Someone was recently talking with me about occult knowledge and how we could ever know what people in ancient times really thought, especially about spirituality. This is a very difficult question, of course, but I chose to give him this example below of how occult knowledge is transmitted in the face of disapproval and persecution from religious authorities and hidden in the form of a folk song.
‘Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!’ is very well known folk song, sometimes known as “The Dilly Song”, and popularised by boys of Eton school in the nineteenth century, appears to have its roots back beyond the reach of written memory. In this essay I will try to show that, whilst the song has been corrupted over the years, it retains as its core a mystical wisdom that is derived from the mystical system known as the kabbalah.
Like all study of ancient texts, the first and often most difficult task is to establish the correct text. This is always a problem, especially where the text has been handed down by word of mouth and subsequently damaged by population migration. Fortunately some ancient songs have been recorded by folklorists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whilst still in popular use. The text that I will be referring to is that cited by Sabine Baring-Gould in “Folksongs of the West”; a version is contained in the archive of Bristol City Library; and it is recorded (and available on disc) as “The Childe Ballads”.
The kabbalah is a system of mysticism that is originally Jewish, and then taken over and modified by Christians during the Renaissance. It describes the progress of the soul from earth to heaven, from materialism into enlightenment. Its current layout, as a series of ten spheres connected by twenty one lines, is not only a device for meditation and spiritual journeying. It is also a mnemonic, a sort of mental card index into which the mystical student can arrange experiences and information about the spiritual world. Our song is an example of the latter, and is an attempt to convey and hand down ancient wisdom in the context of disapproval and persecution by the Church authorities.
But how, might one ask, does Jewish mysticism come into the hands of British folk singers? One of the obvious difficulties in this sort of question is that it was not, for most of the Christian era, safe for non-orthodox beliefs to be held and expressed. By definition, ‘occult’ material is hidden, and its adherents took great care to keep it hidden from the view of the Church. Yet this material has to be conveyed somehow, or it will die out. Non-Christian (or non-orthodox) forms of wisdom, either native to Britain or imported from overseas, had to be passed from person to person in the circumstances of great security, often via people who were carriers but not themselves able to understand the subtleties of the content. My own guess is that kabbalistic ideas were brought to the west during and after the Crusades, as were “heretical” ideas such as Catharism. Songs such as ours took root within the popular consciousness but lost their meaning for the majority of the audience.
The Kabbalah is usually shown as rising from the lowest sphere at the bottom of the page to the highest at the top, following the progress of the soul from materialism to enlightenment, However, our song starts from the top and works down, the descent of the deity into matter, a very Gnostic idea.
So, let’s look at the text, starting from the lowest point, and missing out the repeated chorus:
I’ll sing you one-oh, green grow the rushes, oh!
What is your one-oh?
One is one and all alone, and evermore shall be so.
Two, two, the lily white boys, clothed all in green, ho! ho!
Three, three, the rivals.
Four for the Gospel makers.
Five for the symbols at your door.
Six for the six proud walkers.
Seven for the seven stars in the sky.
Eight for the April rainers.
Nine for the nine bright shiners.
Ten for the ten commandments.
(In some versions there is ‘eleven for those who went to heaven’ and ‘twelve for the twelve apostles’. But these are of a later date and are not contained in the oldest versions.) So now we can look at what this means from a Kabbalistic point of view.
- One is one and all alone, and evermore shall be so. The core of the Jewish religion and of the Kabbalah is the Unity of God. God is not only one as opposed to several; God is the eternal one, and nothing exists outside that oneness. This fact was rather eroded by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, yet we learn here that the first principle (as in Aristotle) is the absolute unity of all things. The topmost sefirah of the kabbalistic tree is Keter, the crown. But outside that is finally ‘Ain – nothingness’. This does not mean that nothing exists, but that we can say nothing useful about this state. The quintessential mystical experience of humankind is the experience of union with the universe.
