there is” but in reality it was once, with the old Julian calendar, when the feast fell at the Winter Solstice. The confusion arose with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar which restored time, but eliminated a number of days from the old calendar.


Lucy was a Sicilian Christian girl lived in the last twenty years of the years of 200 BC and rather than marrying a pagan she preferred the martyrdom. In fact, a Lucy was martyred in Syracuse during the persecution of Diocletian, but no one knows how or why.


The popular fantasy has then grafted onto the pseudo-historical narrative the legend that Lucy took her eyes out, qualifying her as a protector of sight; so she is portrayed with the cup that contains her eyes.
The saint is one of the many variants of Demeter the Greek goddess who in the Eleusinian rites was connected to the myth of death and rebirth of Mother Nature (Demeter and Core or Persephone): so at the winter solstice anciently in Sicily (or Magna Graecia) Demeter, the goddess of light, was invoked to bring back the light and abundance of the crops.

St Lucy and the Donky

Before Santa became the international dispenser of gifts for children, it was Saint Lucy who flew over snow-covered fields with a crown of light over her hair, and still today in some regions of Italy (for example in western Trentino, in the Veneto, in the Bergamasco and in the Brianza) Saint Lucy is expected, who passes in the night between 12 and 13 December riding her donkey to bring gifts to the children. To send the impatient children to bed, who wanted to stay awake to see the Saint, they were frightened by saying that she would blind them with the ashes of the fireplace without leaving the gifts. So the saint performs the same functions of the Italian Befana: she rewards good children with small gifts, sweets and nougats, but also dried fruits and oranges, instead she only brings coal for the bad children.
The veneration of the Saint from the South to the North of Italy is linked to the tortuous path of her relics especially in the Middle Ages under the Republic of Venice. The body of the saint, taken in ancient times by the Byzantines in Syracuse, was subsequently stolen by the Venetians when, having left for the Crusades, they sacked Constantinople instead. Today the body is preserved and venerated in the church of San Geremia in Venice.

St Lucy in Sweden and Miss Lucy

Questa immagine ha l'attributo alt vuoto; il nome del file è FMA-Santa-Lucia-2.jpgIn the Scandinavian land also the Lutheran Church celebrates the Saint: in Sweden in her honor, the eldest daughters of the family rise before dawn, dressed in a white nightgown and crowned with branches of holly or ivy and 7 or 12 lighted candles. They bring, helped by the little ones (who represent the stars), the breakfast for the adults of the house, that is black coffee and a special sweet called in Swedish Lussekatt. In theory, sweets should be prepared the same morning, but more often they are only baked those prepared the day before are served. The children line up behind Lucy, the only one with the crown of candles, in procession (luciatåget or Lucy’s train), they sing traditional songs and the inevitable Luciasången.

The custom was born in the 1700s among the upper-middle class families of the area around Lake Vänern, and now it has become the occasion of the election of Miss Lucy, so the cities of Sweden on 12 and 13 December swarm with beautiful girls, in white dressing gowns with a red belt at the waist, who singing the song of Saint Lucy and waving in supermarkets and churches, offering smiles and cookies. So even if the day is not considered a holiday it is as if it were because in schools and offices everything is a luciatåget, traditional choirs and sweets.

Feast of Light

triumph of candles, processions, songs..

Over time so many meanings linked to the solstitial day have been stratified, so the day has remained essentially a feast of light: large bonfires, parades with torches and many ceremonies full of lit candles to symbolize the victory of light over darkness; Lucy is the guardian of the shortest day of the year (and therefore she is blind) but at the same time she is the witnesses the passage of darkness to light, because after the solstice the hours of light gradually begin to increase, thus lengthening the duration of the day !

The song of Saint Lucy (Luciasången), that the Swedes sing with so much fervor, is none other than the very Italian “Santa Lucia” or the Neapolitan song written by Teodoro Cottrau (Neapolitan of French origins if we really want to quibble); the original song has nothing to do with the Saint, but with a popular neighborhood of Naples, watched by the boatman who enjoys the beautiful view from the Gulf of Naples and is moved to see his “Santa Lucia“.

On the song, however, a dispute arose, other sources report that the text was written by Baron Michele Zezza and published by Cottrau as publisher and composer for the musical part, subsequently translated into Italian by Cottrau himself to celebrate the unity of Italy. However, the version that made the song famous worldwide was that of the poet and journalist Enrico Cossovich (1822-1911)

Italian versions: Santa Lucia


Elvis Presley from “Elvis for Everyone” 1965

Sul mare luccica
l’astro d’argento.
Placida è l’onda;
prospero è il vento.
Venite all’agile
Barchetta mia!
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia


The text of the Swedish Saint Lucy is obviously different from the Neapolitan barcarola, all focused on the solstice day: it is the invocation of a heavenly goddess of light so that it descends to earth to make it reborn.

The Scandinavian tradition seems to have begun in 1764, when a priest in Vestergotland said he was awakened, in the middle of the night, by a mysterious song. Upon awakening he saw two young girls dressed in white, one with a silver candelabra lit and the tall woman who was preparing breakfast on the table. Gradually the procession of children from the first homes of the aristocratic families of Skane spread throughout Sweden in churches, schools, hospitals, senior centers and in various workplaces where Lucy and her bridesmaids bring gifts and sing songs .
At the windows there are candle which, with the heat of the flame, make the paper music boxes rotate higher up. Another very common decoration is the crown of wheat decorated with red berries and lighted candles (so as not to forget the bond with Demetra).
Questa immagine ha l'attributo alt vuoto; il nome del file è image.jpegThe tradition had become so popular that in 1927 a Stockholm newspaper had the idea of ​​inaugurating the first competition among readers to vote for the most beautiful Lucy. Since then, every year a Lucy is elected in each city and the “Lucy” of the Year is crowned in Stockholm by a Nobel Prize for literature. Not only that, the Lucy who wins the Miss contest flies to Syracuse to participate in the Sicilian celebrations.

But the celebration of St. Lucia in the Scandinavian countries has deep roots: in addition to the memory of the saint, they celebrate the light that decreases until the next winter solstice; the flames of the crown candles on Lucia’s head are the light that dies and then returns; the white tunics are the symbol of virginity as the sacred vestals guardians of the fire; the processions are a ritual omen of the nativity and of the expectation for the nascent life, in the new seasonal cycle. So 12 are the days that separate Saint Lucy from Christmas as twelve are the days of Christmas until the feast of the Epiphany.

