Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child

Beth has mentioned to me that she really likes the Coventry Carol, which I can’t say I was particularly familiar with. It’s a very bleak sort of song, which makes sense considering what it’s about.

But we both know it was a girl back in Bethlehem.
I had figured the “little tiny child” mentioned in it was Jesus himself, but no, it’s actually about the Massacre of the Innocents in Matthew 2. It’s a lullaby for babies murdered by the government.

As I’ve said before, it’s unlikely that the story is historically accurate, as it isn’t attested to anywhere other than the one Gospel, even by historians like Josephus who were all too eager to document Herod’s atrocities. I have seen it suggested that there might not have been that many babies two years old or younger in Bethlehem at that time, but it still sounds pretty newsworthy.

It’s also pretty much textbook mythology, referencing the story of Moses as well as numerous stories about powerful people trying to fight fate by destroying a rival mentioned in prophecy. According to the story in Matthew, Jesus never really does do anything to Herod, who’s dead by the time his family returns from Egypt. But then, he’s generally not the vindictive sort. Matthew also quotes a passage from Jeremiah: “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” This is from Jeremiah 31:15, and in its original context refers to the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians, who gathered their captives in Ramah before taking them to Babylon. Ramah was traditionally part of the territory of Benjamin, one of Rachel’s sons according to Genesis. Her other son, Joseph, is held to be the ancestor of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, located in the north and having previously been conquered by the Assyrians. And Rachel is said to have died in what would become Bethlehem, another likely reason why Matthew would introduce this passage. It’s well-known that Matthew’s scriptural passages not only take some mental gymnastics to fit with the life and death of Jesus, but a lot of them weren’t even prophecies in their original context. Thomas Paine wrote about this back in the eighteenth century. I’m sure Matthew realized this, but he was part of a school that held that even the most benign passages could be seen as having two meanings, the original one and one predicting future events. Another interesting question I’ve seen raised is why Herod specified children two and younger when Jesus was presumably still a newborn. Maybe he just wanted to hedge his bets, but I’ve also come across the suggestion that Matthew (or whoever wrote the Gospel attributed to him) intended the Wise Men‘s journey to have taken as long as two years. In the liturgical calendar, the massacre is commemorated on 28 December, and the visit of the Wise Men on 6 January. If the star the Three Kings followed appeared when Jesus was born, the twenty-fifth according to church tradition (disregarding how that probably isn’t really when he was born), would that mean it only took them two or three days to journey to Jerusalem to talk to Herod, then another nine days to travel the five and a half miles from there to Bethlehem?

And why would Jesus’ family have still been in Bethlehem AFTER the slaughter? I guess they weren’t really trying for a consistent timeline. The carol is generally dated to the sixteenth century, being part of a mystery play performed in Coventry, England, hence the title. Wikipedia also indicates that it gained popularity from a radio broadcast in 1940, in which it was performed in the destroyed cathedral in Coventry after the city was bombed.

I tend to associate the Coventry Carol with “What Child Is This?”, which I guess also has an English tune from the sixteenth century or thereabouts. The lyrics to that one were written as a poem by William Chatterton Dix in 1865, but it’s not actually known who paired them with the traditional tune of “Greensleeves.” Beth has also mentioned liking the third king’s verse from “We Three Kings,” an American carol written in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins Jr. This is the verse about the myrrh (frequently attributed to Balthasar), the one about “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying.”

It seems that this verse is often omitted, presumably because of how dark it is. But then, isn’t the central point of the story of Jesus and the Christian religion that Jesus died a tragic death? They’re compartmentalizing a bit, I would think.

Baby Jesus and Adult Jesus are almost separate characters in a narrative sense (if obviously not literally), like when Mario and Baby Mario appear in the same game.

And like Jesus, we don’t know much about Mario between his miraculous rescue as a baby from a villain who wants to do away with him to thwart a prophecy and when he’s an adult carpenter.

Does that mean Pauline represents Mary Magdalene?Not that I’m saying Mario was intended as a Christ figure, just that the traditional destined hero narrative often skips right from a birth surrounded by portents to the beginning of their journey. Holy macaroni, Mary, and Joseph Cambell! Also, I have to wonder how many other people are familiar with the “We Three Kings” parody where the Wise Men smoke an explosive cigar, something my parents taught me as a kid.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Christmas, Donkey Kong, History, Holidays, Mario, Middle East, Music, Mythology, Plays, Religion, Roman Empire, Tori Amos, United Kingdom, Video Games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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