Songs of Magic and Witchcraft

A couple of years ago on one of my annual visits to Cornwall we visited the Museum of Witchcraft is Boscastle.  I bought a CD there called ‘Songs of Witchcraft and Magic’ (1).  I probably played it once or twice, before putting it on the shelf to collect dust for quite some time.  Earlier this year I stumbled upon this CD again and for the first time, I actually listened to it…really listened to it.  I played it in my car…absorbing the lyrics, the melodies and the stories told in each song.  I have often heard it said that there is much forgotten lore to be found in the old fairy tales and folk songs… the proof of the pudding however is always in the eating.

Here are two songs featured on that CD which happen to be amongst my favorites.  The first is the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer.  This song originally hails from Scotland, but the theme shouldn’t be unfamiliar to any of us.   Thomas the Rhymer (referred to as ‘True Thomas’ in the tale) is in fact Thomas Learmonth a 13th Century Scotts prophet who was gifted with poetic vision.  Perhaps the tale recounts how and where he acquired this gift. 

True Thomas lay on Huntlie Bank,
A ferlie he spied wi’ his eye
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by Eildon Tree.

Her shirt was o the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o the velvet fyne
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pulld aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee
“All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.”

“O no, O no, Thomas,” she said,
“That name does not belang to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.”

“Harp and carp, Thomas,” she said,
“Harp and carp along wi’ me,
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be.”

“Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunton me;”
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

“Now, ye maun go wi me,” she said,
“True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe, as may chance to be.”

She mounted on her milk-white steed,
She’s taen True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bridle rung,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

O they rade on, and farther on–
The steed gaed swifter than the wind–
Untill they reached a desart wide,
And living land was left behind.

“Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies three.”

“O see ye not that narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.

“And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path to wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

“And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

“But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see,
For, if you speak word in Elflyn land,
Ye’ll neer get back to your ain countrie.”

O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
And they waded thro red blude to the knee;
For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.

Syne they came on to a garden green,
And she pu’d an apple frae the tree:
“Take this for thy wages, True Thomas,
It will give the tongue that can never lie.”

“My tongue is mine ain,” True Thomas said;
“A gudely gift ye was gie to me!
I neither dought to buy nor sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

“I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye:”
“Now hold thy peace,” the lady said,
“For as I say, so must it be.”

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
And till seven years were gane and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.

It’s well worth tracking down other variations of this classic as well as songs such as ‘Tam Lin’ which have strong similarities well worth exploring.

The second of my favorites can best be described as a ‘somber dirge’ yet I have seen this song described as a Christmas Carol.  For me this song demonstrates just how much deep and rich symbolism can be captured in just a few short verses, folk songs are not only pleasing to the ear, or even simple repositories of old lore and legend but can be powerful meditational devices.  This song sometimes referred to as ‘The Bells of Paradise’ but often as The Corpus Christi Carol, seems to originate from as early as 1504 the original only having seven stanzas, however the version I give below is more contemporary and is the one featured in the aforementioned CD(2). 

Down in yon forest there stands a hall,
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring;
It’s covered all over with purple and pall
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

In that hall there stands a bed,
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring;
It’s covered all over with scarlet so red.
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bedside there lies a stone
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring;
Which the sweet Virgin Mary knelt upon.
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

Under that bed there runs a flood
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring;
The one half runs water, the other runs blood.
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the foot of the bed there grows a thorn
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring;
Whichever blooms blossoms since He was born.
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

Over that bed the moon shines bright,
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring;
Denoting our Saviour was born on this night.
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

I am so easily lulled into a strange state of mind whenever I hear the repetitive drone of this song…the imagery and symbolism penetrate like butter on warm toast…you can’t but feel the power of it! 


(1) Songs of Witchcraft and Magic is available from the Museum of Witchcraft Shop and I highly recommend it!

(2) For those interested in the original lyrics:

Lulley, lully, lulley, lully,
The faucon hath born my mak away.

He bare hym up, he bare hym down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hanged with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede,
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bede ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston,
“Corpus Christi” wretyn theron.

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One Response to Songs of Magic and Witchcraft

  1. DaveLavers says:

    Will be popping into the museum for a copy asap

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