by Richard Stoney
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 similar 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,
We all fall down" (or "stand still" or "bow
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]
Now compare some of Shiva's actions, as depicted in
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 consciousness
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 unconsciousness 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
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
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. According to David Smith in DANCE OF S'IVA (p. 222), the members
of his flock prefer to join in rather than merely watch. He mentions
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,
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 fool 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.
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?
Yet another alteration of the two above paragraphs
comes from a German version:
"Circle, circle, form a circle
There are three children
Sitting under the lilac-bush (German HOLDERBUSCH)
At an Internet address http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~imunro/helge.html),
Helge Moulding recalls her experiences with the German version. She says
that HUSCH means "hush, quiet", perhaps referring to those who
"stood stock-still, not singing/not knowing what to do."
However, she also points out that, as a child, she also understood it to
mean "scurry, hurry", as we saw in the case of the anxious
devotees. I am aware that my interpretation of the German section is
vague, but I found the use of HOLDERBUSCH (HOLDER, "elder,
lilac" + BUSCH, "bush") very significant (that is, more
than mere coincidence), since the German word HOLD, "kindly,
favorable" (related to the Anglo-Saxon name HOLDEN, "friendly,
gracious") is synonymous with the name/word of Shiva,
"Auspicious". In other words, HOLDERBUSCH is close to
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.
Suggested Further Reading
(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.
Source: © 2000 and subsequent
years.Richard Stoney of Humboldt County, California, USA. No part of
this article shall be reproduced in any manner either in part or in full
without the prior permission of its author.