The Lussekatters

lussekatterThe Lussekatters (Saint Lucy cats) are saffron brioches with the characteristic “S” shape. They are very yellow but not very sweet. It seems that the origin of the recipe is German, dating back at least to the Renaissance: the original shape of the sandwiches was the swastika, a well-known solar archetypal symbol, but after the disastrous associations of the symbol with the Nazis even the scones changed shape, they are become half-crosses with the ends rolled in a spiral and with a raisin in the middle of the two ends (perhaps representing the eyes torn from the saint).
Obviously the confectionery specialties do not end there, there are also the Lucy-pepparkakor, gingerbread cookies decorated with sugar icing: they are spicy biscuits with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and ginger with a strong taste. a little bitter. They are more generally called ginger snaps or gingerbreads. In general, the dough is rolled thin to give more crunchiness to the biscuit and cropped into the classic heart and star shapes but also of the little man, reindeer, moose, horse, fir and squirrel.

The Christmas Storke [La Cicogna di Natale]

The legend comes from the English Renaissance and became a Christmas song entitled “The Storke (The Christmas Storke)”
La narrazione arriva del Rinascimento inglese ed è diventata una canzone di Natale dal titolo “The Storke (The Christmas Storke)”

Katie McMahon in Christmas Angels 2010

The storke she rose on Christmas eve,
And sayde unto her broode,
“I now must fare to Bethlehem
To view the Sonne of God.”
She gave to each his dole of mete
She stowed them farely in,
And far she flew and fast she flew
And came to Bethlehem.
“And where is he of Davids line? “
She asked at house and hall.
“He is not here, -they spoke hardly,-
But in a manger stall.”
She found Him in manger stalle
With that most holy Mayde,
The gentle storke she wept to see
The Lord so rudely laid.
Then from her panting breast she plucked
The feathers white and warm,
She strewed them in the manger bed
To keep the Lord from harm.
“Now blessed be the gentle stork
For evermore”, quoth He
“for that she saw my sadde estate,
and showed me such pity.”
“full welcome shall she ever be
In hamlet and in halle,
And called henceforth the ‘blessed bird’
And friend of babies all”.
Traduzione italiano Cattia Salto
La cicogna si alzò la Vigilia di Natale
e disse ai suoi figlioli
“Devo andare subito a Betlemme
per vedere il figlio di Dio”
Diede a tutti loro del cibo,
li riparò dal freddo;
e volò di corsa
per venire a Betlemme
“Dov’è il discendente della casa di Davide?”
chiese nelle case e nelle locande.
“Non è qui- risposero con asprezza-
ma nella mangiatoia di una stalla”
Lo trovò nella mangiatoia
con la più santa delle fanciulle
e la buona cicogna pianse tanto nel vedere
il Signore giacere così scomodo.
Allora dal suo petto ansante strappò
le piume bianche e calde,
e le sistemò nel giaciglio
per proteggere il Signore dal freddo
“Sia benedetta la buona cicogna
per sempre -disse-
perchè vide le mie tristi condizioni
e si mosse a pietà.
Sarà sempre benvenuta
nei villaggi e nelle case
e chiamata l’uccello benedetto,
amico di tutti i bambini”


Christmas in Killarney

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“Christmas in Killarney” combines a festive music with the most genuine Christmas tradition in South Ireland.

The text was composed in 1950 by the Americans John Redmond, James Cavanaugh and Frank Weldon, but Killarney is a tourist town (perhaps too crowded in the summer season) located in Ireland, in the county of Kerry, province of Munster: the town is pretty, “very picturesque” surrounded by the Killarney National Park , a true paradise, with breathtaking waterfalls and lakes and the inevitable castle, the Ross Castle.
The Christmas celebrations are particularly lively with float parades, an always open ice rink, Santa’s House and Christmas market stalls, and lots of music.


In Ireland it was customary to put a lighted candle in front of the window on Christmas Eve to welcome Mary and Joseph. It was also the way to signal to priests, in the period in which it was forbidden, that in that house they could enter to give the blessing.
Tradition has it that the candle is lit by the youngest member of the family and turned off by a girl named “Mary” (at one time the name was very common in Irish families). After dinner on the eve the table is prepared again with cumin and raisin bread in the middle, a jug of milk and a lit candle, leaving the front door ajar, so that Mary and Joseph or any tramp, can come in and sit down table to have a refreshment.

Irish Rovers

Barra McNeils

The holly green, the ivy green (1)
The prettiest picture you’ve ever seen
Is Christmas in Killarney
With all of the folks at home.
It’s nice, you know, to kiss your beau
While cuddling under the mistletoe (2)
And Santa Claus you know, of course
Is one of the boys from home.
The door is always open (3)
The neighbors pay a call
And Father John before he’s gone
Will bless the house and all (4).
Our Hearts are light, our spirits bright
We’ll celebrate our joy tonight
It’s Christmas in Killarney
With all of the folks at home
We’ll decorate the Christmas tree (5)
While all the family’s here
Around a roaring fire (6)
We will raise a cup of cheer (7)
There’s gifts to bring and songs to sing
And laughs to make the rafters ring
It’s Christmas in Killarney
With all of the folks at home
We’ll take the Horse and Sleigh (8)
All across the fields of snow
Listening to the jingle bells
And everywhere we go
How grand it feels to click your heels (9)
And dance away to the jigs and reels
It’s Christmas in Killarney
With all of the folks at home
The holly green, the ivy green
The prettiest picture you’ve ever seen
I’m handing you no blarney
No matter where you roam
It’s Christmas in Killarney
With all of the folks at home
1) decorating the house for the festivities of mid-winter is an ancient custom, maintained in the Middle Ages, till today (cf)
2) the kiss under the mistletoe has remote origins, perhaps dating back to the Saturnalia or the Celts. Of all the hypotheses, all what refers to the Scandinavian myth of Balder’s death is the most likely. The custom, as an auspicious gesture, is historically found in the Tudor era in the twelve days of Christmas. In the nineteenth century when it was a curse for women to remain unmarried, there were many superstitious gestures to be observed all year round, but in particular on New Year’s Eve: that of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe with anyone who came within range was auspicious for an imminent engagement and if you did it with your boyfriend you were already certain of the wedding!
Once you could give as many kisses as the berries of the mistletoe bush, but now you can kiss at will without removing the berries to count the kisses.
3) we refer not only to the exchange of visits between neighbors and acquaintances, but also to the generosity towards the most needy and the poor who went around the houses with begging songs (cf)
4) in the homes of Catholics the priest used to blessing the rooms and the people gathered together at Christmas
5) Christmas tree was a typically Germanic custom introduced in England in 1840 by Queen Victoria, in love with her handsome prince Albert. Already the Romans for the Saturnalia and the Calendae decorated the house with fir branches, fertility spirits that they remained laden with leaves even in the middle of winter. And yet it is not possible to trace the passage from these twigs to the Christmas tree.
A legend tells of Wilfred of Credition a Christian priest of the 8th century, missionary in Germany: to dissuade the “pagans” in the ritual practices in honor of the old gods he had an oak, the sacred plant of Odin, cut down. But a fir tree was born nearby so Wilfred proclaimed it the emblem of the new faith.
6) Christmas log (what remains of the ancient tradition of Yule) a large trunk brought home on Christmas day which was to burn slowly for the 12 nights of the feast cf
7) toast of the wassail, the ancient cult of trees that became an auspicious drink (cf)
8) the horse-drawn buggies, in winter they were equipped with skates to slide on the snow. There were essentially two models, a small two or four-seater, a small intimate and comfortable sled, the second was a taller, bigger and sturdy sled to accommodate a family (which at the time was quite numerous among children and relatives) or a friends’ group. The bells were a sign of allert to prevent accidents between the sledges: especially with the haze and darkness the sound of bells alerted the approach of a sled; in the Christmas context the clinking recalls the Santa’s sleigh (Jingle bells)
10) typical way of dancing in Ireland

Skeklers from Shetland

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From the Shetland Islands come the “straw men” called skeklers, “masks” who played a specific role in the celebrations of Halloween, New Year and even in peasant marriages.

