In an age of online videos and mp3's, it's easy to forget that the preservation of human sounds is a uniquely modern luxury. Who knows what lullabies were sung to restless babies three thousand or even ten thousand years ago? It's impossible to know, but according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, "Nursery lore 2,000 years ago was not really different from that which maintains today."
Few of the oldest lullabies known today can be traced back earlier than the Middle Ages. Yet there are still many fascinating examples of how lullabies have been shared by mothers and babies in every century and every country around the world. Here are three of our favorites.
Aut Dormi, Aut Lacta
Lollai, Lollai, Litil Child
Possibly the oldest known lullaby from England dates back to the reign of King Edward II (1284-1327AD). It's a religious poem in the form of a lullaby, and was written down by an Anglo-Irish friar in a collection known as The Kildare Poems. It's a long, strange, beautiful, and sad piece. It's written in Middle English, but the first verse translates as follows:
"Lollai, lollai, little child, why do you weep so sadly? By necessity must you weep: it was prepared for you long ago, that you should ever live in sorrow, and sigh and mourn ever, as your elders did before now, while they were alive. Lollai, lollai, little child, child lollai, lullow; you have come into an alien world."
My Fat Baby
Old lullabies and lullabies from other countries can sometimes be comical or even threatening (such as the 19th Century English lullaby "Baby, baby, naughty baby," which ends with Napoleon beating and eating the squalling child). My Fat Baby, an Inuit lullaby from Greenland, published in a book called The Unwritten Song by Willard Trask, is one of the funnier examples:
It's my fat baby I feel in my hood, Oh how heavy he is! Ya ya! Ya ya!
And the last verse:
How pretty he is when he smiles With his two teeth, like a little walrus! Oh I'd rather my baby were heavy, So long as my hood is full!
For more unusual lullabies, we recommend reading Hush, Baby, Hush!: Lullabies from Around the World by Kathy Henderson, and The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.