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Curious Origins of Nursery Rhymes: Humpty Dumpty

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Humpty Dumpty

The curious tragedy of the clumsy anthropomorphic egg first appeared in Samuel Arnold's 'Juvenile Amusements' in 1797. Perhaps previously a playground riddle for children, the nursery rhyme has become a popular addition to the canon with many alleged meanings. Over the course of its history, Humpty Dumpty has gone from a simple childish riddle to a popular nursery rhyme and an immortalised character in Lewis Carroll's classic, Through the Looking Glass.

The simplest explanation for the rhyme is that it is a child's riddle, where the answer is an egg.

The earliest version from 1797 had slightly different lyrics that have been modified over time:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before...

Another version of the rhyme from 1842 calls upon forty doctors who couldn't fix Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty-Dumpty lay in a beck
With all his sinews around his neck;
Forty doctors and forty wights
Couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty to rights...

For even the best specialist in the world, a Dumpty lying on his 'beck' with sinews around his neck is bound to be a diagnostic and therapeutic challenge—a chiropractor may be the best bet.

The riddle also proves universal in many European cultures and languages. Let's take a look at the following three different versions from the Continent:

  1. Norwegian/Swedish
  2. German
  3. French
The modern version of the Rhyme

The modern version of the Rhyme

1. Norwegian/Swedish: "Lille Trille"

Lille Trille
satt på hylle.
Lille Trille
ramlet ned.
Ingen mann i dette land
Lille Trille bøte kan.

2. German: "Hiimpelken-Pumpelken"

Hiimpelken-Pumpelken sat up de Bank,
Hiimpelken-Pumpelken fel von de Bank
Do is ken Docter in Engelland
De Hiimpelken-Purapelken kurere kann.

3. French: "Boule, boule"

Boule, boule su L'keyere,
Boule, bonle par terre.
Y n'a nuz homme en Angleterre
Pou l'erfaire.

The Holy Egg

The enduring nature of the rhyme comes from mankind's enduring relationship with the humble egg itself.

The egg has fascinated philosophers who have pondered on its mythical messages.

The origins of the Cosmic Egg were described by Aristophanes in his play The Birds:

It was Chaos and Night at the first, and the blackness of darkness, and hell's broad border;
Earth was not, nor air, neither heaven; when in depths of the womb of the dark without order.
First thing first born of the black-plumed Night was a wind-egg hatched in her bosom,
Whence timely, with season revolving again, sweet Love burst out as a blossom,
Gold wings glittering forth of his back, like whirlwinds gustily turning.
He, after his wedlock with Chaos, whose wings are of darkness in hell broad-burning,
For his nestings begat him a race of birds first and upraised us to light new-lighted. (1917, trans. Algernon Charles Swinburne)

According to the Finnish Epic Kalevala, the world-egg fell and broke. Its upper part became the vault of heaven, its lower part the earth. The yolk formed the sun, the white the moon, and the fragments of the shell became the stars in heaven.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the holy one is depicted as holding in his hand a broken eggshell representing the earth onto which a diminutive human is often shown sitting.

'A Cask of two beers'

'A Cask of two beers'

Beer and Ale

In Some parts of Europe, the riddle of egg describes it as a 'cask containing two types of beer.'

In Anglo-Saxon myths, The God Wodan (likened to Norse Odin) comes in the form of a wayfarer and poses a riddle to Kind Heidrek:

Blond-haired brides, bondswomen both,
carried ale to the barn; the casks were not turned
with hands nor forged by hammers; she that
made it strutted about outside the isle. (Eckenstein)

The Answer to the riddle is 'duck eggs.'

Strangely enough, Humpty Dumpty was an old English name for a drink made of boiling brandy with ale (Opie, 254). It must have been a heady concoction that made men wobbly and fall over like Humpty Dumpty.

David Garrick playing Richard III by William Hogarth

David Garrick playing Richard III by William Hogarth

Was Richard III Humpty Dumpty?

