Shiva and "Ring around the Rosy"
I believe that the best-known versions of "Ring a-round a Rosy" owe their existence to the mythology of the Hindu god Shiva, who is best known to Westerners as the god of Destruction. But it goes further than that, for it is in his roles as Natara'ja ("Dance King") and Kapa'lin ("Adorned with Skulls") that he uses his Dance to re-energize life and the cosmos. It is in both roles that he represents the inseparability between life and death, and therefore, reincarnation.
First, let us look at the rhyme:
"Ring-a-ring o' roses (or "Ring a-round a Rosy" or "Round a ring of roses")
A pocket full of posies
Ashes! Ashes! (or "Ash-a! Ash-a!" Cf. Skt. A'SA or AS, "ashes")
We all fall down" (or "stand still" or "bow down").
When I asked my niece, Kathi Miller, what she knew about this poem, she offered this description, which has been reconfirmed by others: "A group of kids gets into a circle with hands clasped with children on both sides of them. Everyone starts out walking in a circle chanting [the lyrics of "Rosy"]. [After falling down], then we would get up and do it again, each time a little faster until the chant came out as one big [indistinguishable] word."
Now compare some of Shiva's actions, as depicted in this poem:
His charming burden of matted hair swaying,
Concentrated on his [circular] Dance
For He is an ocean of compassion.
Then those sages who in their delusion
Had sent fires and mantras, exhausted,
Were briefly filled with alarm
Feeling themselves weaponless.
Then in a flash of great speed ["faster than I could see", Smith, p. 182)
Of his [Dance] they lost conciousness
And fell down on the ground....
When the daughter of the Himalaya
Came beside him, then the gods in heaven
In delight rained down flowers" (Smith, p. 181).
Vertigo has been documented as an integral part of "Rosy" (Sierra and Kaminski, CHILDREN'S TRADITIONAL GAMES, p. 4). By inducing unconciousness upon the sages who reviled him earlier, Shiva gives them the 'eye of wisdom', whereupon they are possessed by Shiva's bliss and join the dancing (Smith, p. 224). Satisfied by the outcome of events, the gods in heaven rain down flowers.
Later on, Shiva's devotees copy his actions:
"....thrilled to the depths of their being
possessed by the [essence] of Shiva's bliss,
[Shiva's ascetics) danced, reddening the forest
with the shakening of their matted locks.
Praising Him, the gods SURROUNDED THE GREAT LORD, [most likely in a circular fashion]
heaping HANDFULS OF BEAUTIFUL FLOWERS before him,
crushing some with the tips of their crowns
as they BOWED at His feet.
Na'rada and other skilled musicians,
their hands adorned with [lutes],
STOOD STOCK-STILL, not singing,
NOT KNOWING WHAT TO DO.
Then all His [ghouls] there in front of Him
Performed a weird and wonderful DANCE AT SPEED.
All the [devotees], overexcited,
Performed all sorts of dance routines,
FALLING DOWN AND GETTING UP OVER AND OVER."
(David Smith, DANCE OF S'IVA, p. 183)
It turns out that modern-day kids who play the "Rosy" game are doing the same thing as Shiva's devotees are doing. Later requoting the above passage (on p. 222), Smith says the members of his flock prefer to join in rather than merely watch, and that there is a child-like atmosphere to it all.
The poem's initial line, "Ring-a-ring o' Roses" (also "Round a ring of Roses"), can be interpreted as having a ring around another ring (of roses): In the beginning of his Twilight Dance, Shiva is painted as having a forest of hands encircling him, aglow with the hue of JAPA'KUSUMA ["rose flowers"] at the wane of day. The [rose-colored] hands not only cluster around Shiva encircling him, but there is also a circle of flames formed against the dark elephant hide background, with Shiva's immaculate white form set off against this (C. S'ivaramamurti, NATARA'JA IN ART, THOUGHT AND LITERATURE, p. 103).
