elogo - Exemplary Childrens Literature Project for Scholarly Education
Mother Goose
Petra Mathers
elogo bottom Mother Goose: A Scholarly Exploration
what makes a Mother Goose a Mother Goose?
the nursery rhymes
Mother Goose visual challenges
life and history
Late 18th Century
Early 19th Century
Mother Goose in America
Early Iconography
Appendix A
Appendix B
zimmerli art museum
emergent literacy
social & political uses of Mother Goose
advertisement and imagery
digitization of early nursery rhyme books
an early Mother Goose play
mother goose online
research pathfinder
external resources
Early Iconography of Mother Goose

Mother Goose's pictorial entrance into American nursery rhyme literature begins with Mother Goose's Quarto (1822), where she is shown on the title page as a lean and smiling grandmother, attended by two young and adoring children. Credited by bibliographers to the engraver, Shubael Child, the image conceptually descends from the frontispiece image of Perrault's Contes of a knitting grandmother. In editions of Mother Goose's Melodies, the figuration of Mother Goose is complicated by the addition of a cover illustration, which shows a goose encircled by goslings. Later illustrations would render Mother Goose through a prism of cultural attitudes towards femininity, although these pictures were already intimated by earlier ones accompanying the rhymes.

Mother Goose's Quarto included illustrations from a number of accomplished artist-engravers, including Abel Bowen (1790-1850), Boston's most able illustrator. When, in the 1830's, David Francis made New York the center of the firm's activities, and re-issued the Quarto as Mother Goose's Melodies, the work included illustrations from Alexander Anderson (1775-1870), a New Yorker, whose "pawkish, sardonic vein of humor" added a compelling interpretive presence to the book's appeal. (Bleiler, 8).

Anderson's illustrations comment forcefully and idiosyncratically on the rhymes, associating them with current social concerns, selecting and thus magnifying the significance of specific details, even referring, self-consciously, to the artist's personal life. His illustration for the rhyme, "There Was An Old Woman Tossed Up In A Blanket," depicts a cronish, witchy, sort of figure possessed of a long, pointed nose and chin, clutching a broomstick. She sits comfortably on nothing, on air, as she sails through the night, slicing effortlessly through a strong wind. Her bent figure mimics the curve of the crescent moon below her, its shape reiterated in the curve of her cupped hand, lifted, in a gesture of attentiveness, to her ear. As distant as she is she has heard the narrator's ingenuous question; her answering smile is eerie: she is crazy perhaps ("Such a frost/The freezing moon/Has lost her wits")(Hughes, 77). But, perhaps she smiles as a predator at her na´ve prey (the fox hailed by the chicken.)

With his orchestration of crescent shapes, Anderson tells us that, on the level of poetic metaphor, the old woman is the waning moon. Her sharp features suggest the horns of its crescent shape.1 We understand, more clearly, that the blurted question the narrator needs to have answered is not the question he seems to have asked--where in the wide sky are you going--but, rather, the elegantly veiled one, with its freight of terrifying implications: where has the rest of you, the parts visible only last night, already gone?

Although Anderson did not intend Mother Goose in his depiction, he would have been familiar with the traditional figuration of crones. In an exemplary English crone illustration (Mother Goose Uniting Harlequin and Columbine rendered in 1809?), Mother Goose wears black robes, tall hat and high shoes. Her witches habit makes a humorous contrast with the traditional costumes of the Commedia D'ell Arte figures who strike poses at her sides, framing her on a theatrical stage. The notion of this fanciful and balletic composition is that Mother Goose is neither the maker of nursery rhymes nor the dread mistress of mutability, but the comedic executor of reconciliation and marriage.2

Later Iconography of Mother Goose

Between 1865 and 1890, during the heyday of McLoughlin Bros., the representation of Mother Goose grew increasingly diverse as illustrators freely exploited almost every conceivable combination of the notions inhering in the terms "Mother" and "Goose" to illustrate a flood of popular publications. Tellingly, while American artists such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, George Fuller, John LeFarge and John MacNeil Whistler tended to communicate the "darker, sadder, soberer" moods of this bleak period, which Lewis Mumford calls "the brown decades" (Mumford, 2), children's book illustration grew gaudier, more explosively colorful, more assertively child-like. The figuration of Mother Goose belonged to a general turn toward light-heartedness in American children's literature.

