How Many Miles to Babylon?
DESCRIPTION: Singing game: "How Many Miles to (Babylon)? (Three) score and ten. Can I get there by candlelight? Yes, and back again." The rest of the song may refer to the pleasures of "Babyland" (Henry text), or to courting, or traveling -- or something else
EARLIEST DATE: 1805 (Songs for the Nursery, according to Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes)
KEYWORDS: playparty travel nonballad
FOUND IN: Ireland Britain(England(All), Scotland) US(Ap,MW,NE,SE) Canada(Ont) New Zealand
REFERENCES (15 citations):
Henry/Huntingdon/Herrmann-SamHenrysSongsOfThePeople H40a, p. 12, "How Many Miles to Babyland?" (1 text, 1 tune)
Linscott-FolkSongsOfOldNewEngland, pp. 18-19, "How Many Miles to London Town" (1 text, 1 tune)
Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes 26, "How many miles to Babylon?" (2 texts)
Opie/Opie-TheSingingGame 4, "How Many Miles to Babylon?"; Opie/Opie-TheSingingGame p. 173, ("Here's my black and here's my blue") (5 texts)
Baring-Gould-AnnotatedMotherGoose #146, p. 115, "(How many miles to Babylon?)"
Montgomerie/Montgomerie-ScottishNurseryRhymes 81, "(How many miles to Glasgow Lea?)" (1 text)
Newell-GamesAndSongsOfAmericanChildren, #101, "How Many Miles to Babylon?" (2 texts)
Skean-CircleLeft-FolkPlayOfKentuckyMountains, p. 27, "How Many Miles to Burnham Bright?" (1 text)
McIntosh-FolkSongsAndSingingGamesofIllinoisOzarks, p. 85, "How Many Miles to Bethlehem?" (1 text, 1 tune)
Sutton-Smith-NZ-GamesOfNewZealandChilden/FolkgamesOfChildren, p. 42, "(How many miles to Babylon?)" (1 fragment); p. 109, "(How many miles to London town)" (a counting rhyme that might be independent)
JournalOfAmericanFolklore, Katherine H. Wintemberg and W.J. Wintemberg, "Folk-Lore from Grey County, Ontario," Vol. XXXI, No. 119 (Jan 1918), #348 p. 111, ("How many miles to Barleytown?") (1 text)
JournalOfAmericanFolklore, Leah Rachel Clara Yoffie, "Three Generations of Children's Singing Games in St. Louis," Vol. LX, No. 235 (Jan 1947), #33 p. 32 ("How many miles to Mile-a-Bright?") (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Robert Chambers, The Popular Rhymes of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1826 ("Digitized by Google")), p. 298, ("King and Queen of Cantelon, How many miles to Babylon?") (1 text)
G.F. Northall, English Folk-Rhymes (London, 1892 ("Digitized by Google")), pp. 397-398, ("How many miles to Hebron"),("How many miles to Babylon?") (4 texts)
Tony Deane and Tony Shaw _The Folklore of Cornwall_, B. T. Batsford, 1975, p. 51, "(How many miles from this to Babylon?)" (1 short text)
cf. "Thread the Needle" (game) and references there
NOTES [897 words]: Sam Henry was of the opinion that the original text of this song referred to "Babyland," with "Babylon" as a corruption. Gomme, however, has nineteen texts (though a handful may not be this piece), and seven refer to Babylon, three to Banbury (Cross or Bridge), a couple of others to variants on Bethlehem, a few to London, and none to Babyland.
As secondary evidence, I note that Lewis Carroll quoted the piece, referring to "Babylon," in Chapter XVIII ("Queer Street, Number Forty") of Sylvie and Bruno. Carroll quotes quite a few popular lyrics -- and generally seems to have tried to use the best-known forms.
In defense of Sam Henry, there is a piece called "Baby-land" with several sheet music settings, by Jeannette Amidon (LOCSheet, sm1877 04182, "Baby-land," Wm. A. Pond (New York), 1877 (tune)) and Gerrit Smith (LOCSheet, sm1884 24704, "Baby-land," Wm. A. Pond (New York), 1884 (tune)). But these really look like by-blows to me. I have to think "Babylon" is original even though it's hard to explain.- RBW
One Northall text is "How many miles to Hebron? Three score and ten, Shall I be there by midnight? Yes, and back again. Then, thread the needle."
