The Bitter Withy
The Bitter Withy is an English folk song (also said to be a Scots-cum-Appalachian ballad or carol). It is also known as "The Bitter Withy Tree", "The Withies", "Three Jolly Jerdins" or "The Sally Twigs". The song reflects an unusual and apocryphal vernacular idea of Jesus Christ. The withy of the title is the willow (note: "withy" is specifically the name given to strong flexible willow stems).
The song gives an explanation as to why the willow tree rots from the centre out, rather than the outside in. The story told in the song has been traced back to a legend from around the 14th century. Interestingly, the song has not caused anywhere as much scandal as Max Ernst's 1926 painting The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child, despite the fact that the story must seem even more outrageous from a Christian point of view:
- Jesus being portrayed as a boy who abuses his divine powers by killing three boys who have refused to play with him. (This bears some similarity to certain stories of Jesus in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas.)
- The punishment he receives for this "mischief" (actually an act of triple murder) being three strokes with a bunch of willow twigs.
- After these three slashes across the knee of Mary mild he puts a curse on the tree from which the twigs were taken.
The song is given an update in a recent recording by the British folk artist John Tams on his album 'The Reckoning' (2005; won 2006 the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for the 'Best Album') and is contained in 'The Definitive Collection' (2007) also.
- The Bitter Withy
- As it fell out on a high holiday
- Small rain from heaven did fall,
- Sweet Jesus asked his mother dear
- If he might play at ball.
- "To play, to play," dear child she did say
- "It's time that you were gone
- And don't let me hear of any mischief
- At night when you come home."
- So it's up the hill and down the hill
- Our sweet young savior ran,
- And there he met three rich young lords,
- Good morning to each one.
- "Good morn," "Good morn," "Good morn," they said,
- "Good morning," then said he,
- And which of you three fine children
- Will play at the ball with me?
- Oh, we are lords and ladies sons
- Born in a bower and hall
- And you are nothing but a poor maid's child
- Born in an oxen stall.
- Well, if I'm nothing but a poor maid's child
- Born in an oxen stall,
- I'll make you believe in your latter end,
- For I'm an angel above you all.
- So he built a him a bridge of the beams of the sun
- And over the water ran he,
- Them three little lords followed after him
- Drowned they were all three.
- So it's up the hill and down the hill
- Three rich young mothers ran,
- Crying, "Mary mild, fetch home your child,
- For ours he's drownded each one."
- So Mary mild fetched home her child,
- And laid him across her knee,
- And with a handful of withy twigs
- She gave him slashes three.
- Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy,
- You've caused me to smart,
- And the withy shall be the very first tree
- To perish at the heart.
|“|| The Fig Tree, Cursed by Jesus, Withered
(12) And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
(13) And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
(14) And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
(20) And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
(21) And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.
|— Mark 11:12-14 20-21|
- Donald Davie (ed.): "The Bitter Withy", in: Idem (ed.): The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Oxford University Press, 1988, newer: 2003. ISBN 978-0-19-282157-7, newer: ISBN 978-0-19-280486-0; p. 247.
- Donald Revell: The Bitter Withy, Alice James Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-882295-76-0 (Press Kit)
- Christina Sewell: "The Bitter Withy", in: Legends of the Christ Child, illustrated by Jonny Boatfield, Lutterworth Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7188-3026-7, pp. 61-65.
"Mother Mary took a handful of willow twigs (or withies, as the country folk call them) and she gave her son six of the best till his poor little bottom was red and raw" (p. 64).
- The Bitter Withy on Wikipedia
- Weiden (Botanik) on Wikipedia (in German): The German word for "willow", "Weide" (from OHG: "wîda", "the flexible"), is in its spelling and pronunciation similar to "withy" and preserved its broader meaning.
- withy in Wiktionary