- Two, two, the lily white boys, clothed all in green, ho ho. The Sefer Yetsirah – the most basic and earliest of kabbalistic textbooks – relates two to the element of air, and an air sign is Gemini, the twins. Astrology has a very ancient history, and was in earlier times part of the orthodoxies of both Judaism and Christianity, although the latter now disavow it with fervour as if it were a senile relation. The astrological symbols were present in both Hebrew and Babylonian thinking from a very early date, although it is not easy to know which came first and which influenced the other. Some variants say “lily white maids”, and this may relate to the name of the second sphere, chochmah – wisdom. The Zohar tells us that the primal unity, God, wished to behold Himself, so withdrew from a part of Himself: this part became the created universe. The universe, and especially the human being, serves as the mirror of God – or His partner in creation, or His twin. Two, therefore, is the perfect and untouched primal relationship, white; but clothed in green to show the potential, as yet unrealised, for growth. It has been suggested that the two ‘boys’ clothed in green are the Holly King, who is defeated at Yule by the Oak King, a traditional theme now revived in Wiccan rituals.
- Three, three, the rivals. The original trinity of Father, Mother and Son was changed to the Christian trinity by substituting the Holy Spirit for Mother. Judaism has no trinity, but the kabbalah links the third sphere, Binah – understanding – with the maternal principle. From the One comes the desire for a relationship and a self reflection, which results in Two. When the Two come together they create another, a Third. Any creative work, whether a romantic couple or a single person engaging their own creativilty, is a relationship which calls out from within it something else which is part both of them but part separate from them. A variant reading has replaced “rivals” with “partners”. Yet we know that partners are close to rivals. this creates a triangle, and these three sefirot are called the ‘supernal triangle’. It now has the potential to create either harmony or dissention. This is the beginning of growth and development. At this point on the Tree is a gap, known in Magick as the Abyss. This point is the location of the hidden shadow sefirah of Daat – the place of hidden knowledge. It is possible that ‘rivals’ is a corruption of ‘arrivals’, the three Magi who attended the birth of the Christ.
- Four for the Gospel makers. This is a Christianisation of the significance of the number four. Long before four referred to the Gospels it had a wide range of references: the four rivers that flowed out of Eden, the four beasts of Ezekiel’s vision, the four directions, the four elements; and many others. The equal armed cross (which, again, predates the Christian use of the cross) is a line from above to below, then a line from side to side. So four is a combination of the relationship between heaven and earth and the relationship between people. It is the number that locates us in a specific place. Between three and four on the kabbalistic tree is the Abyss that separates the upper, supernal, triangle from the central section of the tree. We have moved from the supernal which is very difficult to access, down to the next level, which although still removed from our everyday perception, is accessible to human awareness.
- Five for the symbols at your door. Whilst four is the number of the elements, five includes the quintessence, the ether, or spirit. It is the point where the four elements are balanced, synthesised and begin to be transcended. As such, five is the symbol of the human being, who transcends the purely natural and animal worlds. This is shown graphically by Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man. This fifth element is the aspect of divinity that draws the four material elements towards God. In Christian mysticism Christ is shown as a lamb in the middle of the four beast of Ezekiel. Five is a protective symbol that is placed on or near the door to deny entry to dangerous spiritual influences, and it is related to both whichcraft practices and to the five marks on the door which covertly signalled the presence of a Catholic priest after the reformation. In Judaism the mezuzah is nailed onto the doorpost. Upon the mezuzah is the letter ‘Shin’, standing for the god-mane Shaddai, or Sh D Y. This is expanded to say ‘Shomer Deletot Israel – Guardian of the gates of Israel’. In Magick, the guardian of the Temple is the fifth Temple officer.
