Dinogad’s Smock, an Ancient Celtic Cradle Song

Thank you all for staying with me through a few weeks of writer-related posts. I promised you something special, so here it is.

When I was researching for my third Guinevere book, I came across an interesting nugget in Tim Clarkson’s book, The Men of the North. He mentions that written in the margin of one copy of the 7th century Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin were the first four lines to an ancient Celtic nursery song called Pais Dinogad or Dinogad’s Smock. At more than 1,400 years old, it is believed to be one of the oldest extant songs of its kind from a Celtic culture.

There are many translations, but since I don’t read any of the languages, I can’t say which is best. Here’s one sung and one written (which likely vary from one another):

Dinogad’s smock, speckled, speckled,
I made from the skins of martens.
Whistle, whistle, whistly
we sing, the eight slaves sing

When your father used to go to hunt,
with his shaft on his shoulder and his club
 in his hand,
he would call his speedy dogs,
‘Giff, Gaff, catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’,
he would kill a fish in a coracle,
as a lion kills an animal.

When your father used to go to the mountain,
he would bring back a roebuck, a wild pig, a stag,
a speckled grouse from the mountain,
a fish from the waterfall of Derwennyd

Whatever your father would hit with his spit,
whether wild pig or lynx or fox,
nothing that was without wings would escape.

Dinogad’s smock, pied, pied,
It was from marten’s skins that I made it.
‘Wheed, wheed, a whistling!’
I would sing, eight slaves sang.
When thy father went a-hunting,
A spear on his shoulder, a club in his hand,
He would call the nimble hounds,
‘Giff, Gaff; catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’
He would kill a fish in his coracle
As a lion kills its prey.
When thy father went to the mountain
He would bring back a roe-buck, a wild boar, a stag,
A speckled grouse from the mountain,
A fish from Rhaeadr Derwennydd.
Of all those that thy father reached with his lance,
Wild boar and lynx and fox,
None escaped which was not winged.

Esmerelda’s Cumbrian History gives a better account of the history of the song than I ever could, so please visit her site for all the details. I’ll just give a short summary here. As mentioned, it was found recorded in the margins of Y Gododdin, so it was originally thought to be from the of the Gododdin (today’s southern Scotland) culture, but has since been dated to 6th century Cumbria. However, it could have been sung by mothers for centuries before. Another source identifies the original language as Cumbric, the ancient language of the British Celts, and notes that “the wild cat [in the song] is thought to be the lynx, which became extinct in about 500 AD, so the poem is dated to that time.”

What interests me about this is the intimate nature of this song. Most finds from the time period are military in nature. This is very different; it gives us a glimpse into a very personal moment between mother and child. The lyrics tell us what likely was on the minds of the people who created it. This mother was singing to her child about his father’s heroism, both in feats of strength and providing for his family. We also learn about his weapons and the food the family ate.  Her son’s smock was made from the pelt of a weasel-like animal (you’ll die of cuteness if you Google them) and the family owned slaves (which wasn’t unusual for the Celts, and is to me a possible indication of an earlier time period than the dates above suggest). Her words convey obvious pride in her husband. I can picture her including wild gestures and maybe even funny voices to amuse her child, just as we do with bedtime stories today.

I can’t help but notice that, at least in this translation, the father is referred to in past tense. It makes me wonder what happened to him. Is he dead? Did he die in battle? Was he killed during the hunt? Did he abandon is wife and child? Or is he alive and well, still sharing a happy home with his family? Maybe he is just too old for hunting. And what made the woman compose this song? Or had she grown up with it?

How did the person who wrote the first four lines in the book know the song? How widespread was it? (It could have been commonly known like Rockabye Baby is now, as Esmerelda suggests, or it could have been passed down through generations of a family.) Why was it written down in the margins of Y Gododdin? Was this perhaps a tune stuck in someone’s head or (gasp!) could the writer have been a woman who had recently been singing it to her child?

Little nuggets like this are why I love writing historical fiction. Were I (or anyone else) to novelize these musings, it would be one less bit of ancient lore lost to the amnesia of history. I have no plans to tell this particular story, but Dinogad’s Smock does make a brief appearance in book 3 (I’ve taken some liberties as to why Guinevere would have known it). I hope you’ve enjoyed this little surprise from history as much as I did.

Have you ever heard of Dinogad’s Smock before? Do you know of any other ancient (or even near historical) lullabies? Which ones do you recall from your own childhood? Mine were pretty standard, Itsy-Bitsy Spider and the like.

PS – I’ve found that many times when I embed YouTube videos into posts, they are slammed with spam. If at any point you read this and comments are closed, that’s why. 

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5 thoughts on “Dinogad’s Smock, an Ancient Celtic Cradle Song

  1. Hello Nicole – and thanks for the credit. The language of Dinogad’s Smock is Brythonic, or otherwise known as Cumbric – and they are both ancestors of modern Welsh (and still easily understood by Welsh speakers, I gather), hence the caption to your video – oldest Welsh lullaby. At the time of Dinogad’s Smock (6thc?) just about everyone on this island spoke this language. It lingered in Cumbria and other small pockets of England almost to the Norman Conquest. Incidentally, I’ve never had reason to think that Dinogad’s daddy was dead, before, though, so I think it might be that translation giving the impression.

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  3. Pingback: Cumbric | Lois Elsden

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