Academic journal article Western Folklore

On the Tradition and Mathematics of Counting-Out

Academic journal article Western Folklore

On the Tradition and Mathematics of Counting-Out

Article excerpt

Children were perhaps the first non-peasant group to be seriously studied by folklorists. In 1846, in a note in The Athenaeum, William J. Thoms proposed the "good Saxon compound, Folklore" to designate those "manners, customs, observances, ballads, proverbs, etc., of the olden time." Thoms urged the collection and study of these disparate and seemingly "trifling and insignificant" materials because of the light that they, in aggregate, might throw on the ancient past. To illustrate his point, Thoms cited a Yorkshire children's divinatory custom. Children gather around a cherry tree and sing, "Cuckoo, Cherry Tree; Come down and tell me; How many years I have to live." Each child then shakes the tree, and the number of cherries that fall are held to indicate the lifeyears remaining. Thoms points to the relation between this Yorkshire custom and the prophetic qualities of the cuckoo's song described in Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, and to the belief that the cuckoo will not sing its prophetic song until it has eaten its fill of cherries thrice over (Thoms 1965 [1846]:4-6).

That children's custom stemmed from ancient practice became something of a rule of thumb in the nineteenth century', and folklorists set out to establish the specific relations between a host of contemporary children's expressions and the observances of the past. Certainly, there are any number of children's games and pastimes that are ancient. Thus games such as "I Spy" and "Blind Man's Buff" collected by W. W. Newell in New York at the close of the nineteenth century, are depicted in ancient paintings and are described in second century documents (Newell 1963 [1883]:160,162-63). But many of the attempts to establish connections between children's custom and ancient practice were decidedly more tenuous.

In 1888, in The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children, Henry Carrington Bolton attempted to trace the origins and demonstrate the antiquity of the custom. Bolton regarded counting-out as having two dimensions. Counting out was a form of divination by which the unknown was reckoned through casting lots. Yet counting-out also consisted of rhymes and doggerels that established the pattern of this procedure (1888:26). Bolton was determined to show connections to ancient belief for both the practice and the verse.

Citing the Bible and the Iliad, Bolton had little difficulty in demonstrating the antiquity of casting lots to identify criminals, sacrificial victims, and military champions (1888:2S34).2 The rhymes themselves Bolton believed to derive from magical incantations that accompanied the casting of lots (although he acknowledged that the rhymes were probably "of more recent date than the custom itself" [1888:35]), and Bolton cites numerous examples of incantations-many of which seem to contain nonsense words as do children's rhymes. Bolton, however, is unable to cite any ancient example of genuine counting-out, nor is he able to directly link a single magical incantation to a contemporary children's rhyme.3 Consequently, Bolton is forced to establish his linkages between children's game and ancient divinatory practice in a more roundabout fashion.4 Bolton approvingly cites T. W. Sandrey's attempt to link counting-out with the selection of sacrificial victims by ancient Britons, and his interpretation of the Cornish rhyme "Ena, mena, bora mi; Kisca, lara, mora di; Eggs, butter, cheese, bread; Stick, stock, stone dead" as a phrase of "great antiquity" which first lays a ban on a victim's chief articles of food, and foreshadows his death by beating (Bolton 1888:43). The difficulty in establishing connections between counting-out and ancient Celtic practices of human sacrifice (also argued by Charles Taylor in The Magpie: or Chatter/is of the Pica [Glasgow 1820] ) are most tellingly revealed when folklorists fell back on scenes from nineteenth-century romantic novels to illustrate their arguments. Thus Bolton cites R. D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone (1869) for a magical charm that seems reminiscent of a counting-out rhyme (Bolton 1888:50), and the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould quotes extensively from his own novel Perpetua (1897) to illustrate how in Gaul a maiden was counted out to be sacrificed to the spirit of the spring. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.