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
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 :-)
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
SamhainThis 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
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
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
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
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
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.
HalloweenHalloween, 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,
baðmr ór hári,
en ór hausi himinn.
En ór hans brøm
gerðu blíð regin
Miðgarð manna sonom;
en ór hans
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 RomancesOther
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
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.
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
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
Witch of the Westmoreland
© to Archie Fisher
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.
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
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.
Music References (which I hope you may find
• 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
• 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