There was some speculation by historians that the rhyme Humpty Dumpty referred to Richard III of England, who was popularised by the Shakespearean play. As Richard is depicted as humpbacked and brittle, he is likened to an egg. His subsequent defeat in Bosworth field despite his large army (all the King's men and all the King's horses) made some believe that the rhyme originated from this historical occurrence.

As the term Humpback doesn't date back to Richard III's time in reign, this is perhaps fanciful speculation.


Albert Jack's Version of 'Humpty Dumpty'

In sixteen hundred and forty-eight
When England suffered the pains of state
The Roundheads laid siege to Colchester town
Where the king's men still fought for the crown.

There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner of deadliest aim of al.
From St Mary's Tower his cannon he fired,
Humpty Dumpty was its name.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

— from Pop Goes the Weasel – The Secret Origins of Nursery Rhymes by Albert Jack

The Colchester Cannon

The Colchester Cannon

The Cannon Myth and Colchester, England

Military historians have speculated that the 'Humpty Dumpty' rhyme may refer to a 'tortoise' siege engine used during the English Civil War to breach the walls of Gloucester in 1643. Originally proposed in Oxford Magazine by Professor David Daube and widely believed at the time of publication in 1956, this theory was later derided as a fanciful myth.

In another version of the story, the city of Colchester, England, sought to own the Humpty Dumpty myth. The Colchester tourist board published on their website that during the English Civil War, the Royalists of the walled city placed a large cannon (known by the local folk as 'Humpty Dumpty') on one of the church walls as a defence against the Parliamentarians. The rebels fired a cannonball right underneath the wall that brought 'Humpty Dumpty' tumbling down. 'All the King's men and their horses'—the Cavaliers defending the city—attempted to put the cannon back together and raise it onto another wall but failed in their enterprise.

This theory was put forward by Albert Jack in his book Pop Goes the Weasel – The Secret Origins of Nursery Rhymes. Jack also goes on to propose that two other verses precede the rhyme that seek to confirm his tale. He attributes Lewis Carrol to propagating the 'egg' riddle.

There are two problems with his rather clever version—one, he says he found the rhyme in a 17th-century book, but there is no evidence that this book exists. Two, the version of the rhyme he gives is not written in the style of a 17th-century verse. The words used are modern and are not linguistically contemporaneous with that era.

As we now know, the earliest printed versions of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme (see above) do not mention all the Kings' men or horses but instead 'four score men and four score more' or ' Forty Doctors and forty wights.'

It is likely that this is a more elaborate but plausible speculation rather than the truth, as the rhyme did originate as a child's riddle predating Lewis Carroll by more than a century.

Albert Jack is a best-selling writer who has published many entertaining reads on the origins of words, phrases, pub names and nursery rhymes, etc. I do like his Red Herrings and White Elephants, which discourses on the origins of idioms and phrases.

John Tenniel's Humpty Dumpty for 'Through the Looking Glass' by Lewis Carroll

John Tenniel's Humpty Dumpty for 'Through the Looking Glass' by Lewis Carroll

Did Humpty Dumpty Have Prosopagnosia?

Certain Neurologists believe that Humpty Dumpty in Carroll's Through the Looking Glass suffered from a real-life medical condition called prosopagnosia—an inability to remember faces (face-blindness). This speculation stems from the following exchange between Humpty and Alice:

'I shouldn't know you again if we did meet,' Humpty Dumpty replied in a discontented tone, giving her one of his fingers to shake: 'you're so exactly like other people.'

'The face is what one goes by, generally,' Alice remarked in a thoughtful tone.

'That's just what I complain of,' said Humpty Dumpty. 'Your face is the same as everybody has — the two eyes, so —' (marking their places in the air with his thumb) 'nose in the middle, mouth under. It's always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance — or the mouth at the top — that would be some help.'

'It wouldn't look nice,' Alice objected. But Humpty Dumpty only shut his eyes, and said 'Wait till you've tried.' (from Chapter VI, 'Humpty Dumpty')

Alice and Humpty

So popular was the rhyme that Lewis Carroll decided to include the character Humpty Dumpty in his classic Through the Looking Glass. Alice encounters Humpty sitting on a very narrow wall and ponders his fate from the rhyme. Humpty, however, proves to be an argumentative sort, although he does help Alice unravel the mysteries of 'Jabberwocky.'

