History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Sumer Is Icumen In

I thought I'd get the jump on Beltane and talk about everyone's favourite May Day song (even if you're not on Summer Isle) as it is a great piece of history. 'Sumer is icumen in' also known as the 'cuckoo song' embodies that glorious sense of happiness that the first real warm days offer us. Here in the north we still can't quite believe that summer is a-coming, which makes me want to sing it even more.

This is the earliest secular song recorded in English in the Middle Ages and appears in a 13th century manuscript along with a Latin version. Here's the original lyrics:

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe w[u]de nu
Sing cuccu

Awe bleteþ after lomb
lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc sterteþ
bucke uerteþ
murie sing cuccu
Cuccu cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu
ne swik þu nauer nu

Sing cuccu nu, Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu, Sing cuccu nu

It's been translated in a variety of ways, so here's my go at it:

Summer is a-coming in
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grow, you seeds,
And blow, you weeds,
It's spring -- the woods are new.
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe bleats to her lamb so mild,
The cow lows to her child.
The bull he starts,
The goat he farts,
We're merry -- sing cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Well you sing, cuckoo;
There's no work left for you!

Sing cuckoo, you! Sing, cuckoo!

Wouldn't it be great if medieval traditions like this song caught on again? The Telegraph just published a story about the resurgence of Beltane -- and the National Theatre is putting on a new translation of Everyman by Carol Duffy -- it could happen!

Oh, and the Latin version? It's much less fun though nonetheless farming related. You can read it here: Perspice Christicola.

Image: "Sumer is icumen in - Summer Canon (Reading Rota) (mid 13th C), f.11v - BL Harley MS 978" by Image taken from Summer Canon [Reading Rota].Originally published/produced in England [Reading Abbey, co. Berks.]; mid 13th century.Held and digitised by the British Library, and uploaded to Flickr Commons.

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Wednesday, 29 April 2015

    Thanks for this. It's one of my favorite May songs, too. I've taught it many, many places around the country.

    I think the dirge-like way it's sung in The Wicker Man is creepy, but then again, those singers have a slightly different agenda going. ;-) We sing it quickly and upbeat.

    Currently I've taught it to the men in the Wiccan circle at San Quentin when we celebrate Beltane. I do explain the meanings of the words, but still they get really frustrated with the language, especially those men for whom English isn't their first tongue. We'll be singing it again this coming Saturday.

    We also sing "Summer, Summer," as featured on one of Ruth Barrett's albums. The words are translated and adapted from the Gaelic by our mutual friend Séamas Ó Direáin.

    Blessed Beltane!

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Wednesday, 29 April 2015

    That sounds wonderful. If it helps any, early English is simpler than modern English which has even more influences. Blessed Beltane to you too!

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