They are fertility “wheat spirits”, the local version of the “begging eggs” tradition spread throughout Europe: “Skekling is an old Shetland folk tradition. A Skekler is the name for a type of disguised person dressed in a distinctive straw costume; it is a variant of the term ‘guiser’. Skeklers would go round the houses at Halloween, New Year, and turn up at weddings in small groups performing fiddle music in return for food and drink.”

Gemma Ovens

Singing the eggs” was part of the ritual beginning of the new year still widespread in Piedmont (although moved to March-April) and of a consolidated tradition in the Italian South (singing of the Strina): the eggs are certainly symbols of rebirth, good health and good harvest, it is the so-called “sympathetic magic” but it makes me think of the use (extensively documented in legends and fairy tales) of egg shells as “exorcism” against fairy pranks and in particular of the Servan ( silvanotti, sarvanot, sarvan, the peasant goblins), in the old days the peasants scattered the shells in front of the doors of the stables to prevent fairy jokes to the cattle; or the boiling eff shells in “counter-spell” against the Changeling. Furthermore the Irish leprechaun, elf of the woods, is master (or guardian) of great quantities of gold – just as it is said of the wild man.


The straw man’s mask (with the blackened face) and the disguised voice was described by Samuel Hibbert in his Description of the Shetland Islands in 1822, when the tradition was already dying out. Here is an accurate description dating back to 1850: “The kitchen was full of beings, whose appearance, being so unearthly, shook the gravity of my muscles and forced a cold sweat to ooze from every pore in my body… [they] stood like statues. One was far above the rest and of gigantic dimensions. eyes, mouth, or noses they had none, nor at least a trace of their countenance.
They kept up an incessant grunt — a noise partly resembling a swine or turkey cock. Their outer garments were as white as snow ans consisted of petticoats below and shirts on the outside with sleeves and collars. They were veiled and their headdresses or caps were about 18 inches in height and made of straw twisted and plaited. each cap terminated in three or four cones of a crescent shape, all pointing backwards and downwards with bunches of ribbons of every colour raying from the points of the cones.”
(from here)

We are in the presence of the umpteenth variant of the Wild Man between myth and ritual, here in his vegetable exception of Man of the Woods (a Jack in the Green of the dark part of the year) that at the end of winter “wakes” the wheat and promotes the germination. Thus the mask of the “straw man” screams (in a beastly way, not a human one) and brings confusion by becoming an instrument of the magic ritual.
There is also a photographic record of these magical creatures, a group of boys photographed in Fetlar in 1909 while there is evidence of tradition up until 1958, the tail of a ritual whose meaning was lost.

Children from Fetlar dressed as skeklers, Shetland, 1909. © Shetland Museum.

Da Skeklers

A lost tradition that in many parts of Shetland is trying to revive (see the photo shoot by Gemma Ovens )
A significant contribution comes from the musical group “Fiddlers’ Bid” that have included in their album “All dressed in Yellow” (2009) the traditional song Da Skeklers and reconstructed the straw costumes of these disturbing masks.
The melody is in set with “Aamer August” (Estonia), the march “Hunter’s Hill” (Scotland); “Sigurd ‘or Gord’s Spring” (from the Shetland Islands played by Catriona McKay’s harp); From Skeklers (from the Shetland Islands ).
So they write in the notes “People like these turning up at your isolated house in the middle of the winter. They would have been good enough to open the door?

In the occasion of the most important festival of the archipelago, Up Helly Aa , a team had the idea of recovering the straw man’s mask; already in 2007 for the opening of the new Shetland Museum, Euan Balfours had recreated the costume based on the photographic archives: the peculiarity of the costume lies in the conical straw hat with woven tip and decorated with ribbons, so it was discovered that the old men still remembered how the various ways of weaving the costume were synonymous with a typicality of the community; we also learn that the face of the mask had to be concealed, not simply dyed black, but veiled (cf)

Clutching at Straws (Clint Watt)

Massimo Centini “L’uomo selvatico” (1989)

Christmas & Bagpipers in Italy

The Mediterranean instrument par excellence, the bagpipes (zampogna) made by the shepherds / peasants of south-central Italy, was already popular among the ancient Romans (who probably derived it from the Greeks) and certainly the armies of the Roman legions brought the sound of the bagpipes (as a tool of war and for military marches) among the Germans and the Celts.
The capillary diffusion of the bagpipe on the European territory we find however in the Middle Ages (with an abundant iconographic production in illuminated pages, frescos, sculptures and bas-reliefs).
Lo strumento mediterraneo per eccellenza, la zampogna fabbricata dai pastori/contadini del centro-sud d’Italia, era già popolare presso gli antichi Romani (che la derivarono probabilmente dagli antichi Greci) e sicuramente furono gli eserciti delle legioni romane a portare il suono delle cornamuse (come strumento di guerra e per le marce militari) presso i Germani e i Celti.
La diffusione capillare della cornamusa sul territorio europeo la troviamo però nel Medioevo (con un’abbondante produzione iconografica in pagine miniate, affreschi, sculture e bassorilievi). 


According to tradition it was St. Francis of Assisi who introduced the figure of the bagpiper (1223) into the first living nativity scene. But it was only in 1720 that a group of Vicentine missionaries from Turin created (for the Ecclesiastical Boarding School for the formation of the clergy) the Christmas Novena with texts and music; from Piedmont the Novena spread throughout Italy with living nativity scenes and bagpipers’ music.
Secondo la tradizione fu San Francesco d’Assisi a introdurre nel primo presepe vivente la figura dello zampognaro (1223). Ma fu solo nel 1720 che un gruppo di missionari vicenziani di Torino idearono (per il Convitto Ecclesiastico che gestivano per la formazione del clero) la Novena di Natale con testi e musica; dal Piemonte la Novena si diffuse in tutta l’Italia con presepi viventi e musica degli zampognari.

