'Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie...'
As scrumptious as this may sound, did this type of event actually occur, and if so, can we then take this famous nursery rhyme literally?
Well maybe we can. There are a number of reports of this type of eccentric dining spectacle taking place, mostly involving live pigeons, where a chef would prepare a joke pastry prison filled with live birds to shock and delight the dinner guests, only to then present an edible pie to huge applause. An unsettling experience for the birds involved, but better than the slightly different twist, where a cooked bird would quite often be dressed in its own plucked feathers.
The following account originates from the marriage ceremony of Henry IV of France and Marie de’ Medici in 1600:
“The first surprise, though, came shortly before the starter—when the guests sat down, unfolded their napkins and saw songbirds fly out.”
Another take on ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ leads to more historical and politically bent metaphors, such as the king being Henry VIII, the queen is Anne Boleyn, and the blackbirds allude to the treatment of monks during the Dissolution of Monasteries which was caused by Henry when he fancied some extra cash.
On a more folklorish tip, the king represents the sun, the queen the moon, and our blackbirds symbolise the number of hours in a day. One particularly dark theory links the taking of the maid's nose as being a demon stealing her soul. Like the poor old black cat, the lovely blackbird has been wrongfully seen in such sinister light before. Its black feathers have been said to be the darkness of sin, and its delightful song said to represent the temptations of flesh; allegedly Saint Benedict had a close call when the devil took on the form of the blackbird so as to distract him during prayer, but Benedict was not so easily fooled, and sent the devil packing, or flying, with the sign of the cross.
In fact, the blackbird's beautiful song has nothing to do with a devilish temptation. It naturally evolved after spending countless years in the forest, its original habitat, where a strong and melodic tone is essential for penetrating the dense woodland thicket. Although as our friend the Red Squirrel knows only too well, the great forests are now gone, and so these songsters share our gardens; happily it seems, as there are ten times more blackbirds living in the suburbs than in the countryside – but that doesn’t mean we can start packing them in to pies again!
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In Greek mythology, Halcyone and Ceyx were lovers who incurred the wrath of the god Zeus by mocking him and his wife. Angered, Zeus killed Ceyx.