Songs and Stories for Halloween and Samhain

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ram’s head architectural ornament, a type of bucrania

WARNING: Some of this subject matter is a bit grim.

In northern European countries a festival was traditionally held at the end of October that dealt with the slaughter of animals at a time when the vegetation was dying and there wouldn’t be enough food for them anyway. The slaughter of livestock at this time of year made people sad and they remembered the cows that went before and also the people that they used to know. That's why Halloween is a bit gruesome, but it's also a time of feasting and merriment since there is a lot of food. In Scandinavian, Baltic and Slavic countries it was customary to have a feast and people went to the cemetery to visit the graves of dead family members. Often a candle is left burning at the grave site, and some food or drink may be left for them. In Russia, the dead are likely to get a shot of vodka. But for gorey good fun, you have to go to the Celts and the English.

When I was a child, we used to sing endless rounds of “Great big gobs of gushy gooey gopher guts...” when we went trick or treating at Halloween. But I was interested in whether there might be any traditional songs or stories that would have been told at this time of year. Most of the songs in this collection for Halloween and Samhain are related to the Creation Myth that tells how *Yama, the first cow was dismembered by the first man, and the world was created from its body. But whether these compositions actually fit with Indo-European Religion or not, these songs and stories all have a certain spooky, ethereal or exotic quality that we associate with Halloween and Samhain and most of them are very beautiful. I have put the lyrics for most of them on the Halloween Song Lyrics page so that you can easily print them out and, I hope, sing them.

1. The Story of St. Romain and the Gargoyle ( gargouille gargoille gargouilles gargoilles :-)
This story is a French saint’s tale, and explains why there are gargoyles on the walls of northern French cathedrals. The festival of St. Romain and the Gargoyle was celebrated on May 1st or April 30th, but the actual feast day of St. Romain (or St. Romanus in Latin) is set to Oct. 23, the date of the translation of his relics, and not incidentally the date in northern countries for one of the feast days of St. James, a Pagan Saint always associated with *Yama. Although the procession of St. Romain was celebrated in the spring, the architectural use of gargoyles is surely based on a late Gallic Pagan tradition of hanging bucrania (cow skulls) on the walls of the sanctuary. In any case this story can probably be told at this time of the year because the subject matter is appropriate. Unfortunately, there’s no recording of this story, so you will have to tell it yourself. Here’s the gist of it:

The story of the First Gargoyle tells that a dragon lived in the marsh near the city of Rouen in France. Every day it ate the mariners or it caused flooding of the river Seine. St. Romain came and made the dragon stop by making the sign of the cross at it with his two index fingers. He was then able to lead it back to town on a rope. Then the poor dragon was killed and its body was burned, but since the head and neck wouldn't burn (because they were used to fire, as the story tells), they were hung up on the side of the cathedral. This was the beginning of gargoyles, which are still used on churches to throw water away from the walls.
A description of the festival is given in the Golden Bough, Vol. 2, pp. 165-170 and 2:314ff. Whatever the origin or purpose of “gargoyles,” bucrania now have a purely decorative use on many government buildings in the United States, and it’s fun to walk around town and look for the various animal and human heads affixed near the tops of major buildings. The university library in this town has a bunch of human heads carved around the top of the outside walls, and there are rams’ heads hanging above the coffee shop.

Samhain

This is the name of the Celtic holiday celebrated at the time of the fall animal slaughter and it retains songs and traditions of the ancient Pagan festival. I found many of these songs by signing onto MySpace and searching for them. You can add them to your own playlist without having to pay for them, until you decide whether you really like them. I have included the lyrics for most of these songs on the Halloween Song Lyrics page to make it easier for you to sing them.

Souling Songs or Soul-Cake Songs
Souling is a folk custom which continues in some areas of England on Samhain, the night of October 31. Children go about in groups and sing Souling Songs and beg for treats, very similar to American Halloween. The traditional request was for Soul Cakes, apparently a kind of cookie made from roasted caramelized sprouted barley. There are many versions of the Souling Songs.

