DESCRIPTION: Capstan shanty. "The brave west wind it filled our top-s'ls and bore us out-ward bound... for Frisco Town.... Sheet it home- that big main top-s'l, sheet it home- boys, good and true, For we're bound to Mother Carey's, where she feeds her chicks at sea."
EARLIEST DATE: 1961 (Hugill)
LONG DESCRIPTION: Capstan shanty. "The brave west wind it filled our top-s'ls and bore us out-ward bound, out-ward bound across the Western, out-ward bound for Frisco Town. Chorus: Sheet it home- that big main top-s'l, sheet it home- boys, good and true, For we're bound to Mother Carey's, where she feeds her chicks at sea."
KEYWORDS: shanty ship travel return
FOUND IN: Britain
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Hugill, p. 192, "Mother Carey's" (1 text, 1 tune)
NOTES: Hugill: "'Mother Carey's chickens' was a sailor name for stormy petrels, seabirds found flying close to the crests of the great seas of the high latitudes." - SL
The origin and use of this name is the subject of some dispute. Numerous sources agree that Mother Carey's chickens are stormy petrels. Kemp, p. 561, refers the name particularly to Procellaria pelagica On the other hand, Hendrickson, p. 58, notes that there are several species of stormy petrels, and identifies Mother Carey's chickens in particular with Hydrobates pelagicius (the European Storm Petrel; hydrobatidae is the family name for the petrels, most of which belong to other genuses) -- but gives no explanation for the origin of the name. It appears to go back at least to 1834, however, when author Harriet Martineau saw them on an Atlantic voyage (Fox, p. 12).
Kemp p. 561, reports that the name "Petrel" is derived from Italian Petrello, a diminutive for Peter; supposedly petrels are "St. Peter's birds, because Peter followed Jesus's command to walk on water" (Binney, p. 158).
These birds, according to folklore, foretold approaching storms (Fox, p. 213). This is perhaps not as crazy as it sounds; birds, for obvious reasons, are acutely aware of atmospheric conditions, such as barometric pressure, and simple observation shows that they know when storms are coming -- anyone with a birdfeeder can see them stoking up before a storm hits. Presumably the petrels do the same at sea.
Benet, in the article on mothers, adds that Mother Carey's goose is "the great black petrel or fulmar of the pacific." (Interestingly, Brewer/Evans, p. 759, article on "Mother Carey's Chickens," has these definitions almost verbatim. I don't know who stole from whom, though.)
Benet and Brewer/Evens agree that the phrase "Mother Carey is plucking her goose" means that it is snowing.
Partridge dates the use of Mother Carey's Chickens as a name for snowflakes to 1861, citing Hotten's slang dictionary. This usage is also supported by Simpson/Roud. Partridge also cites a usage, "faring alike and paying the same, ca. 1820-1850," and lastly notes that Bowen's Sea Slang applies the phrase to "a small gun."
Opie/Tatem, p. 1878, quote A. MacGregor, Brahan Seer, p. 31, "Superstitions of Highlanders": "Sailors... greatly dread the stormy petrel, or Mother Carey's Chickens, as they flutter at night around their masts and yards. The birds are regarded as objects of superstitions fear, believing that they are possessed of supernatural agency in creating danger for the... mariner."
But who is Mother Carey? Walker states that the name is an "English sailor's version of Mater Cara, 'Beloved Mother' [or 'Dear Mother'], the Latin Sea-goddess." She notes that the French call the petrels the "Birds of Our Lady." Similarly, Benet notes that the French call them "oiseaux de Notre Dame" or "aves Sanctae Mariae."
Walker's equivalence, although quoted also by Kemp, appears to be wrong, I checked four classical dictionaries, and not one mentions "Mater Cara" as a Latin goddess. There is a "[Mater] Matuta," identified in Zimmerman as a "goddess of sea travel," or perhaps of harbors, but Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, B. 656) credits Matuta with bringing the dawn; she is also associated with childbirth. In any case, it's obviously a different name.
