A Lyke Wake Dirge

gravestones graveyard

Image : Pixabay

Well, I find this misty morning here in Bristol, my brain still dwells in the land of the dead, wallowing in a nether world of apparitions and ghosts, spirits wreathed about my head, tugging at my hair and whispering of times past.

All this being said, I felt the need to share this piece of music,

A Lyke Wake Dirge.

It’s old. Proper old. First written down in the late seventeenth century, it could be as much as 700 years old, passed through oral tradition in North Yorkshire.

It would have been sung during a wake (a watching over of the dead before burial), lyke being a dialect word for corpse. So, singing a dirge whilst watching over a corpse.

It’s a moral Christian tale of the soul’s journey through the Other World, though there’s little about redemption or Heaven here. It’s more about the dead receiving their just desserts for the sins they commited while alive.

If ever you gave hose and shoes,
Every night and all,
Sit then down and put them on;
And Christ receive your soul.But if hose and shoes you gave none
Every night and all,
The thorns shall prick you to the bare bone;
And Christ receive your soul.

The below version is sung in English, (for instance they sing ‘This one night’, where the original lyrics are ‘This ae nighte’, the original giving a real feel of Norse influence on the language).

See here for other recordings, including an a capella version and here for further analysis of the poetry.

Enough history, lets have a listen.

Though I warn you, since hearing it on the soundtrack of the BBC supernatural drama The Living and the Dead, it’s become the most persistent of earworms for me – every nighte and alle.






10 thoughts on “A Lyke Wake Dirge

    1. Woudn’t it be fantastic? Candles, coffins, close harmony singing. I’m being flippant, but yes, it must have sounded astonishing. And in one of the links I added, the writer asks us to imagine how the gathered folk felt if they knew the deceased had been particularly mean and stingy in life – a certain gloating might invade the tone, perhaps. I love music where you can feel the age of it in the tune – a real link to our ancesters.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh now this is really fascinating, Lynn. So many enticing avenues your offer us here – old tales, old words, music and rites along the ghost road. But you’re wicked too. I’m trying to do a re-write on a story set under the bright hot sun of the southern hemisphere, and now you’re luring me away to the mysterious shadowed north…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I hoped you’d read this – I was thinking of you as I posted it, as you’re keen on your history too, and especially after your post on the church with the lovely Anglo Saxon carvings. For though the dirge is Christian, according to one of the links there is some speculation that the ‘Brig o Dread’ of the poem could hark back to Bifrost, the rainbow bridge of Norse legend that takes the dead to Asgard. Love this idea, the cross pollination of pagan and Christian stories – fascinating.
      Sorry. I’ll let you return to your glorious sunshine. I’m off to skulk at the back of the wake and dream of Vikings 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh drat. Now I really do want to come with you. One of my current bedtime reads is Rosalind Kerven’s retelling of Viking Myths and Sagas. I’m loving it for its robust and feisty language. Oh but Bifrost, and the ‘Brig o Dread’ – they’ll just have to wait. And how nice you thought of me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ooh, Viking myths and sagas – something I really ought to delve into. And my pleasure – hope you enjoyed straying from under that darn hot sun for a while 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. In the link you gave I knew the Pentangle version better than the Young Tradition’s, but as I love the latter’s uncouth style more than Pentangle’s ‘couth’ rendition that’s the one that doesit for me.

    I can’t remember if it was YT that did a version of the Soul Cake song but that for me sums up Halloween more than the beautiful Dirge: it recalls the tradition of leaving cakes and refreshment on the graves of the departed, and kids apparently used to dress up as the ghosts of dead relatives, demanding food at parishioners’ doors in a custom that perhaps betrays the origins of Trick or Treat and Mischief Night:

    “A soul, a soul, a soul cake
    Please good missus a soul cake
    An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry
    Any good thing to make us merry
    One for Peter, two for Paul,
    Three for Him who made us all.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just looked up the Soul Cake song and after ignoring all the links to Sting – sorry Sting – I found a Peter Paul and Mary version which goes under the name of A Soulling I think. I know what you mean, it has a good tempo and spirit for Mischief night celebrations, whereas the dirge is more – dirgy, too sombre for the reality of Halloween 🙂 Did folk used to go Soul Caking near Christmas too or did I dream it? My husband gave me a great book on British folk traditions – I shall have to look it up


      1. Charles Kightly (The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain 1986) discusses Souling as happening the first two weeks of November. All Saints and All Souls Days he suggests are “sucessors of the pagan Feast of the Dead.” Quite late on “poor people still went begging for the spiced ‘soul cakes'” given either as payment for prayers or an offering for the dead. Kightly notes that the souling cake song was just hanging on in Shropshire and Cheshire, but that children who went ‘caking’ near Sheffield mainly collected money for fireworks (for Bonfire Night presumably).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. For some reasom Soul Cake reminds me of the tradition of Sin Eaters which I first learned about in Mary Webb’s Precious Bane. A social outcast (usually very poor or even homeless) would turn up at the funeral and eat and drink over the coffin to help remove the deceased’s sins. Kind of linked, I suppose, all to benefit the one who’s passed. Of course, now we have no souls, we don’t need to worry about such things 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.