2. Soul-Cake Song
The words and music for the Soul-Cake song (which begins “A soul, a soul, a soul-cake!”) are available as Soul-Cake Song on Digital Tradition. This is the short version which is just sung repetitively. Another version with additional verses sung to the same tune is the Souling Song also at Digital Tradition. There are many performances of this song, and many people still sing it. There is a version of the Souling Song by Eric Fish of Albi’s Corner from his album Off The Hook. He sings it with a sharp change in tempo which isn’t marked on the notated music. There are more musical versions such as The Souling Song recorded by John Langstaff, on the Jackfish CD; and by the children’s chorus on A Child’s Christmas Revels CD. Another good version is the Souling Song by the Watersons on the Frost and Fire CD which has the subtitle “A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs.” All three of these can be listened to on MySpace.

There is another version of this song with better, more traditional words, published by Jon Raven (p. 23):

Soul! Soul! for an apple or two;
If you’ve got no apple, pears will do,
Soul! Soul! for your soul’s sake,
Pray good mistress, a Soul Cake!

An apple, or pear, a plum or a cherry,
Or any good thing to make us all merry.
St. Peter was a good old man,
And so for his sake, give us one.

None of your worst, but one of your best,
So God may send your souls to rest.
Up with your kettles, and down with your pans,
Give us a Soul Cake and we’ll be gone!

3. Antrobus Soulcakers Song
There is a second Soul Cake Song which begins “We are one, two, three hearty good lads....” This song was sung by the Antrobus Soulcakers and they were recorded by Alan Lomax or Peter Kennedy on the English Customs and Traditions CD, Vol. 9, Songs of Christmas. The lyrics to this Soul Cake Song are at the Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music website put together by Reinhard Zierke. This website gives lyrics to many traditional folk songs, and it's well written. The notated music is available as the first song for the Rudheath (Cheshire) Souling Play which follows next on this list. A version of the song has also been recorded recently by the Watersons on the Voices of Harmony: English Traditional Songs CD.

4. Souling Plays
There are entire plays for celebrating this festival written out. Back in the 1800’s the Soulers or Soul-Cakers were adults and they would go from house to house and perform Souling Plays, and these were written down by early collectors. People still perform them, some by tradition and some as a revival. Of course the grownups would ask for beer and money, not cookies; some don’t ask for anything. The practice of Souling is thought to bring good luck to all the houses that are visited. Souling Plays are usually distinguished from other folk plays by having a “Horse” which is actually a horse’s skull on a broom handle, manipulated by someone referred to as the “Driver” played by an actual human being. Usually the Driver speaks for the Horse, with a speech that introduces the Horse, here called “Dick”:

In comes Dick and all his men,
He’s come to see you once again.
Was once alive and now he’s dead,
And nothing but a poor old horse’s head!

Although this play is in English, the use of a horse in this context may show Celtic influence. Aside from the Horse and a Souling Song, Souling Plays include the same elements as most English folkplays: a fight between two famous warriors in which one is killed, and then revived by a Quack Doctor, with much silly slapstick humor and jokes. Souling Plays include the Guilden Sutton Play and the Rudheath (Cheshire) Souling Play, named for the geographic areas of England where they were first collected by folklorists in the 1800 and 1900’s. There are many folk plays which for some reason the English refer to as Mummer’s plays. Many English folk plays, some with music, are given on the website: www.folkplay.info. This website gives the entire script for the Rudheath (Cheshire) Souling Play, including the words and music for the introductory Souling Song.

There are at least five Souling Plays performed on YouTube. My favorite is the Comberbach Souling Play with a really creepy horse. This has good clear words and it’s only about 10 minutes long. Another perfectly awful version is the Swettenham Souling Play which, as you will see is --eeeeuww!-- sure to delight 11 year old boys everywhere.

Modern Samhain Songs
There are several good modern songs for Samhain that you might like. These songs are copyright to their modern composers, so I don’t include the written music, but I have included the words for two of them on the Halloween Song Lyrics page because they were widely available anyway.

5. All Soul’s Night by Loreena McKennitt
This is a beautiful ethereal song on The Visit CD, and it is available to buy through the Loreena McKennitt official page.

