Mother Shipton's Prophecy
DESCRIPTION: "Carriages without horses shall go, And accidents fill the world with woe, Men in the air shall be seen In blue and black and white and green.... Under the water men shall walk... The world to an end shall come In eighteen hundred eighty-one."
EARLIEST DATE: 1923 (Peters), but see the NOTES
KEYWORDS: prophecy technology nonballad
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Peters, p. 77, "Mother Shipman's Prophecy" (1 text)
NOTES: Although the text in Peters (which has no tune -- an indication that it was never a traditional song) refers to "Mother Shipman," this is unquestionably a reference to the "prophetess" known as "Mother Shipton."
The quantity of Mother Shipman material on the Internet surprised me (at least until I remembered that there is still popular demand for, e.g., astrology columns). The typical story is that she was born Ursula Southeil/Southill in about 1488, and lived until the reign of Elizabeth I. She was supposed to have lived near Knaresborough in Yorkshire. A cave where she took refuge is still pointed out; Alexander, pp. 198-199, notes that it was considered a dangerous place because high amounts of calcite in the runoff could enclose unmoving objects in stone very quickly.
But as Simpson/Roud note on p. 248, most of this information comes from a chapbook of her prophecies from 1641, nearly a century after her death; there is no reason to consider it reliable. If there are any valid references to Shipton from historical sources, I haven't seen them.
BriggsAbbr, p. 299, has a slightly different version: "Most, if not all, of these stories are derived from a book published in 1684, 130 years after the reputed death of Mother Shipton, and it is uncertain how far they were the invention of the author, Richard Head." Westwood/Simpson, p. 832, note that this version makes her a child of the Devil. Briggs goes on to repeat a story of magic and witchcraft. BriggsDict, volume A.2, p. 549, has another tale, "Mother Shipton's House," which seems to show that even articles associated with her were considered magical.
She is reported to have prophesied the death of Cardinal Wolsey -- or at least his failure to reach York on his last trip (Westwood/Simpson, p. 832; Kellett, p. 118); this is considered the prophecy that validated her others, but the accounts of it are, of course, all after-the fact.
The version of the text found in Peters doesn't even go back to Shipton. In 1862, one Charles Hindley took an old Mother Shipton chapbook, edited it, and added some material, including the final couplet about the world ending in 1881 (an interesting number since it is symmetrical front-to-back and top-to-bottom; Westwood/Simpson, p. 833). This was taken seriously enough that there was panic in that year -- even though Hindley had admitted in 1873 to having written the account himself. A later version changed the year to 1991 (Kellett, p. 118), but that obviously didn't work out either.
Hindley had lots of company; according to Alexander, p. 199, more than fifty books of her prophecies have been published since the first one.
Although Shipton's prophecies do often seem to have come true (e.g. the big about carriages without horses), there seems to be little indication that whoever originated the verses expected them to come about as a result of technology; the various Biblical apocalypses seem a greater source of inspiration (and probably explain why Hindley saw fit to add an apocalyptic ending).
According to Kellett, p. 118, the species of insect Callistege me has the popular name "Mother Shipton's Moth." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Alexander: Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, Sutton Publishing, 2002
- BriggsAbbr: Katherine Briggs, British Folktales (originally published in 1970 as A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales), revised 1977 (I use the 1977 Pantheon paperback edition)
- BriggsDict: Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, Part A: Folk Narratives, 1970 (I use the 1971 Routledge paperback that combines volumes A.1 and A.2)
- Kellett: Arnold Kellett, The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition, and Folklore, revised edition, Smith Settle, 2002
- Simpson/Roud: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2000
- Westwood/Simpson: Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson, The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys, 2005 (I use the 2006 Penguin paperback edition)
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