Arguably, this turn suggests a cultural attempt to shield children from the disintegration of civility and order, the "riots, strikes, lockouts, assassinations, brutalities [and] exploitations," which marked America in the post-Civil War period (Mumford, 22). Surely it is no coincidence that, at this appalling historical juncture, when, for example, the working class was "more desperately enslaved" than at any other in American history, (Mumford, 22) books published for children revealed "a more general desire to keep children young" (Avery, 122). Nor is it incidental that, at this historical moment, American culture reached for illud tempus in its continued idealization of childhood.

Figuration of Mother Goose continued to reproduce the grandmother types figured by Child (sometimes remarkably fatter and jollier), as well as the typical barnyard goose, and the anthropomorphic goose. It also included wizened crones, or Halloween hags (sometimes on crutches, or with a walking stick; sometimes air-borne on a broom or a goose). Tellingly, as children's illustration endeavored to purvey escapist fantasies grounded in idealized versions of childhood, the equivocal, even decidedly aggressive, figuration of Mother Goose as Halloween witch hinted at repressed feelings of instability and dread. Thus the figurational Mother Goose was an overdetermined symbol that shielded children from the harsh realities of historical reality and, concomitantly, modeled the fears that reality might have engendered.

Iconographic context for Mother Goose

We have already mentioned a part of the Iconographic context for the figuration of Mother Goose. The matrilineal succession of emblems cited by John Higham, such as the unclothed savage accompanied by an exotic wild animal, the barbaric queen hoisted in a conch shell, and Edward Savage's Liberty as Goddess of Youth Feeding thee American Eagle (1796). While these images form a background for understanding the distinctly American characteristics of Mother Goose, the complete context includes a broad array of images not specifically related to American history or national principles. Some of these already mentioned include the early nineteenth century image of Mother Goose as marriage broker, engraved on the English broadside Mother Goose Uniting Harlequin and Columbine (1809), and Alexander Anderson's supernal vision of Mother Goose as the lunar symbol of mutability (1837).

The modern figuration of woman and bird finds a large, heterogeneous group of antecedents in Greek mythology and fairy tale. These include fertility goddesses and their analogues in nonsacred literature (Leda and the Swan and various Indo-European tales of goddesses disguised as swan maidens or goose girls who mate with mortals), and chthonic or supernal creatures, such as harpies (bird bodies with faces of old women). The fertility principle can also be found much earlier. A terra cotta statue of Aphrodite from the classical period, created in Boeotia, possesses an uncanny resemblance to our nineteenth century Mother Goose, presenting Aphrodite standing on top of a goose with outspread wings, as if in flight.

Egyptian mythology includes several significant iconic conflations of woman and bird. In the Egyptian creation myth, in which the fertility attribute is foremost once again, the sun is born from the cosmic egg laid by a Nile goose, who "is worshiped as 'the great chatterer,' the creator of the world" (Neumann, 217). In her chthonic aspect, Nekhbert, a mother goddess, is symbolized by the vulture or crow. This deathly aspect of the avian female is elsewhere portrayed in "the Sumerian Lilith (c. 2000 BCE), portrayed with wings, taloned claws for toes, an erotic full figure, a round moon-like face & an elaborate braided hairdo or hood" (McLean, 97).3

In The Civilization of The Goddess, Marija Gimbutas notes several relevant representations in (so-called) prehistoric Europe, and posits the existence of a Bird Goddess. "Sculptures of the Neolithic Bird Goddess (c. 7000 BCE) either have large breasts or are specially decorated with her symbols: chevrons, meanders, parallel or zigzag lines and the number three. From the Sesklo culture in Greece, wonderfully fashioned Bird Goddesses survive with nicely developed breasts, long cylindrical necks, a birdlike head (long, large nose without an anthropomorphic mouth), with neatly combed hair or a bun (Gimbutas, 231)."

Gimbutas finds the Bird Goddess even earlier, in representations from the Upper Paleolithic, in "[b]lack coal drawings from Peche Merle, Magdalenian culture, [which] show naked women with pendulous breasts, little wings and bird masks" (Gimbutas, 231). The oppositional attributes of Eros and Thanatos, noted in other mythological Mother Goose predecessors are reconciled in Gimbutas's conception of the dual nature of the Old European Bird Goddess. "She was the giver of life, well-being, and nourishment. On the other hand, she appears as Death in the guise of a vulture, owl, or other bird of prey or carrion eater." (Gimbutas, 230).