In addition to the Ciociaria, Molise holds the primacy of itinerant bagpipers for the Christmas Novena. This document by Rai Storia is very interesting with an interview with the bagpipers of Castelnuovo al Volturno (Isernia). A musical tradition handed down from father to son with the couple, zampogna (played by the oldest shepherd) and ciaramella, dressed in black cloak (tabarro) and sheepskins according to the shepherds’ habits.
Oltre alla Ciociaria è il Molise che detiene il primato degli zampognari itineranti per la Novena di Natale. Molto interessante questo documento di Rai Storia con l’intervista agli gli zampognari di Castelnuovo al Volturno (Isernia). Una tradizione musicale tramandata da padre in figlio con la coppia zampogna (suonata dal pastore più anziano) e ciaramella, abbigliata con mantello nero (tabarro) e pelli di pecora secondo le consuetudini dei pastori.

The repertoire of bagpipers are the popular melodies learned in the family but from 1754 the melody of “Quanno Nascette Ninno“, a Neapolitan song written by Sant’Alfonso Maria de Liguori, is gotten all the more pervasive and becaming “Tu scendi dalle stelle”.
l repertorio degli zampognari sono le melodie popolari imparate in famiglia ma dal 1754 si diffuse capillarmente la melodia di “Quanno Nascette Ninno”, canzone scritta in napoletano, da Sant’Alfonso Maria de Liguori diventata “Tu scendi dalle stelle”

Derby Ram sea shanty

The oldest traditions of the mid-winter festival included an auspicious quest in which a group of young people went from house to house with “The Old Tup“; the custom is found in particular in Derby and Chersterfield carried on by the Mummers of the county still during the nineteenth century and up to our days: they rapresent the ritual death of a ram, whose blood in ancient times was collected in a bowl and the meat was distributed to the poor. The song that accompanied the pantomime has turned into a humorous song (or a nursery rhymes) in which the ram has become gigantic and performs prodigious enterprises.
Le tradizioni più antiche della festa di mezzo inverno prevedevano una sorta di questua benaugurale in cui un gruppo di giovani andava di casa in casa con “The Old Tup“; l’usanza si riscontra in particolare a Derby e a Chersterfield portata avanti dai Mummers della contea ancora durante l’Ottocento e ripresa fino ai nostri giorni: si metteva in scena la morte rituale di un ariete (o montone), il cui sangue anticamente veniva raccolto in una ciotola e la carne era distribuita ai poveri. 
La canzone che accompagnava la pantomima si è trasformata in una canzoncina umoristica (anche come nursery rhymes) in cui l’ariete è diventato gigantesco e compie imprese prodigiose.


The sea shanty version spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific at the time of sailing ships is presented in various text versions, even a little coarse. Other versions always along the lines of “The Derby Ram Goes to Sea” reported by Captain Robinson (1917) and reprinted in Colcord, which we also find from Stan Hugill although in a “cleaned” version.
La versione sea shanty diffusa dall’Atlantico al Pacifico al tempo dei velieri si presenta in varie versioni testuali anche un po’ spinte.
Altre versioni sempre sulla falsariga di The Derby Ram Goes to Sea riportata dal Capitano Robinson (1917) e ristampata in Colcord, che troviamo anche in Stan Hugill anche se in una versione “ripulita”

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag

Hulton Clint che canta la versione di Stan Hugill in Shanties of the Seven Seas.

As I was going to Derby,
‘twas on a market day,
I met the finest ram, sirs,
that ever was fed upon hay.
That’s a lie, that’s a lie
That’s a lie, a lie, a lie!
This ram and I got drunk, sir,
as drunk as drunk could be,
And when we sobered up, sir,
we were far away out on the sea.
This wonderful old ram, sir,
was playful as a kid;
He swallowed the captain’s spyglass (1)
along with the bo’sun’s fid (2).
The night was very draft (3), sir,
the wind like ice did feel;
He borrowed me suit of oilskins
And took me trick at the wheel
He climbed aloft sir,
so full of him to store the topsails high (4);
but halfway up he lost his nerve
he had an awful fright.
One morning on the poop, sir,
afore eight bells was struck.
He climbed up to the sky’s
I yard an’ sat down on the truck (5).
This wonderful ol’ ram, sir,
he tried a silly trick,
He tried to jump a five-barred fence
and landed in a rick.
This wonderful ol’ ram, sir,
it grew two horns of brass,
One grew out o’ his shoulder blade,
t’other turned into a mast.
The Crew of the good Ship Jackdaw (6)
is handsome, strong and brave,
the finest Crowd of Sailors
that ever sailed over the Waves
traduzione italiano di Cattia Salto
Mentre andavo a Derby,
ed era un giorno di mercato,
ho incontrato il più bell’ariete, signori,
che mai sia stato alimentato con il fieno
Questa è’ una bugia, Questa è’ una bugia
Questa è’ una bugia, una bugia – bugia
L’ariete ed io ci ubriacammo, signore
che più ubriachi non si poteva
e quando diventammo sobri, signore
eravamo in alto mare
Questo magnifico vecchio ariete,
era giocoso come un bimbo
inghiottì il cannocchiale del capitano
con la caviglia(1) del nostromo
La notte era molto fredda, signore,
il vento sembrava come ghiaccio
e lui mi prestò il vestito incatramato
e mi portò alla ruota del timone
Montò arriva signore,/ così determinato da voler stivare le gabbie volanti
ma a metà strada si è perso d’animo
e gli è preso una strizza terribile
Una mattina sulla poppa, signore
prima che la campana delle otto suonasse, 
lui si è impennato nel cielo, e io mi sono arrampicato e seduto sulla formaggetta
Questo magnifico vecchio ariete,
giocò uno scherzetto
cercò di saltare cinque barili in fila
e atterrò su di un pagliaio
A questo magnifico vecchio ariete,
sono cresciute due corna d’ottone
una scaturita dalla sua scapola
l’altra trasformata in albero
La ciurma della nave “La taccola” 
è affascinante, forte e coraggiosa
i migliori marinai
che mai navigarono sulle onde

1) or spyglass
2) termine nautico vedi
3) or rough
4) stivare nel senso di sferire (toglierle dal pennone), calare le vele in coperta e riporle nel deposito vele. La traduzione della frase è suggerita da Italo Ottonello
5) la versione di Hugill è decisamente volgare
6) la strofa finale è stata modificata dagli autori di Black Flag per adattarla alla storia: La Jackdaw, varata con il nome di El Dorado, è stato il brigantino del pirata gallese Edward Kenway, nonché la nave ammiraglia della sua flotta, nel periodo in cui operò come pirata e poi come Assassino nelle Indie Occidentali, dal 1715 al 1723. continua



The Dead Horse sea shanty: Working off the Dead Horse

Leggi in italiano

kw294114Paying off the Dead Horse” perhaps derives from a custom in negotiations between breeders: once the agreement was sanctioned with a handshake there was no way to go back even if the horse died soon after.
Flogging a dead horse” or “beating a dead horse” has entered the nineteenth-century ways of saying to indicate a way of doing that has no prospects or outlets (it is useless to whip a horse when it is dead because it will never rise again).
But “to work (for) the dead horse” means wasting money to buy useless things (like a dead horse).