Of course, Mater Cara as a name for the Virgin Mary -- frequently addressed as the Mother of God in Catholic tradition, and often invoked as an intercessor -- is quite common, and Binney, p. 158, declares that petrels "are also called 'Mother Carey's Chickens,,' supposedly from the words 'Mater cara,' or 'Dear mother,' uttered by sailors when storms strike.". But would nineteenth century English sailors be addressing Mary for help? (Indeed, if we're trying Latin for a goddess of sailors, how about "Mater Carina," which can mean "Mother of hulls/keels." I don't believe it, though.)
The real problem with the Mother Carey=Mater Cara equivalence, though, is noted by Simpson/Roud: It has no support. We nowhere find references to Mother Carey without her birds.
If we're looking for an equivalent of Mother Carey that might be known to sailors, we might also mention "Matrika," which is the Hindu name for a "Divine Mother"; there were said to be seven of them (Knappert, pp. 168-169). As a Hindu religious figure, the "Matrika" might well be treated as something of an alien power. There is no link to birds, however, so this too is pretty far-fetched.
Simpson/Roud speculate that Mother Carey is the Old Woman of the Storms -- the hag who brings foul weather (sometimes illustrated as stirring the clouds or the sea with a very long finger; George MacDonald in The Princess and Curdie, Chapter V, calls her "Old Mother Wotherwop," but I don't know if this name is traditional or out of his head). The link strikes me as quite reasonable but beyond proof.
There is one other interesting note about that, though: It sounds as if Morgan le Fay, of King Arthur fame, also played a role as the Old Woman of the Storms -- and in this role may be connected with the Celtic goddesses Matrona and Modron (GawainStone, pp. 138-139) -- which is reminiscent of Mater. So we can build a nice mythological circle; we just can't tie it to Mother Carey or chickens.
The "chickens" phrase is certainly famous, however. Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923), best known for writing Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, also wrote a book called Mother Carey's Chickens, which was made into a movie in 1938. As best I can tell from reading excerpts, though, it's just a book about chickens.
Rogers/Rogers, p. 93, claim that J. R. R. Tolkien, somewhere in his works, explained Mother Carey, but give no explanation for why they say so. My guess is that they are thinking of Elwing's transformation into a bird at the end of the first age, and her coming to Earendil bearing the silmaril. But that is only a guess. In any case, Tolkien was offering at most a retrospective explanation for an existing phrase. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.2
- Benet: William Rose Benet, editor, The Reader's Encyclopdedia, first edition, 1948 (I use the four-volume Crowell edition but usually check it against the single volume fourth edition edited by Bruce Murphy and published 1996 by Harper-Collins)
- Binney: Ruth Binney, Nature's Way: lore, legend, fact and fiction, David and Charles, 2006
- Brewer/Evans: Ivor H. Evans, editor, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, centenary edition, revised, Harper & Row, 1981
- Fox: Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isumbard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships, Harper Collins, 2003
- GawainStone: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated with an introduction by Brian Stone, Pengion, 1959, 1964
- Hendrickson: Robert Hendrickson, The Ocean Almanac, Doubleday, 1984
- Kemp: Peter Kemp, editor, The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea, Oxford, 1976
- Knappert: Jan Knappert, Indian Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend, 1991 (I use the 1995 Diamond Books edition)
- Opie/Tatem: Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, editors, A Dictionary of Superstitions, 1989 (I use the 1999 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Partridge: Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (combined fifth edition with dictionary and supplement), Macmillan, 1961
- Rogers/Rogers: Ivor & Deborah Roberts, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Critical Biography, Twayne's English Authors Series, 1980 (I use the undated Hippocrene paperback reprint)
- Simpson/Roud: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2000
- Walker: Barbara G. Walker, The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper, 1983
- Zimmerman: J. E. Zimmerman Dictionary of Classical Mythology, 1964 (I use the 1980 Bantam paperback)
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