6. Samain by Steeleye Span
This song gives a rather christianized view of Samhain, but I still like it. It’s on the They Called Him Babylon CD and it can be heard on MySpace.

7. All Hallows Eve by Wiccan Ways
The lyrics for this song begin, “Now the door is open, between spirit and physical realm...” From the Other Side of Midnight CD, this has music that sounds both foreboding and beautiful, but the words are rather sweet if you listen to them. This is Wicca, but the practice fits fairly closely with the Indo-European tradition of ancestor worship. I only found this on other people’s MySpace playlists, because Wiccan Ways doesn’t seem to have a website of their own.

8. Samhain Song by Lisa Thiel
This is a beautiful song and she has a beautiful voice. It's on the album Circle of the Seasons, song #9. You can listen to this Samhain Song on YouTube, and this version has the lyrics right on the page.

Halloween

Halloween, meaning “holy evening” or All Hallows Eve, or, if you go back far enough, Hallowmass, is the name of the holiday in English. Note that it refers to the night before the 1st day of November. It would have originally been celebrated on the dark of the moon preceding the first new moon of winter. Now it is set to October 31st although it is usually celebrated on the preceding Saturday night because even children get to stay up late for this holiday. This season was originally called Blodmonath in Anglo-Saxon for the obvious reason that it was the time that animals were slaughtered before winter. Halloween was apparently influenced by the Celts in England, or by the Irish in the United States. American Halloween is a lot more fun than the tradition in a lot of European countries, however masking and elaborate parties for adults at this time of year have become popular everywhere now.

9. The Myth of Ymir
Myths are often recited or sung especially at the appropriate festivals because this is considered by the Indo-Europeans to be a way to praise and honor the Gods, which is expected to make them happy. The Story of Ymir is told in Old Norse in the Grimnismal 40-41, in the Elder Edda. An explanation for the forms of this myth in various Indo-European languages is given in the Myth of Creation article. No seasonal date is connected to the story of Ymir in Old Norse, but since it seems to represent the northern Indo-European practice of slaughtering livestock at the close of the summer season, it might be told now. Here is the text in Old Norse in case you want to read it yourself:

Ór Ýmis holdi
var jørð um scøpvð,
en ór sveita sær,
bjørg ór beinum,
baðmr ór hári,
en ór hausi himinn.

En ór hans brøm
gerðu blíð regin
Miðgarð manna sonom;
en ór hans heila
vøru þāu in harðmoðgu
scý øll um scøpuð.

The English translation is on the Halloween Song Lyrics page.

10. There is a symphonic setting of the Elder Edda composed by Jón Leifs. The CD is called Edda-Part 1, Sköpun heimsins (The Creation of the World), and the section for Ymir is sung by Gunnar Gudbjornsson, with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. They want you to buy the whole CD, but I found some recordings of it that you can listen to on MySpace. If you like the music in the Lord of the Rings movie, you will certainly like this. It’s very powerful sounding. **Part of the Norse myths were played recently (July 8, 2012) on the Classical Radio station. You might be able to listen to a podcast of it, but I'm not sure how long it will be available. Here is a link to the playlist for the show titled Cold Comfort. The first part was from the CD Rheingold Curse. This had people chanting the Voluspa with a musical accompaniment and it was fabulous. The second part of the show was music from the "oratorio" by Jón Leifs, as described above.

English Ballads and Metrical Romances

Other songs in English are less obviously related to the myth of Ymir. Some are ballads where one of the protagonists is named Grim, or Graham, and usually somebody gets dismembered. Some of these texts are in very archaic English and might be too long to sing, but they still might be fun to read in the dark by candlelight (or a flashlight). They function a bit like ghost stories, with or without music.

11. Sir Cawline
This is a great song but I could not find a single recording of it. This song is known from several sources including Child’s Ballads, #61, with the music given from Bronson. The words and music are published on Digital Tradition at Sir Cawline ballad. This page has the lyrics in a northern English dialect. I have rewritten them a bit on the Halloween Song Lyrics page to make them more clear in modern English. In this version, Sir Cawline has to go to Orlange Hill in the middle of the night in the dark of the moon, but in some versions Orlange Hill is called Eldritch Hill. Whoo-o-o-o!!!

