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London Bridge Is Falling Down


St. Olaf, King Olaf II of Norway
 The very first London Bridge was built of wood in and was destroyed with fire by  Olaf II of Norway in either 1014 or 1009. It is believed  that the nursery rhyme goes all the way back to that time! 

A very early version is found in the Norse Saga Heimskringla:

"London Bridge is broken down. —
 Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding, War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing, Mail-coats ringing — Odin makes our Olaf win!"

Old London Bridge

The oldest known version of the rhyme from England goes like this:

London bridge is broken down,
Dance over the Lady Lea;
London Bridge is broken down,
With a gay lady.

The subsequent verses began with the lines, with lines in italics above repeated between them:

Then we must build it up again.
What shall we build it up withal?
Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel will bend and break.
Build it up with wood and stone,
Wood and stone will fall away.
Then we must set a man to watch,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
Then we must put a pipe in his mouth,
Suppose the pipe should fall and break?
Then we must set a dog to watch,
Suppose the dog should run away?
Then we must chain him to a post.


Girls playing London Bridge, 1898
 London Bridge was an extremely popular children's game for centuries and is still known today. Here's how you play:

"Two of the kids make an arch with their hands. The other kids pass through single file while everyone sings the song.

"The line of kids walking under the arch circles back around. On the last word of the song the 2 children making the arch drop their hands and 'capture' who ever was in the arch at the time. The game continues until all are captured." http://www.clevelandseniors.com/people/london-bridge.htm

1950s version of the song:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

Additional Verses:
Build it up with wood and clay, etc
Wood and clay will wash away, etc
Build it up with bricks and mortar, etc
Bricks and mortar will not stay, etc
Build it up with iron and steel, etc
Iron and steel will bend and bow, etc
Build it up with silver and gold, etc
Silver and gold will be stolen away, etc
Stolen away, stolen away, etc
Set a man to watch all night, etc
Suppose the man should fall asleep, etc
Give him a pipe to smoke all night, etc

Coyote and the Fire Spirits, Native American Legend

Coyote and the Fire God, Navajo
Long ago, when the world and human beings were new, there were times of great happiness. When spring danced across the forests and cool breezes nodded flowers heads and rippled streams, when summer embraced the earth as though the Sun were enfolding it in it's arms, when trees were ablaze with autumn fire and made a canopy of colors across the sky...

But always the autumn leaves fell and the earth froze, as if in icy, immovable rage. Winter made people very sad and also very afraid, for in the winter many, many died of the cold and food was scarce. The oldest and newest humans sufferred the most but fear and sadness for them made the others suffer all the more also.

Coyote was one of the wisest animals and a sly trickster but also a friend of the people.  One morning in early spring, he heard the women of the village singing in voices so low and sad that he paused to listen. They were singing for the old and new ones who had died in the winter. Their deep moans were so filled with despair that it made the hair on Coyote's back freeze like upside down icicles. 

"The sun! The sun!" Coyote heard one of the women say. "If we just had a piece of it to carry with us through the winter it would end the great suffering of our people."

Coyote had an idea. He knew a place, far away on a mountan top, where three Fire Spirits lived. They tended a piece of the sun but guarded it with their very lives, because they did not want human beings to have it. They were afraid that, if they did, they'd be as strong as the Fire Spirits and that would place them at a decided disadvantadge.

They had eyes that burned black and red like hot coals and sharp talons like an eagle's for hands but Coyote wasn't afraid of them. In fact, he not only didn't like them but he longed for an excuse to play a trick on them for their selfishness. He set out that day to the mountain of the Fire Spirits to steal their secret and help the human beings.

The Fire Spirits thought he was just a regular old coyote sniffing through the woods, so he had little trouble getting close to them and their fire. He sat patiently and watched, to learn how to tend and keep it himself. 
He learned that they fed the fire wood and bits from trees like pine cones. He learned that when flames stretched out and threatened dry grass nearby they stomped it out, keeping the fire. He learned that at night the Fire Spirits took turns sitting beside the fire, guarding it and keeping it alive.  Coyote saw that it was not only because they didn't want someone to steal the fire that the Fire Spirits guarded it so closely but also because Fire was something that could not and should not be left alone.

Coyote also learned that there was one part of the day that the Fire Spirits were not completely consumed with tending their fire.  Early each morning, the Spirit on watch at night had a difficult time waking the Spirit who's turn it was next up. Sometimes, in his impatience to go to sleep, he left before the next Spirt took her place. 

After studying all of this, Coyote went down the mountain to the village. He told the people and the animals about the Fire Spirits and how they tended a piece of the Sun. All agreed that they wanted fire and that they would help Coyote get it for them.

Coyote again went to the mountain-top. Again the Fire Spirits feared a thief in their midst but found only a coyote. Thinking he was just an ordinary coyote, they ignored him and went about their business as usual.

Coyote waited through the day and through the night until the dawn. The night guard Fire Spirit tried, as usual in vain, to wake his sister up to watch the fire. When she was slow in coming out and he'd just walked away in frustration, Coyote lept forward, grabbed a flaming stick and took off down the mountain.

The Fire Spirits purused him, screeching and hissing as they flew. Their coal black eyes burned and gleamed fiendishly with red. Their sharp talons grabbed and snatched, hurling branches, small birds and whatever else they could fling at Coyote. He ran like the wind but they were fast as flame and caught up to him. One stretched out a formidable talon and, though she was only able to grab the tip of his tale, managed to hold it long enough that it turned the hairs white. That is why the tip of Coyote's tail is white to this day.

Badly hurt, Coyote flung the fire away from him. Squirrel caught it and put it on her back. She too was burned, so badly that her tail curled up, as it still does today. Squirrel threw the fire to Chipmunk. She froze in her tracks with fear and one of the Fire Spirits clawed her, leaving three stripes from his talon down her back, which are still there today. Chipmunk threw the fire to Frog, and one of the Spirits grabbed his tail, trying desperately to take back the fire. Frog lept away but left his tale in the hand of the Fire Spirit. And frogs have not had tails since.

Frog flung the fire into Wood and Wood would not let the fire go. Even the Fire Spirits couldn't get the fire from Wood. They promisted gifts, they sang, they danced, they struck Wood and hacked it with their knives. But Wood would not give up fire. Defeated, the Fire Spirits went back to their home on the mountain top. They never again left the fire unattended but it was too late, human beings already had their secret.

Coyote, because he was so clever, had been able to trick wood into telling him how to get the fire out of it.  He then showed the people how to rub two dry sticks together, and how to spin a sharpened stick in a hole made in another piece of wood. Doing this drew fire out of Wood in a way the Fire Spirits had not had the patience or presence of mind to accomplish.

So thanks to Coyote, Squirrel, Chipmunk and Frog, human beings were able to keep a piece of the sun to keep them warm in the winter. And we keep it still.