Working off the Dead Horse

“Working off the Dead Horse” still has a further meaning in marine jargonas, explained by Italo Ottonello: at the signing of the recruitment contract for long journeys, the sailors received an advance equal to three months of pay which, to guarantee the respect of the contract, it was provided in the form of “I will pay”, payable three days after the ship left the port, “as long as said sailor has sailed with that ship.” Everyone invariably ran to look for some complacent sharks who bought their promissory note at a discounted price, usually of forty percent, with much of the amount provided in kind.
So often there was nothing left of the advance, spended for the personal equipment (boots, wax, knives etc that were charged to the sailor) or more commonly for women and “drinks”.
Thus the sailor worked for the first month for “nothing” that is for “the dead horse”; others mean that it is the sailor who is an exploited horse because in the first month on the ship he does not work for himself, but for his creditors.
In support of the first hypothesis there are those who maintain that once the driver of a horse who was employed by a chief was responsible for the death of the horse and would no longer receive his salary until he repaid the cost of the horse.


A curious ceremony took place aboard the sailing vessels: a horse was assembled with discarded objects (stitched worn sails, old barrels and worn ropes) and dragged around the deck of the ship; then an auction was opened with the auctioneer who praised the good qualities of the animal, at the end the horse was hoisted with a rope on the highest flagpole and thrown into the sea, while the last part of a song’s melody was sung as requiem. called “Paying off the dead horse”.
The ceremony … became a rather half-hearted affair in the latter days of sail, whereas in days gone by it was a spectacular effort, particularly in the emigrant ships, and one of the best descriptions is given in Reminiscences of Travel in Australia, America, and Egypt,by R Tangye (London, 1884).” (Stan Hugill)


The custom gradually declined and the song became a halyard shanty. Thus R Tangye writes : “Being a month at sea the sailors performed the ceremony called ” Burying the Dead Horse,” the explanation of which is this: Before leaving port seamen are paid a month in advance, so as to enable them to leave some money with their wives, or to buy a new kit, etc., and having spent the money they consider the first month goes for nothing, and so call it ” Working off the Dead Horse.” The crew dress up a figure to represent a horse; its body is made out of a barrel, its extremities of hay or straw covered with canvas, the mane and tail of hemp, the eyes of two ginger beer bottles, sometimes filled with phosphorus. When complete the noble steed is put on a box, covered with a rug, and on the evening of the last day of the month a man gets on to his back, and is drawn all round the ship by his shipmates, to the chanting of the following doggerel: oh! now, poor Horse, your time is come; And we say so, for we know so. Oh! many a race we know you’ve won, Poor Old Man. You have come a long long way, And we say so, for we know so. For to be sold upon this day, Poor Old Man. You are goin’ now to say good-bye, And we say so, for we know so. Poor old horse you’re a goin’ to die, Poor Old Man.
Having paraded the decks in order to get an audience, the sale of the horse by auction is announced, and a glib-mouthed man mounts the rostrum and begins to praise the noble animal, giving his pedigree, etc., saying it was a good one to go, for it had gone 6,000 miles in the past month ! The bidding then commences, each bidder being responsible only for the amount of his advance on the last bid. After the sale the horse and its rider are run up to the yard-arm amidst loud cheers. Fireworks are let off, the man gets off the horse’s back, and, cutting the rope, lets it fall into the water. The Requiem is then sung to the same melody. Now he is dead and will die no more, And we say so, for we know so. Now he is gone and will go no more; Poor Old Man.
After this the auctioneer and his clerk proceed to collect the ” bids,” and if in your ignorance of auction etiquette you should offer yours to the auctioneer, he politely declines it, and refers you to his clerk!”

The ritual echoes ancient propitiatory and auspicious rituals such as those of the Poor Old Horse at Christmas.


Other titles: Poor old man, Poor old Horse
Use: Halyard e Long drag shanty

Assassin’s Creed -IV Black Flag

A poor old man came riding by.
And we say so, And we know so.
O, a poor old man came riding by,
O, poor old man.

Says I, “Old man, your horse will die.
“And if he dies we’ll tan his hide.
And if he don’t, I’ll ride him again.
And I’ll ride him ‘til the Lord knows”
He’s dead as a nail in the lamp room door (1), And he won’t come worrying us no more
We’ll use the hair of his tail to sew our sails
and the iron of his shoes (2) to make deck nails,
Drop him down with a long long rope
Where the sharks have his body
And the devil takes his soul (3)!

1)Charles Dickens in “A Christama Carol”:  “that Marley was as dead as a door-nail”. The expression is very ancient used both by Shakespeare and even before in the Middle Ages c. 1350. Will. Palerne: For but ich haue bot of mi bale I am ded as dorenail
But William and Mary Morris, in The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, quote a correspondent who points out that it could come from a standard term in carpentry. If you hammer a nail through a piece of timber and then flatten the end over on the inside so it can’t be removed again (a technique called clinching), the nail is said to be dead, because you can’t use it again. Doornails would very probably have been subjected to this treatment to give extra strength in the years before screws were available. So they were dead because they’d been clinched.” One of our traditional ceremonial sea songs, “Dead Horse Shanty,” uses the line “dead as a nail on the lamproom door.” We might assume that these nail heads were appropriately flattened. For those who are now curious to know what a “dead horse” had to do with sailors, it was a symbol of the advance pay they or their crimp received before boarding ship. So they didn’t earn any additional pay until they had worked off the “dead horse.” (from here). 
In the old-time navy, you get the combination of a wooden ship and gunpowder – potentially troublesome. Especially as the gunpowder was stored down below decks where there were no windows to let in the light. Taking a lit torch or candle into the gunpowder store was frowned upon, often briefly and from a great height. The lamp-room was next to the gunpowder store, with a glass window to throw light on the powder without risk of ignition. Nails in the woodwork were also a source of risk, because if struck they could create a spark. Nails in the lamp-room door and around the powder store were ‘deadened’ by being painted over with pitch to protect from this eventuality. With people ashore living in wooden houses with thatched roofs, the practice of ‘deadening’ door nails with pitch or something similar was probably more widespread“,
2) the hooves
3) or
We’ll hoist him up to the main yardarm
We’ll drop him down to the depths of the sea

We’ll sing him down with a long, long roll
Where the sharks’ll have his body
and the devil have have his soul

Robin Holcomb Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, ANTI 2006

Poor old man came ridin’ along
And we say so,
And we hope so.
Poor old man came ridin’ along
Poor old man.
Well poor old man your horse he must die
And we say so,
And we hope so.
Poor old man your horse he must die
Poor old man.
Well 30 days have come and gone (1)
And we say so,
And we hope so.
30 days have come and gone
Poor old man.