12. The Workhouse Boy
A nicely ghoulish ballad, this is set to Christmas, but it fits better with Halloween and the myth of *Yama/James, with the chorus, “Jamie’s been murdered by the overseers...” I would have considered the name Jamie to be a coincidence except that (Spoiler Alert) there are so many other points in common with the story of *Yama--poor Jamie is murdered, necessarily dismembered, and eaten for dinner. His friends, the other boys at the workhouse, mourn him and in some versions he is mourned by his brother or twin or twin sister. The song is known in four different versions from old broadsides, one of which mentions that it is sung to the tune of the Mistletoe Bough. The words only for The Workhouse Boy are given on Digital Tradition, and then the tune for Mistletoe Bough is given on a different page. The only performance that I know for this is the one by the group The Halliard with Nic Jones, Tony Rose and Jon Raven and I found it on the MidWinter CDs, on disc 1.

13. Grim King of the Ghosts
The music for this song was originally published in 1729 in John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” because he used the tune for a different song. It’s actually an old music hall song about a guy who is so in love that he wants to die, but ignore that and it’s great for Halloween. A version of it is beautifully performed by Quodlings Delight on the Heere Beginneth the Knights Tale CD. This is only available on the Quodlings Delight page and you can listen to it there. I added some of the verses (the ones I liked best) onto the Halloween Song Lyrics page. These are given from Percy’s Reliques.

14. The Erl-King
These poems in various Germanic languages are delightfully spooky. The concept of a soul-stealing Erl-King seems to have been borrowed into a Germanic language from a Mongolian original where the name Erlik Khan is a name of the King of the Dead, and corresponds to Yama in Mahayana Buddhism (see Other Correspondents). Somehow it was picked up by Goethe and his poem Erlkoenig became a favorite romantic subject, with a setting by Franz Schubert (Erl-koenig, D. 328). There is a copy of Erl Konig on a Franz Schubert page on the Bomb-MP3 site. There are several recordings of this on this site, but it doesn’t say who is singing (in German) or who is playing the piano.

The piano on that song is a bit clunky (I’m not Schubert’s biggest fan), although it is supposed to represent the sound of the horse running through the woods. But if that’s all too much German for you, you can just read, preferably by candlelight, the English poem The Erl-King by Sir Walter Scott, (1731-1832) on the same subject. This poem is given on the Halloween Song Lyrics page and it makes a great ghost story.

Songs of Tam Lin, Thomas the Rhymer and Orpheus are included here. These songs and stories may be borrowed (Orpheus certainly is) and they have no obvious connection to the Anglo-Saxon name Grim, but they have eerie themes such as abduction by Kings and Queens of Faerie and travel to an Other World. Some of the ballads include an explicit statement that the events in the songs took place at All Hallow's Eve.

15. Tam Lin
Janet picking roses at Carter Hall A number of versions of this ballad are known from various sources, among them Child Ballad #39; with the music given in Bronson, p. 327 vol. I. The words and music for Tam Lin can be found on Digital Tradition in several versions. There is a good recording of Tam Lin sung by Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention on the Liege and Lief CD, which can be found at the Bomb-MP3 site.

16. Thomas the Rhymer
There are several versions of this ballad known from the Child Ballads among other places. Sets of the lyrics for Thomas the Rhymer from Child #37 can be found on Sacred-Texts which has the whole set of lyrics from Child. A somewhat different version with words and music for Thomas the Rhymer is on Digital Tradition. A recording of the 6 minute version of Thomas the Rhymer by Steeleye Span can be heard on YouTube. The vocalist here is Maddy Prior.

Witch of the Westmoreland
© to Archie Fisher
This is my new favorite song, so it isn’t numbered. This song doesn’t really have anything to do with Halloween but is both spooky and beautiful and it goes well with the other ballads so I am including it. It was written by a modern person Archie Fisher and was first performed by him in 1976. You can hear the Witch of the Westmoreland performed by Stan Rogers on YouTube and this site also includes a version of the lyrics.