- Six for the six proud walkers. Where “walkers” fit is a mystery to me, although in Ezekiel 9:2 six men arrive with swords to punish those who turn to the east to pray, rather than to Jerusalem. A variant reading is: “six is the Ferryman in the boat that over the river floats”. If this is correct it could be a reference to Charon, the Greek mythical being who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to the underworld. But how does this link to a kabbalistic meaning? Six is a number used of sexual union, as identified in the Magen David, having the meaning of union via love. It is also the mystical union of the heavenly and earthly spheres, as shown by two triangles which interweave. Six, in the place of Tiferet on the Tree, has been seen as the place of Christ in Christian kabbalah, and is the number of all such divine heroes – e.g. Mithras, Baldur, Osiris – who become the connectors between humanity and the divine realm. Six is the number of the letter vav, meaning “nail”, which supports, holds, fixes and connects – the role of the messianic figure who is the connection between the divine and the human. The Psychopomp, the guide of the soul, also ferries us over the river of Jordan to the promised land. Another variant of the text has “waters” instead of “walkers” (or sometimes, in American versions, ‘waiters’). Christians see this as a reference to the miracle of changing water into wine at Cana, where six pots were used; and six containers of wine were a feature of the Mithraic mystery. In the Rider-Waite version of the Tarot, the six of Swords shows the ferryman.
- Seven for the seven stars in the sky. The seven stars are usually thought to be the constellation of the Plough. Seven is the number of Netsach, Victory, and and in Hebrew name ‘Nogah’ is Venus, the deity in the female aspect. The goddess has a crown of seven stars, as does the virgim Mary. A variant reading: “the gate of heaven” refers to the position of Netsach as the first of the three lower spheres, having crossed the second divide, the Parochet, the veil of the Temple. Seven is the number of completeness, and, as in the creation story, the number of rest after labour. A variant says ‘seven are the joys of the Virgin’, referring to the Catholic idea of the seven ecstatic experiences of Mary in the Christian bible.
- Eight for the April rainers. The eighth sphere, Hod, is “glory”, more correctly translated as “shimmering, vibrating, reverberating”, as does gold or precious stones. This vibration is both a consequence of enlightenment and its stimulus. Rain, here, stands for the shimmering quality of this experience. The variant reading of “the morning’s break” refers to the archangel Rafael, the element of Air and the keeper of the gates of dawn.
- Nine for the nine bright shiners. Before modern astronomy, there were nine planets visible in the night sky, all of whom has Magickal and astrological associations. The angels of the ninth sphere are the Aishim, the beings of Fire, and Yesod, foundation, is the quality of this experience. This is associated with the Moon, and of the period of gestation. A variant from Dorset says: “the Gabriel rangers”, and Gabriel is the archangel of the ninth sphere. Gabriel in Christian myth is the being who announces the pregnancy of the Virgin Mary. Gabriel in British folklore is the leader of the Wild Hunt, whose hounds carry off those unfortunate enough to be around at the time – another way of describing the effect that enlightenment has upon the soul.
- Ten for the ten commandments. This sphere, Malchut, the Kingdom, refers to the material world, in which the commandments of the Bible, the mitzvot, have a literal and concrete reality. The material world is symbolised by the stone. This stone is the stone of the altar, and is the stone upon which Jacob slept and from which proceeded the ladder up to heaven. The same stone was the stone struck by Moses in the wilderness, and the stone of the sacrifice of Isaac, and from which the prophet Mohammed stepped off into heaven, now in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The Christian bible says “this stone is Christ”, although the most obvious Christian stone is St Peter – upon which in built the church. A variant reading is “ten forbids all kinds of sin”, a good description of the mitsvot. The tenth sphere is composed equally of the four elements, and lacks the element of spirit, as befits a symbol of the material world. It is also the great mother goddess, the earth mother, the ground of death and rebirth, so it is no coincidence that the song sometimes goes on “from ten begin again” – an allusion to the belief held both by Christian mystics and Jewish kabbalists in the reincarnation.
Under Christian influence the song has acquired for some people another two verses: “eleven for the eleven who went to heaven”, the Apostles minus Judas, the failed disciple; “and twelve for the twelve apostles”, including Paul to bring up the numbers. However, the number twelve is a very ancient reference to the zodiac, and the kabbalah does have two “ghost” spheres, Daat that bridges the Abyss, and a sphere below Malkut that symbolises the Underworld. But eleven and twelve do not seem to be part of the original song – and certainly I didn’t sing them as a child.