"Ashes! Ashes!" refers to the time when "there is such a stir in hastening the decoration of Shiva that the [devotees] cannot refrain from creating a scene. In their hurry, they rush and scramble, run and call, hoping thereby to achieve their purpose quicker. As Shiva is anxious to commence his dance, the shouts of the [devotees] are heard, asking for the ornaments...to be brought and made available quickly. 'Bones and skulls please', cries one, 'elephant hide', says another, 'ashes, oh! Ashes to smear..." (S'ivaramamurti, p. 95). This is a reference to the use of ashes by the ash-covered Shiva-Kapalin. His ascetic followers known as Kapalikas also wear the ashes as panacea against disease plus loincloths of animal skin with skull ornaments (Mircea Eliade, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, vol. 13, p. 19).
"[A] legend describes how at the end of one of the early ages of the universe he burnt up the gods by a flash from his central eye, and afterwards rubbed their ashes upon his body: whence the use of ashes is considered of great importance in his worship". (Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India, p. 82)
In the British version of "Rosy", "Ashes! Ashes!" is replace by "A-tishoo! A-tishoo!" or "Atchoo! Atchoo!". According to predominant theories, this refers to sneezing. I suggest that in, reality, it is coughing as a result of his violent dance actions during which mountains are flattened and the cosmos themselves are destroyed: "Enjoying this dance, choking in this whirlwind,/into the domain of ecstasy, He takes swift flight" (Ananda Coomaraswamy, THE DANCE OF SHIVA: 14 INDIAN ESSAYS , p. 91).
According to Delamar (p. 40), the earliest known forms of any "Rosy" are from circa 1790:
1)"Ring a ring a rosie/A bottle full of posie/All the little girls in our town/Ring for little Josie"
2) "Round a ring of Roses/Pots full of posies,/The one who stoops last/Shall tell whom she love best".
Here, there seems to be no indication of any plague. And apparently the "tumble down" versions did not appear until 1881 in Kate Greenaway's MOTHER GOOSE. In times of the plague, there were times when people would dance frantically in a state of panic and then would fall down, but the participants would not get up repeatedly. Also note that some versions of Rosy use the phrase "we all fall down". This would seem to indicate that the the act of falling down occurs as a group, occurring simultaneously--not over the period of several years as in the case of the plague.
Other 19th century versions of "Rosy" include a bow, curtsey or stoop (Delamar). Conceivably there are two unrelated versions of similar rhymes. One earliest version mentions Uncle/Little Josie, so who is he? Could this be a mispronunciation of one of Shiva's 1008 names? Yes, this is pure speculation on my part.
The predominant interpretations that attempt to explain the origins of "Rosy" involve either the Great Plague of London (1665) or the Black Death of the 1300's. As proof of this idea, some people point to rashes ("roses"), spices and herbs ("posies") along with sneezing and dying ("all fall down") as indications of any plagues. However, this idea falls apart since the first appearance of "Rosy" does not occur until about 1790 (Gloria Delamar, MOTHER GOOSE FROM NURSERY TO LITERATURE, pp. 38-9). Another factor weakening the "plague" theory is that the participants return to life by getting up repeatedly, an occurrence foreign to western, Christian concepts about death. However, it makes sense when one takes into consideration Hindu concepts of reincarnation. Finally, how could a "fun" game like "Rosy" come from a dreary event such as a plague? "Rosy" is just a celebration of life full of the actions that are enticing to kids.
(ED: it is important to note that when this rhyme first appeared in print, the British were in control of India. This would explain how the rhyme ended up in England. One viewer suggested that, perhaps, a Hindu nannie created the game for English children.)
How I came up with this knowledge:
Around 1996, I was aware that Shiva Kapalin was ash-covered, so I said, "Ashes." Then jokingly, I said, "Ashes! Ashes!" And I got this fantastic feeling, one of great importance and significance. I thought of "Rosy" and how Shiva did a violent, circular dance. Knowing only the basics of "Rosy", I theorized their relationship. When I started the research two weeks later, there was a new book, The Dance of Siva, at the library, but I did not find the necessary passages until the second day. The result is this essay.