Creepy Cradle: Unsettling Traditional Lullabies Sung Around the World
Sweet dreams or nightmares – are we scaring our children to sleep?
Have you ever thought about the lyrics sung in lullabies? Although it’s proven that lullabies help babies get to sleep, if you pay attention to the words sung within these traditional songs, they are often more unsettling than soothing.
Looking into lullabies from around the world, creepy lyrics are a universally common theme - despite originating from a time before global communication. As we all know, persuading babies to sleep isn’t always an easy job, and any parent will tell you of their desperation to soothe a restless baby. The traditional lullaby has stood the test of time as a way of relaxing at bed time, but are we scaring children to sleep? Remove the soothing, melodic tones from lullabies and we are left with some seriously creepy lyrics…
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Highland Fairy Lullaby
For example, a Scottish tune called the ‘Highland Fairy Lullaby’ is exceptionally beautiful on the ears, but the lyrics are quite the opposite. Although there is no big bad wolf that comes and steals the baby away, the Highland Fairy would appear to be a baby snatcher, operating whilst the parent has gone to gather fruit. Just check out the first two verses:
“I left my baby lying here,
lying here, lying here
I left my baby lying there
To go and gather blueberries.
I found the wee brown otter's track
Otter's track, otter's track
I found the wee brown otter's track
But ne'er a trace o' my baby, O!”
-first two verses of ‘Highland Fairy Lullaby’
Highland Fairy Lullaby. (Author provided)
The highland fairy lullaby was first printed in the early 1800s but it's uncertain how long it was in existence for before being put into print. As suggested by the name it has its origins in the highland region of Scotland.
The idea behind the song centers on the tradition of fairies who stole babies away and would sometimes leave a ‘changeling’ in its place. There are many stories of this happening –often the evidence is that a baby suddenly changed in character, becoming unruly, temperamental, incommunicative, and very difficult to live with. It is said that some of these stories may have helped people deal with conditions they could not understand, perhaps autism and neural disorders.
Bíum Bíum Bambaló: An Unknown Threat
Icelandic band Sigur Rós created their own epic version of Bíum Bíum Bambaló, a traditional lullaby. The title of the piece is said to be the name of whatever waits outside, lurking for those who do not stay in bed.
“Bíum bíum bambaló,
Bambaló and dillidillidó
My little friend I lull to rest
But outside, a face looms at the window
When the cruel storms rage
And the dark blizzard crouches above,
I shall light five candles
And drive away the winter shadows”
-English translation of the final two verses of ‘Bíum Bíum Bambaló’
‘Bíum Bíum Bambaló.’ (Author provided)
It is said that this song was originally written for the play ‘Fjalla-Eyvindur’, it is a popular lullaby, but the unnerving part is the backstory: in Fjalla-Eyvindur the person singing this song is his wife Halla, who lulls their child to sleep before drowning it in the Barnafoss waterfall, so she could join her husband who was on the run from the authorities.
An Australian Tale of Terror
Australian’s have a jolly ode to help your babies off to sleep – enchant them with a tale of two young children left to fend for themselves in a wood. And then dying. Sleep tight!
Oh, my friends don't you know
How a long time ago
There were two little children
Whose names I don't know?
[…] And they sobbed, and they sighed
And they bitterly cried
‘til at last they grew weary
And lay down and died.
[…] Oh, babes in the woods,
Poor babes in the woods,
How sad is the story
Of the babes in the woods.
-excerpts from ‘Babes in the Woods’
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‘Babes in the Woods.’ (Author provided)
Lelo Ledung: A Giant Hit in Indonesia
From the island of Java in Indonesia, Lelo Ledung tells of a giant in search of crying children. Best to keep quiet and fall asleep, perhaps…
“[…] Please hush…my child…
There, the moon is full,
Like the head of a scary giant
One who's looking for a crying child.
Tak lelo…lelo…lelo ledung…
Please hush, my beautiful child
I am carrying you in a sling
If you keep on crying, you'll make me nervous”
-final two verses of ‘Lelo Ledung’
‘Lelo Ledung.’ (Author provided)
From the Indonesian island of Java. This lullaby is aimed specifically at little girls.
Bayu Bayushki Bayu: Stay Off the Edge of the Bed!
Ever sleep close to the edge of the bed? Those growing up in Russia and Belarus are unlikely to, having been reminded of the consequences on every sleepless night. Stay still and stay in the middle of the bed! You have been warned…
“Sleep sleep sleep
Don’t lie too close to the edge of the bed
Or little grey wolf will come
And grab you by the flank,
Drag you into the woods
Underneath the willow root.”
- ‘Bayu Bayushki Bayu’
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‘Bayu Bayushki Bayu’. (Author provided)
The origins of this lullaby are unknown, but it is one of the most popular in Russia and still commonly sung to this day.
As night time has always been associated with darkness and fear, this could explain the threatening themes in lullabies, or are they simply a way for parents who feel wound up by their sleepless children, to relieve their frustrations, by singing lyrics of a scary nature?
Whatever the explanation - the repetitive rhythm of a lullaby gives a certain hypnotic quality and provides an association between songs and sleep. We’ve collected the creepiest lullabies from across the world in one interactive map for you to explore.
Would you sing any of these creepy lullabies to your children?
Top Image: Detail of ‘Coco’ a monstrous Spanish lullaby. Source: Author provided
Stewart, C. (n.d.) ‘Fairy Lullaby.’ Kist o dreams. Available at: http://www.kistodreams.org/fairylullaby.asp
Yannucci, L. (2018) ‘An Coineachan.’ Mama Lisa’s World. Available at: https://www.mamalisa.com/?p=3496&t=es
Transparent Language (2015) ‘Sleep, you pig – scary Icelandic lullabies.’ Transparent Language. Available at: https://blogs.transparent.com/icelandic/2015/09/03/sleep-you-pig-scary-icelandic-lullabies/