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Green grow the rushes, O

From Academic Kids

Green Grow the Rushes, O, is a folk song popular in England, Scotland, and Wales. The song is extremely old, first recorded in Hebrew in the 16th century and probably much older than that; at the present, it is sometimes sung as a Christmas carol. The song is not to be confused with Robert Burns' Green Grow the Rashes, O, with which it shares only the title. It is cumulative in structure, with each verse built up from the previous verse by appending a new stanza. The first verse is:

I'll sing you one, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What is your one, O?
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

The twelfth is:

I'll sing you twelve, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your twelve, O?
Twelve for the twelve Apostles,
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
Ten for the ten commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the April rainers, (occasionally Eight for the eight bold rangers,)
Seven for the seven stars in the sky,
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone (sometimes One is one and one alone,)
And evermore shall be so.

The lyrics of the song are in many places extremely obscure, and present an unusual mixture of Christian catechesis, astronomical mnemontics, and what may very well be pagan cosmology. The song's origins are uncertain, but the first recorded instance of it is in Hebrew; it may have originated in the intricacies of medieval Jewish thought, but the Kabbalistic mystics were seldom interested in composing songs...

"Green grow the rushes, O" sounds sufficiently out of place that one is inclined to ascribe it to the same origin as "Fine flowers in the valley" in one version of the ballad The Cruel Mother, namely, an attempt to turn a misremembered line of Gaelic into something that it sounds like in English. However, the song did not originate in the British Isles; thus, the line must have been included for a conscious reason, or been the product of an earlier disruption.

  • Twelve is almost certainly the twelve apostles of Jesus, although the number has other meanings; it may originally have referred to the months of the year, for example.
  • The eleven are the eleven Apostles, minus Judas Iscariot, who remained faithful, or possibly St. Ursula and her companions.
  • Ten are, fairly obviously, the ten commandments given to Moses.
  • The nine may be an astonomical reference, although counting the sun, moon and planets known before 1781 yields at most 8, not 9. It could potentially refer to the nine orders (or 'choirs') of angels.
  • The April rainers refer to the Hyades star cluster, called the "rainy Hyades" in classical times, and rising with the sun in April; the Greeks thought of them as inaugurating the April rains. "Eight bold rangers" is a very recent corruption, most likely the unfortunate consequence of singers with more knowledge of Tolkien than Greece.
  • The seven are probably the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades star cluster, or perhaps Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. They may also be the planets or other stars. Alternatively, the seven stars are those referred to in Revelations chapter 1. They are first cited in verse 16 as being held in the right hand of Christ and then explained as referring to seven angels of the seven early Christian churches.
  • The six seems to be a historical reference, but remains obscure. It is possible that they were members of a Saxon warband who beat the bounds of their fortified camp in a traditional way between 450AD and 1066AD. Perhaps it is a Biblical reference to Ezekiel 9:2 - six men with swords come in a vision of the prophet to slaughter the people, whose leaders (8:16) have committed such sins as turning East to worship the Sun, and "have filled the land with violence." It may also be a corruption of "waters," but what "the six bold waters" might refer to remains unanswered.
  • "Five for the symbols at your door" probably refers to the practice of putting a pentagram at the door of a house to ward off witches and evil spirits; this was relatively common in the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, and is alluded to in no shortage of literary works from or set in those eras. It can also refer to the five books of Moses - the pentateuch.
  • Four refers to the four Evangelists, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.
  • Some have suggested that "the three" are the Trinity, but this leaves "the rivals" unexplained. The I Ching contains the interesting proverb that "when three meet together, doubts arise among them," although it probably has no bearing on the interpretation of this song.
  • The two remain obscure. Jesus and John the Baptist have been suggested. Posibly they are the holly and the ivy (although the holly berry is red, the ivy berry is black) they are both green, but neither is white. Pagan tradition also has the holly and the ivy as male and female, so they are not both 'boys'. Possibly they are mistletoe (white berries with green banches) in some traditional rite? Robert Graves suggests that they are the Holly King and Oak King of the May Day festival. There is some suggestion that the two may be the Old and New Testaments, perhaps referring to some mediaeval tradition, although "clad all in green" strongly suggests that the two boys were in some way connected with the growth of plants.
  • One would suppose that the "One" of the last line would be God, but God in the Middle Ages was more commonly thought of as the Trinity, and "one is one and one alone," if applied to God, sounds more like Muslim theology than Christian in its strong insistence on the Divine unity.

There is also a song titled "Green Grow the Rushes" on the album Fables of the Reconstruction by the band R.E.M., which refers to and is partially based upon this song.

My only source for this is what we used to sing in childhood in the westcountry (Devon, UK) - "Five for the five bars at your gate" - just another variant.

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