Versions of Eurydice and Orpheus
This story is obviously based on the well-known Greek myth about the God or hero Orpheus, in which his wife Eurydice dies or is abducted by Pluto, and Orpheus must negotiate with the Gods for her return. The story was borrowed into English as early as the 1300’s, where the Greek original is altered to fit with English culture (possibly with Welsh or Breton influence). One of the earliest versions is the metrical romance Sir Orfeo by the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which is too long to perform, although the BBC made a film of it. But there are shorter ballad versions.

17. King Orfeo
This is a great ballad and adapted to medieval English culture with Pluto turned into the King of Faerie. Several versions are known from the Shetland Islands, and one was remembered by John Stickle who sang a few verses for Alan Lomax, thus preserving the tune. The words are given in the Child Ballads #19; with the music in Bronson on p. 275, Vol. 1. This has the very old-fashioned type of intertwined chorus where the second and fourth line of each verse are taglines. When Eurydice is abducted, it is reported to King Orfeo that:

The King of Fairies with his dart,
green the wood grows early
has pierced your lady to her heart!
where the hart runs yearly.

Two versions of the words and music for King Orfeo are given on Digital Tradition with the verses in the Scots dialect of English and with the Scandinavian taglines. Among the beautiful recordings is the version of King Orfeo by the group Alva, with vocals by Vivien Ellis on the Love Burns In Me CD. This is sung in modern English except for the taglines which are in the Shetland Islands (Scandinavian) dialect. There is also a very short version by Carol Wood on the Chaucer Songbook CD. I found these floating around on MySpace pages, where they can be listened to for free. This is a very easy song to learn.

18. Orphic Operas
More formally, there are some 64 operas about Eurydice and Orpheus, starting with La Favola d’Orfeo by Monteverdi, first performed in 1607. It’s too much to include all of these but you might be interested in a few choice selections.

One of the outstanding pieces of music from the Gluck version of Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) is the Dance of the Blessed Spirits. This is in the form of a ballet when Orpheus finds Eurydice in Elysium. You can see Pina Bausch’s production of the ballet on YouTube. But for my money (free), there is a very beautiful and affecting performance by Tony Lin and Ben Morrison of just the music using violin and piano, also on YouTube.

And then there is the sarcastic and cynical version Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, first performed in 1858. Here Eurydice is so bored with her fiddle-playing husband Orpheus that she begs to die. This operetta descends (in more ways than one) into the Moulin Rouge version of classical mythology. In Offenbach’s satirical skewering of Gluck’s opera, the Dance of the Blessed Spirits is replaced by an Infernal Galop, which everyone knows as the CanCan (No. 53, the Chaconne). Here the “underworld” of Greek myth is equated to the demimonde of Paris. The Parisians were so shocked that people stopped watching romantic operas about Orpheus and Eurydice for a while, but now they are popular again.
#yemaya
19. Story and Song of Yemaya
Yemaya is an orisha or Goddess in the Santeria (Voodoo) religion. The Story of Yemaya is told in Cakes for the Queen of Heaven by Shirley Ann Ranck (pp. 153-4). She has excerpted it from Jambalaya by Luisah Teish, a Santeria priestess from New Orleans who speaks Yoruba and now has a congregation in Oakland, California. Yoruba is a language of West Africa, and yet the story of Yemaya seems to correspond in some way to the myths of Yama/Ymir which are known in various Indo-European languages and in some Semitic languages, though the nature of the connection is opaque to me. This is the story quoted from Ranck:

In the Yoruba religion of Africa, personal power, ashe is personified in a variety of orishas, or deities. Yemaya is the Mother of the Sea, the Great Water, the Womb of Creation. Yemaya gazes often into the waters. Each time she wonders who that beautiful woman is who stares back at her. One time as she wondered, her belly grew until it exploded, covering the land with lakes and rivers and streams. Then Yemaya looked into the waters again, and wondered about the beautiful woman she saw. Again her belly grew until it exploded and filled the heavens with stars and a full moon. Finally Yemaya looked into the full moon and even there she saw that same beautiful woman. Once again her belly grew until it exploded and there before her stood thousands of beautiful women. “Who are you beautiful women?” Yemaya asked. The women looked deep into the eyes of the Goddess Yemaya and there they saw their own reflections. So the women said to Yemaya, “We’re you."