And now we are on a good month’s pay
And we say so,
And we hope so.
I think I hear our wharfing man say
Poor old man.
So give them grog for the 30th day
And we say so,
And we hope so.
Give them their grog for the 30th day
Poor old man.
Then up hail ox (2) to the old main yard arm
And we say so,
And we hope so.
Then cut him drip and do him no harm
Poor old man.
A poor old man came ridin’ along

1) in this version the ceremony obviously takes place after the first month of navigation
2) it was the simulacrum of the horse to be hoisted on the highest yard and then thrown into the sea, so why an ox?

Ian Campbell – Farewell Nancy 1964

I say, “Old man, your horse is dead.”
And we say so, And we know so.
I say, “Old man, your horse is dead.”
O, poor old man.
One month a rotten live we’ve led
While you lay on y’er feather bed
But now the month is up, ol’ turk
get up, ye swine, and look for work
get up, ye swine, and look for graft
while we lays on an’ yanks(1) ye aft
An’ yanks ye aft t’ th’ cabin door
and hopes we’ll never see ye more

1) to yank: pull, or move with a sudden movement


Keith Kendrick – Short Sharp Shanties : Sea songs of a Watchet sailor vol 3 

A poor old man came riding by.
And we say so,
And we know so.

O, a poor old man came riding by,
O, poor old man.

Says I, “Old man, your horse will die
Says I, “Old man, your horse will die.
And if he dies I’ll tan his hide
(if he leaves my old sail a ride?)
As I was rambling down the street
flesh young girl I chanced for to meet
say I “Young girl (whan’t you send a treat?)
Yes you’ve come to the bottom of the street
Aloft we went in a low back car
she took me to jack store’s bar
She pull him for some cakes and wine
to plumb well as my desire
I plumbed the well and the fancy was gone
but now I left her on the strand


Poor old horse: winter hoodening

Leggi in italiano
Samhain (the New Year of the Celts) ended on 11 November with a pagan festival still practiced in the early Middle Ages, to which the Church superimposed the feast of Saint Martin. (see first part)


For the Celts the horse was a sacred animal, a symbol of royalty and attribute of various deities.
Symbol of wealth and buried together with his master (or worthy of a ritual burial if he fell in battle) the white one was raised by the Druids and used for prophecies and sacrificial rites.
Totemic animal for many Celtic tribes that take its name, its flesh was taboo except in particular ritual times. 


The soulers and the wassailers or more generally the gangs of young people who went around the farms as beggars during the winter festivals were once (and still today) accompanied by the hobby horse.
The spirits of the Earth who govern fertility were depicted as a horse and associated with the young women not yet married (fertility carriers). An even more Celtic connotation is the identification of the “hobby horse” with the Goddess Mare (the Earth Goddess): we find it in the myth of the Welsh goddess Rhiannon and the northern Italian goddess Epona.


obby_oss_sHistorical references to the hobby horse date back to the late Middle Ages (early 1500s) with traces still in the Victorian era: in 1803 the presence of a horse made with the skin of a stallion with a man spraying water on the crowd is documented.
In the Middle Ages the “cavallino” was a character of the cheerful brigade of Robin Hood and was connected with the fertility rituals of the spring festival and the May dances, but also with the Christmas celebrations.
Some scholars trace the ritual back to pre-Christian celebrations connected with the Beltane Celtic festival. But equally numerous are the references to the winter rituals of Samhain.
In the ritual of hoodening a man wears a blanket or a white sheet that covers him entirely and carries a horse’s head on a stick, most commonly a wooden head with jaws with hinges so that it can be maneuvered to open and close ( once a real horse skull). Sometimes a burning candle is placed in the skull with very disturbing effects.


At Samhain in Ireland, appalling parades took place in the countryside and in medieval villages, led by Láir Bhán (the white mare) followed by a band of young men waving horns and asking for offers for Muck Olla.
William Hackett  wrote (1853): ‘It is not many years since on Samhain’s eve, 31st October, a rustic procession perambulated the district between Ballycotton and Trabolgan, along the coast. The parties represented themselves as messengers of Muck Olla, in whose name they levied contributions on farmers; as usual they were accompanied by sundry youths, sounding lustily on cows’ horns; at the head of the procession was a figure enveloped in a white robe or sheet, having, as it were, the head of a mare, this personage was called the Láir Bhán, “the white mare,” he was a sort of president or master of ceremonies. A long string of verses was recited at each house. (from here)

by Niamh Ní Ruairc


Mari Lwyd, or “Y Fari Lwyd” (in English Gray Mare) is the Welsh version of the hooden horse. Tradition still practiced in central and southern Wales, in particular at Llantrisant and Pontyclun at New Year. The mask consists of a horse’s head (a real skull) with a movable jaw and disquieting eyes made from two pieces of green bottle, decorated with colored ribbons and carried on a pole by a person hidden under a large white cloak. The beggars stop to sing in front of the doors of the houses and call the mistress and challenge her in a pwnco (a challenge in verse). The victory of the singing challenge allows the beggars to enter the house to eat sweets and drink beer.
As can be seen in the illustration by Paul Bommer, the landlady is holding a broom and does not want the group to enter because it is a bringer of disorder. In fact, once the company was entered, the mare would go around the room chasing the women; the mare is clearly a monstrous and otherworldly creature that must be appeased with some offerings and sometimes a small child could calm the beast with a treat.

English translation
Here we come
Dear friends
To ask permissions to sing
If we don’t have permission,
Let us know in song
How we should go away tonight
I have no dinner
Or money to spend
To give you welcome tonight
Welsh gaelic
Wel dyma ni’n dwad
Gyfeillion diniwad
I ofyn am gennod i ganu
Os na chawn ni gennad
Rhowch wybod ar ganiad
Pa fodd mae’r ‘madawiad, nos heno
‘Does genni ddim cinio
Nac arian iw gwario
I wneud i chwi roeso, nos heno

1) if the people were defeated in the poetic battle, Mari Lwyd claimed the right to stay at dinner with all her followers. Alternatively they offered a glennig (a small tip), a glass of glaster (water and milk) or beer.