Gimbutas identifies the Bird Goddess with a Great Goddess or Mother Goddess that presided over Old Europe and Anatolia "with a substratum of Paleolithic cult traceable well before 20,000 B.C.." (Ashe, 12).

Analyzing archaeological evidence from the very different perspective of depth psychology, Erich Neumann arrives at a similar conclusion. "What interests us here is not the forms assumed by this [winged goddess] in the different parts of the world. Her names are innumerable--Britomartis and Dictynna, Cybele and MÔ, Dindymene and Hecate, Pheraia and Artemis, Baubo and Aphaia, Orthia and Nemesis, Demeter, Persephone, and Selene, Medusa and Eluthera, Taeit and Leto, Aphrodite and Bendis. And Hathor and Isis, and all other Great Goddesses, who appear in animal form, are in reality the Lady of the Beasts. All beasts are their subjects: the serpent and scorpion, the fishes of river and sea, the womblike bivalves and the ill-omened kraken, the wild beasts of wood and mountain, hunting and hunted, peaceful and voracious, the swamp birds--goose, duck, and heron--the nocturnal owl and the dove, the domesticated beasts--cow and bull, goat, pig, and sheep--the bee, and even such phantasms as griffin and sphinx." (Neumann, 275).

Certainly no solution of continuity between Mother Goose and the Bird Goddess of Old Europe, however tempting it is to feel the aural connection between Mother Goddess and Mother Goose. One must acknowledge, however, that the figural characteristics of Mother Goose certainly remember the rich heritage of figuration that precedes it. The artists and illustrators who drew Mother Goose were certainly not priests, nor did they imagine themselves engaged in an hieratic activity. On the contrary, they functioned as commercial artists and drew to please a modern, secular, society. Their reasons for depicting Mother Goose as they did will always remain unclear. The reader of Mother Goose would be unaware of the similarities and homologies between the figure astride an airborne goose or gander, and the centuries of emblematic discourse preceding her, and the long-buried goddesses of Old Europe. A child in nineteenth century New York, holding a crisp, new copy of Mother Goose's Melodies on her lap, could not possibly have any conception of the airborne Aphrodite of Boeotia, or the Bird Goddess of the Sesklo culture, or care about their shared physical attributes. But, just the same, they're there.

1The association of the old woman and the crescent moon is a familiar trope in myth, legend and poetry. Robert Graves describing the celestial iconography The White Goddess tells us,"[a]s the New Moon or Spring she was girl; as the Full Moon or Summer she was woman; as the Old Moon or Winter she was hag" (Graves, 386). James Weldon Johnson, in his poem, "The White Witch," writes:

O, brothers mine, take care! Take care! The great white witch, rides out to-night, Trust not your prowess nor your strength; Your only safety lies in flight; For in her glance there is a snare, And in her smile there is a blight.

2 The notion of the cronish Mother Goose as a comedic executor of reconciliation and marriage is perhaps not so outlandish or misguided. Birds, as well as half-moon and star-in-crescent symbols were early symbols of fertility. Mother Goose's projection among the costumed figures here leads us to consider that, like them, perhaps she also dons a costume which may signify not her own age, phase of life, and certainly not her transcendence of physical pleasures, but the antiquity of the symbol. Thus, reconciliation and marriage constitute very appropriate themes for our connectedness to the past, just as birds, goddesses, half-moons, etc. once constituted appropriate themes for propagation and perpetuity.
3If one would look to myth for the mysterious ambivalence of Mother Goose figures ranging from Anderson's mistress of mutability to late nineteenth century hags in dark clothes, one should consider that Lilith appears in Judaism as "the promoter of erotic dreams and nightmares, and the destroyer of little children" (McLean, 97). Mother Goose's figuration as witch carries some of these characteristics forward. As G.L. Burr notes in New England's Place in the History of Witchcraft, in seventeenth century America, witchcraft was thought to include "the sacrifice of unbaptized infants to Satan [and] the forming of sexual alliances with male & female demons" (Burr, 192).

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