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Folklore - Oral History Versus Superstition, Bubonic Plague deaths, Folklore and Oral Traditions


Oral History Versus Superstition

Folklore comes to us through a rich history of oral tradition which has been around long before any written form of literature was available. Folklore comes to us in the form of stories, songs and conundrums passed on through generations for generations. These tales and fables tend to relate to the location of the tellers or to their family group, friends or community, and give us great insight in to the origins, characteristics, beliefs, religion and social relationships of the peoples it involves, providing us today with a rich tapestry of information with which to view the past and our ancestors with.

Many people believe that folklore is little more than superstition full of fanciful tales with little meaning or truth in relation to the past attached to them. With a little examination though we can look into the tapestry and see that there are things to be seen and gleaned from these fanciful tales that can give us great insights into the past.

If for instance we examine a famous children’s nursery rhyme what can we find within it?

“Ring a ring of roses"
"A pocket full of posies"
"Atticho, atticho" (or ashes, ashes)
"We all fall down”

This is an amusing children’s nursery rhyme that many children today, and for many years in the past, have learned and recite often during childhood. Most of us today would agree that Ring a ring of roses is nothing more than an amusingly, harmless little nursery rhyme. A rhyme yes but it seems to have very little reason attached to it or does it?

If we look a little closer we find that this is a tale giving an account of the Black Death, the Bubonic plague, which devastated Europe between 1347 and 1350, during this period 25 million people died across Europe, and reapeard again in London in 1665.

Folklore - Oral History Versus Superstition, Bubonic Plague deaths, Folklore and Oral Traditions

The rhyme begins by indicating a “Ring a ring of roses” which indicated a rash that appeared as a rose read ring on the bodies of its victims. It could also reflect the rosary beads that people used to pray for divine intervention, praying for protection, to be kept free from this terrible disease must have been a large part in many people’s everyday lives. The rosary beads could also be linked to the return of the plague in 1665 in the reign of Charles the II when the political undercurrents of the time were against the return the crown to Catholicism. Catholics were openly accused of causing the plague at this time.

People carried flowers and herbs in pouches and in their pockets, “A pocket full of posies”, with them to try to relive the smell of the decaying bodies. There was a strong belief at the time that the disease was transmitted by the smell, so it was believed for a time that the posies help to prevent catching the disease.

Sneezing was another of the main symptoms of the disease “Atticho, Atticho”. Also it reflected the ashes that fell from the sky, as the churches attempted to burn the bodies of the dead, as burial of such large numbers of people had become impossible.

Everyone seemed to becoming infected, “We all fall down”, it must have seemed that everyone would be overcome and die that there was no escape from this diease. It seems with a little insight of the time this harmless little nursery rhyme has reason and insight as well.

Local knowledge is important to understanding what the tale is conveying. As society changes novel words develop and jargon change but oral tradition tends to remain the same, so some of the words used would have various meanings from region to region and also changes through the years as society changes. If we look at the rhyme “pop goes the weasel” we can see how this can affect our interpretation of the rhyme –

“Half a pound of tuppenny rice"
"Half a pound of treacle"
"That’s the way the money goes"
"Pop! Goes the weasel.”

This is another little rhyme that we as children learned from our parents and them from theirs, as we teach our children in turn. The origins of this rhyme came from Victorian London where life was very hard and extreme poverty was an everyday experience for most people. “Pop” was the word used for visiting the pawnbrokers to pawn goods and “weasel” was an altered form of the word “whistle” which is the cockney rhyming slang used for suit, whistle and flute. Pawing a suit was seemingly a common occurrence a couple of hundred years ago to get money to buy food where as today it would be almost unheard off.

Folklore - Oral History Versus Superstition, Pawnbrokers Pop goes the Weasel, Folklore and Oral Traditions

There is of course also the "Chinese whispers" affect that can greatly alter the content of any story so accuracy can be called into question over long periods of time. Here we can look at the Greek poet or mythical person, Homer, he is said to have lived around 800 BC. He described the invasion of Troy, which occurred approximately in the 1300 BC in his poem the Iliad, it appears that the information he recorded in his poem may have been passed down as a folk tale through the generations as there seem to be accurate elements to the Iliad which appear to have been authenticate by the unearthing of ruins which were discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870 AD which are believed to be the ruins of the Iliad described in Homers poem. This would seem to imply that oral history is able to retain a level of accurate information over several hundred years.

Probably the most popular and well known books of oral tradition of our time is the Old Testament of the Bible it is a collection of tales passed through the generations which spans many hundreds of years. It appears to be generally believed today that the Old Testament was written in the 600 BC when scribes and learned men gathered a vast amount of these tales together and worked to bring about a single story which now makes up the Old Testament.

It is important to remember that folklore is a rich oral tradition that was around long before any form of writing or recording of information was available and was passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Also recording materials were not readily available to the average person on the street. It maybe seen as or dismissed as nothing more than superstition or fanciful tales of fiction and that it maybe so, it has also been however a valid means of conserving and passing on history providing us with valuable information and insights into the past and the day to day lives of every day folks. We should bear in mind that our ancestors did not have the distractions of modern day with no televisions, newspapers, books, computers ect to fill their minds with. If we take the time to look into our folklore tapestry that hangs all around us we may just be surprised at what we might find.


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