How Bloody Mary Inspired Two Gruesome Nursery Rhymes

Arkane Curiosities

Many early fairy tales and children’s songs have been sanitized over the years, their darker origins being submerged under the seeming nonsense of the verses. Yet if we dig deep enough, we can uncover the disturbing origin of nursery rhymes. Two gruesome nursery rhymes link directly back to Mary I of England.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

The homicidal Queen Mary I (1553 to 1558), a fanatical Catholic, executed hundreds of Protestants during her reign. Although the nursery rhyme did not appear till 200 years later (1744), Mary remained an unpopular monarch. 

The most common lyrics today are:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row

Mary I was quite contrary, going against the grain of English Protestism. Yet how does she “grow” her kingdom? With the sprouting of gravestones from the 284 Protestants she burned at the stake. In this interpretation, the silver bells and cockle shells can refer to torture devices. 

The pretty maids in a row can refer to her attempts to create an heir. She knew she needed someone to rule after her, otherwise her sister, Elizabeth, would take control and revert the country back to Protestant beliefs. Mary was already 38 when married to Philip. She suffered from “phantom pregnancies” where she retained her menstrual fluid, causing her belly to swell. In the end, she suffered two such false pregnancies. 

Three Blind Mice

This rhyme dates much closer to Mary I, being published in 1609 by one Thomas Ravenscroft. The modern lyrics go like this:

Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice?

During Mary’s reign, three Protestant loyalists plotted against the queen. Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer all conspired to overthrow the queen. They were never blinded, but perhaps they were “blind” to the truth of God. Instead of cutting off their tails, Mary had the “Oxford Martyrs” burned at the stake. 

The farmer’s wife in this tale refers to Mary and her husband, King Philip of Spain, who owned massive estates. 

So the next time you hum one of these little ditties, think about the pain and suffering that inspired them.

Tim Kane

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Origin of Undyne from Undertale

Arcane Curiosities

The game Undertale, released September 15, 2015, has legions of devoted followers. You play as a human who falls into the Underground, filled with monsters. The most determined being Undyne the Undying. She is the head of the royal guard in the Underground. Her task, eliminate any and all humans. But what exactly is the origin of Undyne?

From Nymph to Royal Guard

Undyne’s name derives from the word Undyne (also spelled Ondine), a mythical water nymph. The undine is an elemental spirit representing water. The Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus, invented the name in his book “A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits” from 1566. The Latin root for undine is unda or “wave”.

No such fate would befall Undyne, her name a play on the word undying. She is committed to eliminating humans and stealing your soul — the last one needed to allow the monsters to escape from the underground. 

“Seven. Seven human souls, and King Asgore will become a god. Six. That’s how many we have collected thus far. Understand? Through your seventh and final soul, this world will be transformed.”

Undyne

A Determined Piranha

One theory about Undyne’s appearance is that she is a humanoid version of a piranha fish (specifically Serrasalmus Rhombeus).

Serrasalmus Rhombeus

Undyne is a fish-like monster with blue scales and a protruding maw of teeth. This matched the toothy grin of a piranha. Additionally, the Serrasalmus Rhombeus has red finned gills, matching Undyne’s red ponytail. Finally, piranhas have eyes with vertical slits, much the same as Undyne.

These fish also share Undyne’s personality, a ferocious determination to attack. However, piranha work in packs. Undyne needs no other help.

“Deep, deep in my soul. There’s a burning feeling I can’t describe. A burning feeling that WON’T let me die.”

Undyne

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Tim Kane

Dragons of China

Arkane Curiosities

HBO’s House of Dragons tantalizes our imaginations about a world filled with flying reptiles. Yet throughout history, not all dragons had wings and breathed fire. The dragons of China slithered through the skies millenia ago and were just as deadly.

Chinese dragons controlled the weather and symbolized royalty and divine good fortune. They guarded heaven and inhabited nearly every biome in Asia. 

A Conglomeration of Beasts

Wang Fu, a philosopher and poet in the early Han Dynasty (206 BCE – CE 220) wrote extensively on the anatomy of dragons. According to him, all Chinese dragons (and Asian dragons in general) share nine characteristics:

  1. Head like a camel
  2. Demon eyes
  3. Ears of a cow
  4. Horns of a deer
  5. Belly of a clam
  6. Neck of a snake
  7. Paws of a tiger
  8. Claws of an eagle
  9. Scales of a carp

Notice that, unlike their western counterparts, only one animal is of the reptile variety. This creature is more at home with a Greek Chimera than a European dragon. 

Yin and Yang

Wang Fu also stated that dragons have exactly 117 scales. That’s right. Not a scale more or less. You see, dragons were seen as concise in their construction. Even the scales themselves were divided up, much like a baking recipe, with 81 scales representing yang essence and 36 representing yin essence. 

Although they are portrayed as male (having beards and horns), Chinese dragons are essentiallly gender neutral or non-binary (having some parts yang and others yin). Instead, the Chinese phoenix is split into male (凤) and female (凰) versions. 

The yin scales give the dragon its aggressive and destructive side, but thanks to its smaller ratio, it’s balanced by the peace and serenity of yang. Just as a flood or tidal wave can wreak havoc (yin is associated with water), so too, dragons can summon storms or cause droughts by withholding water. 

Number of Toes

The Chinese believe that all Asian dragons originated in China and that as they flew farther away, they lost some of their power. 

Imperial dragons are the only ones to have five toes. The more common dragons have to make do with only four. Korean dragons only have four toes (being removed from the center of China) and Japanese dragons have only three (even farther from China).

Unfortunately, these days no one remembers these strict rules about the number of toes and people draw all dragons with five toes. 

Quick Change

In many stories, dragons can stretch their bodies or even make themselves disappear. They can also take on the form of a fish, snake or human being. 

Dragons could also shrink to very small sizes. In the illustration, a Buddhist monk convinces a dragon to fit into a rice bowl. 

Dragons Aren’t Born

Dragons are not born. Instead they transform into a dragon from another creature (like a snake or carp). This might account for the various animals which make up their appearance. 

The process of transformation can take thousands of years. Just to grow those 117 scales can take a millennium. Often, young Chinese dragons appear more like fish until they reach maturity. 

There really is no need for young dragons because they are not seen as monsters roaming the countryside, as in Europe. Instead, they are forces of nature, akin to the Greek fates or the Norse Valerie’s. We don’t see the fates having little fates running around. There’s no need. 

Tim Kane

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