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Oh there are cheery folk songs and we call them jigs, and there are sad folk songs and we call them laments, but what about creepy folk songs? Nothing better for that than the Lyke-Wake dirge. It's a song to speed the soul on its way and make sure it fully separates from the Lyke -- the Lyke being an old word for corpse. And to speed the soul on its journey, people would sometimes give back the things that the deceased had given them in life -- an old pair of shoes, say. Ah, but if the deceased had NOT given them anything, well -- that's what the song is about. For a stingy soul who had given no help to others would get no help from them, when it came time to reach purgatory. 

Sounds a bit like the Egyptian "book of the dead" stuff, only more fair. (I never quite understood how someone was supposed to make sure their heart was lighter than a feather.) People who describe the dirge say that it sounds like old paganism, but ah, who knows. Paganism was supposed to be gone from Western Europe by 950, and most of the things people call "pagan survivals" are only attested form 1300 onward. Then again, maybe the things that seem like "pagan survivals" are things that would come up out of long folk traditions anyway, church or no church. The fact that the song conflates a Christian purgatory with Whinnymuir, the very moor full of thornbushes that Yorkshire folk were familiar with, is one of those things that sounds pagan enough to be mistaken for paganism. But it's just folk, describing the supernatural through what they know. The bridge of dead, on the other hand...that's harder to explain.

Maybe it's more accurate to say that the basic forms and assumptions of paganism never really left Europe, even as the rites and the gods themselves disappeared, and that Roman Catholicism in its form among the folk remained far more syncretic than anyone gives it credit for. The idea of souls having to cross a barren land of thorns to reach the afterlife appears in Norse mythology as well, and York was once a great city of the Norsemen in Britain...

The song has been attested in print since the late 1600s. The rituals associated with the song are attested from writings in the mid 1500s, and Lykew-Wakes are described in Chaucer's writings. The song is well-known in the north of England, especially within Yorkshire, but not at all in Scotland. The tune itself, dating from 1895 at the earliest, has many covers, such as a famous recording by Pentangle, an earlier recording by The Young Tradition, and my favorite version by Andrew Bird and Matt Berringer


There's a fair few different sets of lyrics.

These lyrics, as recorded by John Aubrey in 1686, are written in an old style of the Yorkshire dialect.

This ean night, this ean night
every night and awle
Fire and fleet and Candle-light
and Christ receive thy Sawle.

When thou from hence doest pass away
every night and awle
To Whinny-moor thou comest at last
and Christ receive thy silly poor Sawle.

If ever thou gavest either hosen or shun
every night and awle
Sit thee downe and putt them on
and Christ receive thy Sawle.

But if hosen nor shoon thou never gave nean
every night and awle
The Whinnies shall prick thee to the bare beane
and Christ receive thy Sawle.

From Whinny-moor that thou mayst pass
every night and awle
To Brig o'Dread thou comest at last
and Christ receive thy Sawle.

From Brig o'Dread that thou mayst pass
every night and awle
To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last
and Christ receive thy Sawle.

If ever thou gave either Milke or drinke
every night and awle
The fire shall never make thee shrink
and Christ receive thy Sawle.

But if milk nor drink thou never gave nean
every night and awle
The fire shall burn thee to the bare bane
and Christ receive thy Sawle.

This ean night, this ean night
every night and awle
Fire and fleet and Candle-light
and Christ receive thy Sawle.

 

These lyrics, as recorded by Sir Walter Scott, are a bit different.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire, and sleet, and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thye saule.

When thou from hence away art paste,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou comest at laste;
And Christe receive thye saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thye saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne'er gavest nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall pricke thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thye saule.

From Whinny-muir when thou mayst passe,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brigg o' Dread thou comest at laste,
And Christe receive thye saule.

From Brigg o' Dread when thou mayst passe,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou comest at last,
And Christe receive thye saule.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrinke;
And Christe receive thye saule.

If meate or drinke thou never gavest nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thye saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire, and sleet, and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thye saule.

 

This version, "A Cleveland Lyke-Wake Dirge", dates from 1800 when Lyke Wakes were rare. It is from Richard Blakeborough's book "Wit, Character, Folklore, and Customs of the North Riding", published 1898.

This ya neet, this ya neet,
Ivvery neet an' all;
Fire an' fleet an' can'le leet,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

When thoo frae hence away art passed 
Ivvery neet an' all;
To Whinny-moor thoo cooms at last,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

If ivver thoo gav owther hosen or shoon,
Ivvery neet an' all;
Clap thee doon an' put 'em on,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

Bud if hosen or shoon thoo nivver gav nean,
Ivvery neet an' all;
T' whinnies 'll prick thee sair to t' bean,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

Frae Whinny-moor when thoo mayst pass,
Ivvery neet an' all;
To t' Brig o' Dreead thoo'll coom at last,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

If ivver thoo gav o' thy siller an' gowd,
Ivvery neet an' all;
At t' Brig o' Dreead thoo'll finnd foothod,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

Bud if siller an' gowd thoo nivver gav nean,
Ivvery neet an' all;
Thoo'll doan, doon tum'le towards Hell fleames,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

Frae t' Brig o' Dreead when thoo mayst pass,
Ivvery neet an' all;
To t' fleames o' Hell thoo'll coom at last,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

If ivver thoo gav owther bite or sup,
Ivvery neet an' all;
T' fleames 'll nivver catch thee up,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

Bud if bite or sup thoo nivver gav nean,
Ivvery neet an' all;
T' fleames 'll bon thee sair to t' bean,
An' Christ tak up thy saul.

 

 


Some say it's "Fire and Sleet" to refer to salt thrown on the body, and others say it's "fire and fleet" to refer to fire and water, but as it happens "flet room" is Yorkshire dialect for the main room of a house.

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