Hey, Diddle, Diddle, the Cat Goddess and the Sistrum

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (Aug. 2006)

I was singing some nursery rhymes with the toddlers one afternoon and wondered what certain of the church ladies would make of them, if they knew the truth about the meaning of some of the words.  

Jack and Jill is supposed to be about the execution of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. 

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row,

is about Queen Mary Tudor.  During her brief reign she tried to change the church back to the Catholicism of her youth after the drastic changes of her father and brother. The silver bells are those of the mass, the cockle shells from the pilgrimage to St James of Compostella and the pretty maids are the nuns. Except some say they can also be allusions to the instruments of torture used in the 16th century.  

Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady's chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs, 

Is also from the 16th century and is about the need to hide Catholic priests from the Protestant authorities. 

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away

is about the promiscuous (and bisexual) George Villiers, 1st duke of  Duke of Buckingham, a favourite of James I (James VI of Scotland) 

Ring a ring a roses,

A pocket full of posies

Atishoo, Atishoo

We all fall down 

Is about the plague – scented flowers to keep away the miasma and stench of death, the early symptom of sneezing, the onset of the red ring of the rash, leading to the drop down dead. One of the reasons I could not take the Da Vinci code seriously was any scene involving Bishop Aringarosa.  I kept imagining him skipping in a circle, holding hands with Silas the albino monk. 

Pease Pudding Hot is safe enough – it seems to be purely about the dish of dried peas served with bacon or a savaloy.  Very tasty and a nice change occasionally from fish in batter. 

Pease pudding hot, Pease pudding cold,
Pease pudding in the pot - nine days old.

We sing this one a lot

Polly put the kettle on,
Polly put the kettle on,
Polly put the kettle on,
We'll all have tea.
Sukey take it off again,
Sukey take it off again,
Sukey take it off again,
They've all gone away


And now that I know that it was written in 1797 by a man who had been watching his daughters playing and arguing with their brothers I like it even more. Children don’t really change. 

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes, (alt) mix it up and make it nice.
Pop! goes the weasel.
Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

Every night when I go out
The monkey's on the table
Take a stick and knock it off
Pop goes the weasel

And I seem to be the only person left alive on the planet who remembers Anthony (the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist in 1948, first husband of Joan Collins, an influence on David Bowie in The Laughing Gnome) Newley’s rock and roll version from 1961. 

Why did the weasel go pop, go pop, why did the weasel,

Why did the weasel go pop?

‘Cos they upped the price of tuppeny rice to fourpence. 

This is a specifically London rhyme about the textile trade, probably hatting. Pop means to pawn, which is to use something of value as security for a short loan. The weasel may have been a measuring tool, some kind of thread gauge or a bobbin. But I think it more likely that it is cockney rhyming slang for a garment, either weasel and stoat – coat, or a variant on whistle and flute - suit. From the old tales I heard as a child I know that both were pawned – regularly.  The Eagle pub (where the money was spent, hence the need to pawn the suit) is still on the corner of City Road and Shepherdess Walk in Hoxton. My great grandfather used to enjoy a drink there. I have never been in, (or sat on the doorstep with a bottle of lemonade) as my parents disliked the place. These days it has a good reputation for food. 

This is one of my favourites. 

Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon!

It is about the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Pasht or Bastet who was associated with the moon (from which name comes the word puss) and who was revered by women who played a percussion instrument called a sistrum, not a fiddle.  The Cow is the goddess Hathor, who had a cows head. The little dog is Sirius the Dog star. Except how did such ancient images, from so far away, get into an English children’s rhyme. And become the name of quite a few pubs. I can understand why remnants of our own ancient culture remain, like Old King Cole, but not that particular one.  Unless it is more recent than one might think.


Or it could just be a piece of nonsense, purely for the fun of it.


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Esmerelda Weatherwax is a regular contributor to the Iconoclast, our community blog. To view her entries please click here.


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