In Kent the Heningening groups have returned (in the villages of San Nicola-a-Wade, Nether Hale, Sarre), in particular the tradition is very rooted in San Nicola-a-Wade where the hooden horse is called Dobbin, an old man poor horse exhausted by the labor of work: a sort of “sacred representation” is staged with various characters and songs; once the teams of hoodening went from house to house with musicians and the clatter of bells: the horse was accompanied by a group of peasants, one who holds the reins (the tamer), the other who carries a basket of fruit an another on the back, there is also “Mollie” or the “old lady” who carries a broom. Here the master knocks and as soon as the door is opened the horse kicks and scares, opening his mouth wide, while Mollie fucks the feet of one who has opened the door.. (see more)

The Horse regularly appeared through the year at, especially in Midwinter (Hallowtide, the Twelve Days of Christmas, et al). The Horse was a man dressed as an animal, covered in blanket and carrying a horse’s head, with reins, on a pole. The head was sometimes wooden but usually a real horse skull – hinged jaws allowed the mouth to snap open and shut. Along with other young men the horse ‘galloped’ and visited houses as a ‘lick-bringer’. This was not always successful and in 1839 at Broadstairs a woman was so terrified coming face-to-face with the ‘horse’ she died of fright. The custom was subsequently forbidden by local magistrates.
In East Kent Hoodening took place at Christmas. The Horse had a wooden head and sometimes a lighted candle was placed in the mouth. Farmworkers walked with the horse, one leading it by the reins or a rope and carrying a whip, and another worker light enough to ride on the horse’s back. A third known as Mollie or Old Woman was in female attire and carried a broom or besom.
In Reculver, only men who had worked with horses during the year were allowed to partake.  (in “A Dictionary of British Folk Customs” di Christina Hole, 1995 from here)


There are many versions of the song, which was a part of the Mummers play, who staged the death and resurrection of the horse

Shirley Collins from “False True Lovers” 1959

My clothing was once of a linsey-woolsey fine,
My mane it was sleek
and my body it did shine.
But now I’m getting old
and I’m going to decay,
Me master frowns upon me
and thus they all do say, “Poor old horse.”
My living was once to the best of corn and hay
As ever grew in England,
and that they all did say.
But now there’s no such comfort
as I can find at all.
I’m forced to nab the short grass
that grows against the wall,
“Poor old horse.”
This version is only a fragment and the initial part is missing in which the mummers / soulers ask to be welcomed at home

Kate Rusby from Sweet Bells 2008

We’ve got a poor old horse,
He’s standing at your door,
And if you’ll only let him in,
He’ll please you all (1) I’m sure (x2)
Now that he’s grown old
And nature doth decay,
My master frowns upon him now,
These words I’ve heard him say (x2)
Now that he’s grown old
And scarcely can he crawl,
He’s forced to eat the coarsest grass
That grows against the wall (x2)
This poor horse was once young,
And in his youthful prime
My master used to ride on him,
He thought him very fine (x2)
1) in the verse the song is highlighted as a begging song with propitiatory ritual

Paying off the dead horse: sea shanty version


On the streets of Padstow, a small fishing port in North Cornwall on the mouth of the Camel River, now a tourist destination, each May Day is celebrated with the Obby Oss Festival (continua)


Ankou, a Breton myth

Leggi in Italiano

In Brittany in winter nights the Ankou travels in search of souls, on his squeaky cart pulled by two black emaciated horses; he is the Companion, the one who leads souls from one world to another. In folk tales he looks like a lanky farmer-carter and with a big hat on his head that obscures his face, sometimes he is accompanied by two helpers, also dressed in black.
Sometimes riding sometimes as a cart driver (le Carrier an Ankou) he leads the souls (or waits for them) to the door of Hell which in Brittany opens in the Yeun Ellez in the Mounts of Arrée (in the center of Finistère), a swampy depression in the middle of the Mountains, dominated by the Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts on which the chapel of Saint Michael was built (not surprisingly).
The bog in the form of lush fields hides its pitfalls from the unwary travelers who leave the paths and end up drowning imprisoned by the slime.


No force can stop the cart, which is often empty or full of people, some say that on the cart there is also a musical band that plays a suave song. When the cart stops or when it is heard passing (and for this reason the wheels squeak) the own eath or the death of a relative or an acquaintance, it’s near.
“It is along particular paths that you can meet this dismal crew: they are usually ancient streets abandoned by the usual traffic and cut off from everyday life. The paths of Death are called in Breton by henkou ar Maro; it is inconvenient and dangerous to close them, because you can disturb the passage of Ankou. In the areas along the coast, the Master, as he is also called, likes to travel by sea using a boat, the bag-noz or the night boat. On the boat or with the wagon, anyone who meets him, returns home to lie down and disappear from this world a few days later
(translated from here).

In the Breton depictions (mostly sculptures and bas-reliefs but also wall paintings) Ankou is a skeleton that holds an arrow, a spade or a sickle, which are not offensive instruments but rather symbols, it is in fact a peaceful figure , an integral part of community life.
Ankou is similar to the Greek Charon and as the mute ferryman of Souls, but it is also the skeleton of the Macabre Dance and as Alessio Tanfoglio writes in his essay “Ankou e la danza macabra di Clusone” (2016) it is “the skeleton or the representation of the reality of death in its objective form, without deception or masking “.

In some Breton tales the Ankou is of few words and fortunately the legends have been transcribed by Anatole Le Braz in the late nineteenth century collected from the last living storytellers during the veillées, the nocturnal vigils in the isolated farms that he was visiting by bicycle: “La Légende de la Mort chez les Bretons armoricains”

Marjanig, O, put your little foot,

Ankou is the main subject of a nursery rhyme for children entitled “O, lakait ho troadig” (O, put your little foot, in French O, mettez votre petit pied) structured as a progressive count in which the choir introduces a new word which becomes the first of the new series. The song dates back to the 16th century

Christophe Kergourlay

O, lakait ho troadig,
ma dousig Marjanig

O, lakait ho troadig e-kichen va hini
Ni vo troadig hon-daou
Ken na teuy an Ankou
Da gerc’hat ac’hanomp hon-daou
O, lakait ho karig, ma dousig Marjanig
O, lakait ho karig e-kichen va hini
Ni vo karig hon-daou
Ni vo troadig hon-daou
Ken na teuy an Ankou
Da gerc’hat ac’hanomp hon-daou
Ni vo klinig hon-daou
Ni vo karig hon-daou
Ni vo troadig hon-daou
Ken na teuy an Ankou
Da gerc’hat ac’hanomp hon-daou
Ni vo dornig hon-daou,
Ni vo klinig hon-daou
Ni vo karig hon-daou
Ni vo troadig hon-daou
Ken na teuy an Ankou
Da gerc’hat ac’hanomp hon-daou
Ni vo jodig hon-daou,
Ni vo dornig hon-daou,
Ni vo klinig hon-daou
Ni vo karig hon-daou
Ni vo troadig hon-daou
Ken na teuy an Ankou
Da gerc’hat ac’hanomp hon-daou
Ni vo begig hon-daou,
Ni vo jodig hon-daou,
Ni vo dornig hon-daou,
Ni vo klinig hon-daou
Ni vo karig hon-daou
Ni vo troadig hon-daou
Ken na teuy an Ankou
Da gerc’hat ac’hanomp hon-daou

English translation
O, put your little foot,
my sweet Mary Jane

O, put your little foot beside mine.
We’ll be foot to foot
Until Death
Comes to fetch us
We’ll be leg to leg
We’ll be foot to foot
Until Death
Comes to fetch us
We’ll be knee to knee…
We’ll be hand to hand …
We’ll be cheek to cheek …
We’ll be mouth to mouth …

Alessio Tanfoglio: “Quaderno 4. Lo spettacolo della Morte: il cadavere e lo scheletro”, “Ankou e la danza macabra di Clusone” (2016)