The Goddess Yemanja is worshipped among many people of African ancestry and in the New World, she is equated to the Spanish Catholic Saint Santiago or San Diego (St. James). The Song of Yemaya is popular throughout the Caribbean and is found in Cuban and Creole music. It has been recorded in dozens of versions and they are all great in an exotic world-beat sort of way. My favorite version is sung by Nurudafina Pili Abena on the Ancient Mothers CD, put together by Robert Gass and On Wings of Song, a women’s chorus. Another great version is by Beth Nielsen Chapman on the Prism CD. Chapman’s version of Yemaya is available for a free listen on the AllOffMP3 page; click on the Prelisten Track. This is supposed to be a low quality version, but it still sounds good. There is also a version by Deva Premal on the Music for Yoga CD, where it sounds like a lullaby. The last is not spooky enough for Halloween, but I liked it anyway. Deva Premal’s Yemaya can be heard on YouTube and this version has beautiful pictures of water, put together by Andreea Petcu, the editor of the YouTube video.

20. St. James Infirmary Blues
And finally, since we have managed to work our way back to New Orleans with a voodoo priestess, I feel free to suggest a version of the St. James Infirmary Blues. The song might just be pressed into relevance, based on the fact that St. James is the patron saint of trauma victims, which is why there are so many hospitals dedicated to him, including the one in New Orleans referred to in this song. There are many versions of this song, but my favorites today are by Cab Calloway, and I especially want to recommend the 1920’s Talkartoons videos of Betty Boop with Cab Calloway singing his hit songs. These are available on YouTube, for example, Betty Boop in Minnie the Moocher (and yes it was banned!!) and Betty Boop as Snow White with the St. James Infirmary Blues. I don’t have a clue why anybody would make a cartoon with Betty Boop as Snow White and Cab Calloway rotoscoped into KoKo the Clown singing the St. James Infirmary Blues, but both of these videos are full of ghosts and the music is fabulous, so of course they are appropriate for Halloween. If you just want to hear the songs, here are some good short versions of Minnie the Moocher and St. James Infirmary Blues.

I hope these are enough good songs that you can put together a playlist of music suitable for the season. I have also put together a page of Halloween Song Lyrics which anyone can print out to make a booklet because I wish to encourage people to sing and tell stories. I think there should be more singing.

References
Music References (which I hope you may find useful)
• Bronson, Bertrand Harris, Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1959.
• Child, Francis James, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1882-1898 (and subsequent editions). Lyrics from Child Ballads on Sacred-Texts
• Raven, Jon, The Urban and Industrial Songs of the Black Country and Birmingham, Broadside, Wolverhampton, 1977.
• Percy, Thomas, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. by Henry Wheatley, Swan Sonnenschein & Co. London, 1891.
• English Folkplays (Mummers’ Plays), some with songs with words and music are on the net at www.folkplay.info

Scholarly References
• Frazer, James George, The Golden Bough, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920, (12 vol. edition), includes many descriptions of traditional folk festivals.
• Grimnismal 40-41, (Poetic Edda). The English translation of Ymir is quoted from p. 21, The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, The American-Scandinavian Foundation, Oxford University Press, London, 1923.
• Ranck, Shirley Ann, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, Delphi Press, Inc., Chicago, Ill, 1995.
• Boer, R.C., ed., Die Edda, Martinus Nijhoff, ’s-Gravenhage, 1922. The Old Norse text of Ymir is given from this book.

Unscholarly Sidenote: Here is a link to some suggestions for Halloween costumes, which I am including because they are very funny and actually rather clever.

This article was originally published on Associated Content, which went out of business on Feb. 1, 2010. The page was then published at pierce.yolasite.com/hallsongs but Yola went out of business in 2011. The article is now being republished here with an update.

© 2007, last updated 1/8/2012, piereligion.org/hallsongs.html