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Vögguvísa, a commissioned work of art by Becky Munich

Many years ago, when my sister and I were very young, my mother would sing us bedtime songs as she tucked us in for the evening.  Well, my sister really.  The little lullabye wasn’t for meant me, but I listened from the twin bed on my side of the room and was comforted by it anyway.

As my younger sibling lay sleepily, clutching a faded pink crocheted afghan in one small hand and a red wooden rooster named “Wolf” in the other, my mother crooned to her in soft, low tones:

“Well, a-hee hee hee and a-ha ha ha, and a couple of ho ho hos…”

Not much of a lullaby really.  Who knows what it meant? Harmless nonsense that she made up to send a fussy child off to dreams, most likely.

Older now, and having a lifetime of observing my mother (and yet still not really knowing the woman at all), I found myself growing vaguely uneasy the other evening, wondering what exactly she might have been thinking about as a young single mother  – and a very troubled woman -singing her children to sleep on a moonless night in the suburbs.

This came about, I suppose, due to some late night reading of an article about the somewhat horrifying nature of Icelandic lullabies.

Bíum, bíum, bambaló, Bambaló og dillidillidó. Vini mínum vagga ég í ró, en úti bídur andlit á glugga.

“Beeum, beeum, bambalow, Bambalow and dillidillidow. I rock my friend to sleep, but outside there’s a face in the window.”

From faces looming at windows, to desperate outlaw women throwing their babies into the waterfulls, to black black-eyed pigs in the pits hell*, it would seem that, paradoxically, Icelandic lullabies are the stuff of nightmares, tragic and terrible. Why is that? Why sing of such things to your precious wee ones?  And are Icelanders alone in their penchant for soothing their children to sleep with melancholy melodies of murder, mayhem, and madness?

In researching lullabies in different parts of the world, I unearthed an intensely interesting article from 2013, Why Are So Many Lullabies Murder Ballads? in which ethnomusicologist and UCLA lecturer Andrew Pettit, whose research has focused on lullabies from India, asserts that “you can take any song, slow it down and sing it to your kid to help them sleep.”

A study published in the journal Pediatrics in April 2013 found that live lullabies slowed infant heart rate, improved sucking behaviors that are critical for feeding, increased periods of “quiet alertness” and helped the babies sleep. Researchers followed 272 premature infants in 11 hospitals and found that the music, provided by a certified music therapist, offered stress relief for the parents too. The study concluded that “lullabies, sung live, can enhance bonding, thus decreasing the stress parents associate with premature infant care.”

As an explanation for the dark lullaby, it is said that “…it is that voice and the rhythm and melody of the music that the youngest babies respond to, not the content of the song. Is it the case then, that the words are as much for the parent as for the child? That the mother is singing as much to herself as to the baby? Lyrics to lullabies, Pettit said, can indeed be interpreted as a reflection of the caregiver’s emotions.”

“People have said that lullabies are the space to sing the unsung,” Pettit said. “A place to say the unsayable. You’re alone. Nobody is listening, and you can express the feelings that are not okay to express in society.”

“There is a special physical bond between mother and child in the first year of life, in which mothers feel they can sing to their child about their own fears and anxieties, but in the safety and comfort of physical togetherness,” Blythe said.

In particular, lullabies embody a mother’s fear of loss, said Joanne Loewy, lead author of the April 2013 study in Pediatrics and director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York.

The article goes on and on, citing many examples from cultures all over the world in which lullabies and cradle songs are grim, macabre affairs: “…an Italian lullaby about a wolf devouring a lamb until “the skin and horns and nothing else remain.” An Andalusian lullaby about a rider who “led his horse to water but would not let him drink.” And a Turkish lullaby about a mother mourning her baby after an eagle has torn it to pieces, karmic punishment when the father fails to fulfill his vow of sacrificing three camels.” (And it would seem in the time I started writing this blog post, mentalfloss has put together a list of creepy lullabies from all over the world, as well.)

And of course here in America “…there’s “Hush Little Baby” with its broken mirrors, fallen horses and mockingbirds that won’t sing. “Rock-a-Bye Baby” ends with an uncertain prognosis — death? injury? — after a cradle containing a baby plummets from a treetop.”

Themes of separation, isolation, of fear and loss are common to all cultures and repeatedly show up in these cradle songs, and even the comments on this article offer some interesting insights:

“It seems to me people are thinking of this outside of the context. The child is warm, safe, in bed, attended by parents. The song, the lullaby, is clearly about a different child, a child that is outside of hearth and home, a child that is untended, alone – “in the tree tops”. The child is comforted in contrast to the child in the song, at the same time social values are reinforced.”


“…Or it could be that being sole (or almost sole) caretaker of an infant is a very demanding job, however rewarding. For those first couple of years, you’re exhausted beyond belief, you lose nearly all privacy, your life disappears as you become the watchful eyes, ears, and lifeline of your small charge. You cannot express any sorrow or fear you have about losing yourself openly, and you surely cannot take it out on that little one whom you truly do love more than you love yourself. And so you sing words you would never say and don’t really mean, but it’s a safety valve of sorts.”

SO interesting!  I could read about this sort of thing all day…and I don’t even have children.

In Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear By Marina Warner, the author mentions studies regarding benefits of cradling a baby on the left side versus the right, with left-side cradling attributed to the placement of the heart, beating and pulsing rhythmically, lullaby-like, to pacify the infant. However, observations have shown that the preferred sound of both the fetus and the infant is the mother’s voice, not the heartbeat at all.The hypothesis takes as it’s premise the bilateral division of function in the brain where language, expression and communication are concerned: a baby’s brain, as it grows, learns to read facial expressions and to understand pitch and tonality with the right side of the brain, which is connected to the left ear and eye; by contrast, verbalization is linked to the left hemisphere and the right ear and eye. Consequently, this line of inquiry proposes that a baby cradled on the left, with the left ear and eye free will be “…absorbing facial and vocal expressiveness, independent of verbal meaning.

Warner cites a “strikingly harsh” example from an old Icelandic song “Móðir mín, í kví, kví”, which may clinch the argument about the phonetic importance of lullabies and nonsense songs and nursery rhymes:

The story goes thusly…

A young woman who lived on a farm became pregnant. After giving birth to the child she set it out to die of exposure, not an uncommon act in this country before it became punishable by severe penalties. Now one day it happened that the young woman was invited to a dancing party. However, she had no good clothes, so she stayed at home in a sour mood. That evening, while milking the ewes in the fold, she complained aloud that for the want of a proper dress she could not go to the party. She had scarcely spoken when she heard the following song:

Móðir mín í kví, kví,

kvíddu ekki því, því;
ég skal ljá þér duluna mína
duluna mína að dansa í,
ég skal ljá þér duluna mína
duluna mína að dansa í.

(English) Mother mine, in the fold, fold

You need not be so sad, sad.
You can wear my castoff rags,
So you can dance,
And dance.

The young woman who had let her child die of exposure thought that she recognized its voice. She took such a fright that she lost her mind and remained insane the rest of her life.

According to Warner, it may be that passing on of distinctive sounds, singing on behalf of another, ascribing speech and babble to the infant and for the infant, transmitting cadence and language, telling the child of imaginary fates it has avoided, or sometimes of fortunes lying ahead…are some of the earliest formulators of omniscient thought near a child forming that child’s fears and longings on it’s behalf.

As for myself, who knows what fears or longings my own mother had when we were too young to know or recognize such concerns. She is no longer with us, and the opportunity to ask her these things has passed me by.  If nothing else, listening to her sing to us – whether to sleep in the evenings, or while washing our hair over an old sink in our dark basement – taught me a deep love of singing, and song, and music itself.

I wish…I wish we could have learned some of these strange, foreign lullabies together.  I think she would have appreciated the sad melodies, the grim stories, and the haunting imagery they conjure.  Maybe I’ll learn them anyway. I don’t have any children, but perhaps one day I shall sing them to my mother, a ghost who never really grew up, though she did eventually grow old and left this world in some measurement of time passed that simultaneously feels like last week and a decade ago.   I think she would love this one as much as I do.

Sofðu unga ástin mín.
Úti regnið grætur.
Mamma geymir gullin þín,
gamla leggi og völuskrín.
Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur.
Það er margt sem myrkrið veit,
minn er hugur þungur.
Oft ég svarta sandinn leit
svíða grænan engireit.
Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur.
Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt,
seint mun best að vakna.
Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt,
meðan hallar degi skjótt,
að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna.

Sleep, my young love.
Outside the rain is weeping.
Mummy is watching over your treasure,
an old bone and a round case.
We should not stay awake through dim nights.
There is much that darkness knows,
my mind is heavy.
Often I saw black sand
burning the green meadow.
In the glacier cracks are rumbling deep as death.
Sleep for a long time, sleep quietly,
it is best to wake up late.
Sorrow will teach you soon,
while the day is quickly decaying,
that men love, lose, cry and mourn.

Here is Damien Rice singing a not very traditional version of it, I reckon.

And lastly, I’d like to share some music from a group of young Icelandic musicians whom I stumbled across several years ago, Samaris. The first song I ever heard by them, Vögguljóð, translates as lullaby, and that is their general sounds as well: ethereal, clarinet-led electronica, conjuring images of cold nights, snow-dusted firs, blinking stars and aurora, enchanted liminal spaces. The first video is the original version of the song, and the second, I believe is the re-worked version for their album.

* RE: black eyed pigs and such:  when originally reading the article that sparked my interest in this, I was particularly intrigued by the mention of this portion of a lullaby:

Sofðu nú svínið þitt,
svartur í augum.
Farðu í fúlan pytt,
fullan af draugum

Which translates to

Sleep, you black-eyed pig.
Fall into a deep pit of ghosts.

The more I read, the less I am convinced that this is an actual traditional lullaby. In some places, it is noted as a 19th-century lullaby translated by W.H. Auden, and in others, I gather it is somehow attributed to Halldór Laxness, a beloved Icelandic author and poet. A mystery!

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Megan says

Interesting. I myself hummed the opening song of the tv show The Secret Circle to my newborn daughter. It has no words, but I found it sombre. And also somehow soothing, especially to me. Of course I was in what I termed Zombie-Mommy-Land, so perhaps that is why I chose it.

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