The "thread the needle" reference has to do with the game associated with "How many miles to...?" However, Northall adds the following with no further comment: "Letter and Memoir of Bishop Shirley, p. 415, 'Lord Nugent, when at Hebron, was directed to "go out by the needle's eye," that is by the small side gate of the city.'" The same text and reference to Lord Nugent had previously been cited in Notes and Queries, August 23, 1851 ("Digitized by Google"), Vol. IV, No. 95, p. 141 with the comment "Now this explains one of the strongest and most startling passages of Scripture, on the subject of riches; for the camel can go through the needle's eye, but with difficulty, and hardly with a full load, nor without stooping" [Matthew 19.24, Mark 10.25, Luke 18.25]; the note goes on to comment that this "does not tell much" about the game. On another, probably coincidental note, the game is often associated with Shrove Tuesday and sometimes with Easter Monday or May Day. - BS
The mention of "Hebron" is perhaps more counter-evidence to the claim, mentioned above, that the original reference was to "Babyland," since "Babylon" and "Hebron" are both Biblical names; it's hard to imagine a change from "Babyland" to "Hebron," but not too much of a stretch to change from "Babylon" to "Hebron" -- especially since Babylon no longer exists.
The distance from Jerusalem to Hebron, to be sure, is far less than seventy miles; it's closer to twenty miles. The distance from Jerusalem to Babylon, on the other hand, was many hundreds of miles away as the crow flies, and even more as the caravan travels. So to say that the distance to Hebron is three score and ten miles is less inaccurate than to say that that is the distance to Babylon.
Incidentally, the attempt to explain away Jesus's comment on the basis of a "Needle Gate" or the like is completely unfounded. InterpretersDict, volume III, p. 531, says, "Jesus used the figure of the impossibility of a camel's going through the eye of a needle to teach the difficulty of a rich man's entering the Kingdom of God.. Some late Greek MSS. [avoid the problem by changing the text]. A much later interpretation made the saying refer to a postulated small gate called the 'Needle's Eye,' through which a camel would go with difficulty. Neither interpretation is justified."
Another article in InterpretersDict (II.854) bolsters this by showing multiple maps of post-exilic Jerusalem as reconstructed by various scholars. These list the various gates identified: Corner Gate, Gate of Ephraim, Old Gate, Valley Gate, Dung Gate, Fountain Gate, Water Gate, Horse Gate, "E Gate," Muster Gate, Sheep Gate, Fish Gate. No "Needle's Eye," note. And Jerusalem was not a large city. A dozen gates was *plenty*.
On p. 860, there is a New Testament map. Its gates are New Gate, Damascus Gate, Herod's Gate, "St. Stephen's Gate" (obviously a more modern name), Single Gate, unnamed gate, Jaffa Gate.
Preiffer, p. 113, has a map which shows Gennath Gate, Water Gate, Golden Gate, and internal Holdah Gates, plus at least three unnamed gates. At least one other atlas uses this exact map, and I seem to recall seeing it in a third as well.
HarperAtlas, which is the most complete and (it seems to me) the most accurate of all my six Biblical atlases, gives its map of New Testament era Jerusalem on pp. 166-167, shows the Damascus Gate, Gennath Gate, Essenes Gate, and three, possibly four, unnamed gates.
Thus the consensus appears to be that there were six to eight gates to Jerusalem in Jesus's time. Most of these are unnamed -- although many would keep their names from the time of Nehemiah. It is theoretically possible that there was a "Needle Gate" or "Needle's Eye Gate" -- but Jerusalem was a fortress, and a very strong one; it took the Romans years to conquer it both during Pompey's campaigns in the first century B.C.E. and during the Jewish Revolt of 66. It is extremely unlikely that there was a Needle's Eye Gate -- a gate would need guards, and if you have to have guards anyway, better to build a substantial gate which allows real commerce. The odds are high that Jesus meant what he said: That he did not consider wealth to be conducive to salvation. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.3
- HarperAtlas: (James B. Pritchard, editor), The Harper Atlas of the Bible, Harper & Row, 1987
- InterpretersDict: [George Arthur Buttrick et al, editor], The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, four volumes, 1962 (a fifth supplementary volume was published later)
- Pfeiffer: Charles F. Pfeiffer, Baker's Bible Atlas, Revised Edition, Baker, 1961, 1973, 1979
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