Chapter One 2


Hey Ho Raggedy-O

 

Chapter 1 – page 3

Woden has many names, but key ones relate his blindness, which was, more correctly, half-blindness. His older names, Blindi or Blinde Belien, became Billy Blin or Billy Blind in Scotland and England. His new first-name — Billy — was also in keeping with his function as a helpful servant-companion. In Scottish dialect the name Billie meant Companion, and was used as an all-purpose term for Friend, in much the same way as Jack was used in Cornwall. Under the names Billy Blin, Billy Blind, Belly Blind, or Blind Barlow, he appears in ancient alliterative poems and ballads of the Border Country, lurking there until fairly recent times.

Professor Francis James Child collected many hundreds of these ballads, publishing them with extensive background information as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Child gives a lot of space to the Billy Blin detailing his possible origins.

[4]

Billy Blin was so familiar as a helpful household-spirit that the references to him, within the ballads, are almost offhand:
Then out and spake the Billy Blind. He spake aye in a good time….
Or:

…..Oh it fell once upon a day
Burd Isobel fell asleep
And up and starts the Billy Blind
And stood at her bed-feet……..

Or later in the same ballad:

…….She set her milk-white foot on board
Cried, “Hail ye, Domine”
And the Billy Blind was the steerer o’t
To row her o’er the sea
From Young Beichan (Child 53)

The above verses out of Young Beichan suggest another supernatural connection: one between the ballad ghost, Sweet William, and the Billy Blin. They both appear at the bed-foot and ask questions about the bed linen. That would take us wandering along uncharted pathways, following a Will-o’-the-Wisp (who may just be another manifestation of Woden himself ).

Blind non-working servants were kept in wealthy households for their supposed gift of second sight, and it’s here perhaps that we find the links between the wise and helpful blind Woden and his human manifestations. It is interesting that the Scottish name for the game of blindman’s buff is “Billy Blin” or “Belly Blind”.

[5]

The familiar Brownies of the British Isles may be relatives. Clad in ragged outfits, they attached themselves to households where they performed helpful, though mundane, tasks. They were unwilling to actually become part of the household, and they carried out their work at night, in secret. They seem minor figures, with weak connections to the human world.

Ah, but did Billy Blind make people laugh? In Professor Francis James Child’s opinion the Billy Blind and a Cornish monster-genie, called Burlow Beanie, are one and the same, then yes, he was a Trickster and a shape-changer. More of Burlow Beanie later. Frustratingly, there is no sign, in any of the ballads collected by Child or anyone else, that this ancient character was preparing to pop up out of nowhere, early in the 19th century, as a funny little clown calling himself Billy Barlow.

It is unclear just when the old English name Barlow came into the picture, but it has connections with the growing of barley, so it may be that it tangles Billy’s name up with the English plant-gods as well as the great god Woden.
There are other pathways, beyond the scope of this study, but very interesting nonetheless. Woden was also known as Carl Hood — literally, Hooded Man — or Old Carl Hood, or Auld Hoodie. Under these names (and also as Billy Blin) he slipped from Viking legends into Scottish Faerie lore. Sometimes in this role he was decidedly unhelpful, even malevolent. Later, as Robin Hood, he took up the cause of the Common Man, leaving civilization behind for a life of freedom in the Shining Wood.

Woden is an ancient Shaman/Trickster god of Germanic folklore. As Odin, in Norse mythology, he was still tricky and untrustworthy, but had become a war god as well. Woden has, as his companions, a pair or ravens: Hugin – thought, and Munin – memory, who fly around gathering information, to return faithfully each evening, to Woden’s shoulders. Here they whisper to him about what they have seen and heard.

Way down behind yon old turf-dyke
I see there lies a new-slain knight
There’s none that knows that he lies there
But his hawk, his hound and his lady fair
His hawk, his hound and his lady fair.

From: The Twa Corbies. (Child 26) as sung by Hildebrand.

[6]

In his quest for knowledge, Woden, accompanied by Hugin and Munin and two wolf companions, frequently sought out the company of the Dead, believing them to be experts in the ways of the Otherworld. These associations have, at times, been much misunderstood, and have tended to give Woden — and also birds of the Corvid family — a bad name.

Woden gave up one of his eyes in return for a sip of water from the Well of Knowledge, and from time to time he resorted to other bizarre feats of self-sacrifice, with a view to attaining true enlightenment. Depicted as the Eternal Wanderer, he wears a long, hooded cape, or a cape and floppy hat, and carries a long staff marked with magic symbols. His head-covering is pulled down over the empty eye-socket. He roams the world bestowing on chosen humans the gift of poetic inspiration, insight, and wisdom. As is usual with gifts from the Otherworld, Woden’s often come at a price, and the result may not be as the recipient expects.

It must always be remembered that Woden is the Great Wandering Trickster.

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IN THIS SECTION:

 

HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)

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Notes

[4] See Professor Francis James Child ~ The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, New York, 1965, Vol. I, Ballad No. 5 , p67

[5] Ibid

[6] G Hildebrand ~ American-born musician and singer.