The Shaking Of The Sheets: a macabre dance

Leggi in italiano

Clusone, Bergamo (Italy): fresco of the Shaking of the Sheet

In the Middle Ages to exorcise the fear of death, they danced with her, the living and the keletons are depicted all in a row in an endless farandola to leave life at dance step.
The most widespread theme in the early Middle Ages, however, was the Universal Judgment, a Memento Mori (As I am, you will be) that passed to the theme of the “Triumph of Death” as Danse Macabre. In the Danse Macabre all the social categories of the time are represented, starting with the powerful and the rich bourgeois and then gradually the artisans, the peasants and the poor.
With death crowned to direct the great ball and its attendants to throw the darts (or to shoot with the rifle as in the fresco of Clusone) or to play some musical instruments. Perhaps a sort of social satire, but it was rather a reflection on vanitas (of power and wealth)

Corvus Corax “Saltatio Mortis A.D.Mm” from “Mille anni passi sunt“, 2000

Angelo Branduardi  “Ballo in fa diesis minore” from “La pulce d’acqua” 1997: if the text follows the motif of the medieval macabre dance, the music is instead a medieval tune reported by Giorgio Mainerio in his “Il primo libro dei balli accomodati per cantar et sonar d’ogni sorte de instromenti ” (1578) and it was more properly a “rain dance” here
Guest of the album, the Sardinian musician Luigi Lai, virtuoso of the “launeddas“, very ancient wind instrument (here).

Sono io la Morte, e porto corona
Io son di tutti voi signora e padrona
E così sono crudele,
così forte sono e dura
Che non mi fermeranno le tue mura
Sono io la Morte, e porto corona
Io son di tutti voi signora e padrona
E davanti alla mia falce
il capo tu dovrai chinare
E dell’oscura morte al passo andare
III (2)
Sei l’ospite d’onore del ballo che per te suoniamo
Posa la falce e danza tondo a tondo
Il giro di una danza e poi un altro ancora
E tu del tempo non sei più signora
English translation *
I am Death and wear a crown,
I am for all of you lady and mistress
and I am so cruel,
so strong and harsh
that your walls won’t stop me.
I am Death and wear a crown,
I am for all of you lady and mistress
and in front of my scythe
you’ll have to bow your head
and walk to the gloomy Death’s pace.
You are the guest of honor
at the dance we are playing for you,
put your scythe down and dance round and round
a round of dancing and then one more,
and you’ll be no longer the lady of time.

from here
1) The text partly reproduces the inscription frescoed in the macabre dance of the Pinzolo Cemetery in Val Redena
Io sont la Morte che porto corona
Sonte Signora de ognia persona
At cossi son fiera forte et dura
Che trapaso le porte et ultra le mura
Et son quela che fa tremare el mondo
Revolgendo una falze atondo atondo
Ovvio taco col mio strale
Sapienza, beleza forteza niente vale
2) men invite Death to dance so that he forget about his mission

Thomas Rowlandson – The English Dance of Death, 1815-1816


“Shaking of the Sheets” was published in 1568 in “Popular Music of the Old Time” (Chappell) (cf). In the English Dancing Master, Playford transcribed the melody, let’s hear it performed by the Baltimore Consort

The song, however, re-proposed in a folk-rock key by the Steeleye Span follows some sixteenth-century stanzas but the music was composed by Robert “Bob” Johnson and mixed with a country dance titled Black Joke (Joack) from the village of Adderbury in Oxfordshire. Black Joak was transcribed by Cecil Sharp from the bearer John Mason of Stow-on-the-Wold, a traditional melody of the Morris Dance with the sticks of the same name.

Lester Bailey

Steeleye Span (Robert “Bob” Johnson voice) from “Tempted and Tried” 1989

Faran Flad live 

Dance, dance the shaking of the sheets,
Dance, dance when you hear the piper playing,
Everyone must dance
The Shaking of the Sheets with me.
Bring away the beggar,
bring away the king,
And every man in his degree.
Bring away the oldest
and the youngest thing,
Come to death and follow me.
Bring away the merchant
who made his money in France,
And the crafty banker too,
When you hear the piper,
you and I must dance
The dance that everyone must do.
I’ll find you in the courtrooms,
I’ll find you in the schools,
When you hear the piper play.
I’ll take away the wise men,
I’ll take away the fools
And bring their bodies all to clay.
All the politicians of high and low degree,
Lords and ladies, great and small.
Don’t think that you’ll escape
and need not dance with me,
I’ll make you come when I do call.
[Chorus X 2]
It may be in the day, it may be in the night,
Prepare yourselves to dance and pray.
That when the piper plays
“The Shaking of the Sheets”
You may to Heaven dance the way.


The spread of so many depictions of macabre dances on the walls of all Europe is traced back to the passage of the great plague of 1348 which decimated the populations without knowing boundaries. Never before had Europe known such a pestilence, though devastated by war and famine: entire villages disappeared and the fields filled with weeds because there was no one left to cultivate them. The chroniclers of the time wrote “A third of the world died”.
On the other hand, a “street” liturgical drama functional to preaching and perhaps related to the “Dance of the Maccabees” (chorea machabaeorum) in which the participants danced holding hands was already widespread at the level of the Sacred Drama (Morality Play). and they were taken away one by one by disturbing characters wrapped in a sheet.

Ad mortem festinamus

oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone (Bergamo, Italy)


La farandola is a medieval dance with a single basic step (mostly skipped), in which the row leader chooses the changes of direction, he makes and undoes just like the Norns with the thread of destiny. And therefore the farandola is the ritual dance in the celebrations of Samahin because it is the dance of death: everyone must travel the same path abandoning themselves to the will of those who lead the dance, to symbolize chained humanity that can only follow the path traced, and however a sort of collective journey through the experiences of life, towards its mysterious center. The farandola is probably the oldest dance so tied to the primitive agrarian rites: it is the dance of the labyrinth with its snail and snake figures, the dance around the fire, the sacred center of village life. Thus the labyrinth always has an exit and the dance is a dance of death and rebirth to symbolize the concept of eternal return.

Tomba delle Danzatrici, Ruvo di Puglia (Bari – Italy), V sec. a.C. – Napoli, Museo Archeologico Nazionale

The farandola is probably the oldest dance in the world dedicated to the Lady of the Labyrinth which we find in the Minoan culture of 1400 BC, a dance connected to the mysteries of fertility and described by Homer in the shield of Achilles.

carola-medioevoIn the figure (from the fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti- Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Siena – Italy) the two women leaders raised their arms in an arc to let pass below the rest of the chain (which was already drawing a sinuous serpentine movement), just a tambourine and the voice to cadence the rhythm and from the lightness with which the dancers move it would seem that they dance on tiptoe without lean their heel.

The dance has kept its legacy in Provence as the traditional dance par excellence (for every occasion).

Su ballo tondo- from Sardigna (Italy)

Ad Mortem Festinamus