He tells her the meanings of the words in the poem, like 'brillig' and 'slithy,' ' mimsy' and 'borogoves.' He is quite the linguist as he explains the nature of 'portmanteau' words to Alice- words that are made from the combination of the other two—like 'slithy' from 'lithe' and 'slimy.'

While Alice is quite concerned for Humpty's fate, he is confident as he has been reassured by the white King that he would send all his men and horses to pick Humpty up should he fall. Misplaced confidence, as we now know what happened!

Playbill for the Humpty Dumpty pantomime popularised by George L Fox

Playbill for the Humpty Dumpty pantomime popularised by George L Fox

Comedic Value and Literary Allusions

Humpty Dumpty was popularised by American comedic actor George L. Fox in pantomime performances during the 19th century. This pantomime of two acts was considered by many as one of the best American panto performances.

Humpty Dumpty has also appeared as a character in various genre stories, including Neil Gaiman's The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds and in Jasper Fforde's literary fantasy thrillers The Big Over Easy and The Well of Lost Plots.

The character also appeared as the antagonist in the Dreamworks animation Puss in Boots. He is voiced by Zach Galifianakis.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Carlo Giovannetti from Puerto Rico on February 02, 2014:

Ahh, poor Humpty. Such a tragic history, hehe. Another great find.

lovedoctor926 on July 29, 2013:

Thanks for bringing back memories of Humpty Dumpty & Alice in Wonderland. I like the egg character as well. These are lovely nursery rhymes. They all have an important message. voted up!

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on July 14, 2013:

Very informative. I admire the research and I have often wondered about the origins of myths and fairy tales.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on July 13, 2013:

Magnificent! Very informative and so interesting and a joy to read. You are just marvelous! Votes all around and sharing of course ~ Hugs Audrey

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on July 11, 2013:

I loved the story and use of media in this hub. You always create a beautiful hub that makes readers read from beginning to end. I have my own memories of Humpty, funny, pleasant and sad.

Go-Barbara-Go from Philippines on July 11, 2013:


My daughter love this egg character in Puss in Boots, she couldn't help but let out a boisterous laugh for this character.

Fascinating information.

Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on July 11, 2013:


It was such a joy to read this and I loved the hub with the videos. I tweeted to my followers to enjoy.

Have a great summer.

Bobbi Purvis

Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on July 11, 2013:

Really interesting information. One time I had a student do a report on the history of "Humpty Dumpty." I was amazed when I found out the origins. Thanks for sharing.

Denise Handlon from Michigan on July 11, 2013:

I'm always curious about subtle or historical meanings of nursery rhymes. You've really presented a thorough historical view of the Grand ole Egg. Thanks Docmo-love the photos and drawings as well. Very interesting-Up and I/sharing.

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on July 10, 2013:

Voted up and interesting. Thank you for sharing this fascinating and delightful hub. Enjoyed. Great to return but for a short time to childhood and remember. Great pics. Passing this on.

MrsBrownsParlour on July 07, 2013:

Very interesting and well-written! I have always loved folk and fairy tales and enjoy learning about their historical backgrounds (or various theories). Great topic. ~Lurana

Dianna Mendez on July 06, 2013:

This should be part of an English Literature/Prose course. Very interesting and well written. I always enjoy hearing the story and history behind poetry.

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on July 04, 2013:

@Mary- thank you so much for your ongoing appreciation of my work. I strive to find subjects that interest me and will interest others. I am glad you found it an informative and fun read, thanks again.

@Nell rose- Himpelken Pumpelken does sound a lot more fun! thanks for coming over to enjoy humpty dumpty's perilous fall . thanks for sharing this!

@Daisy May - you betcha!

@drbj- thank you! you are the master of exposition and picking fascinating insights- I bow before thee and take thy appreciation with great delight!

@cheaptrick- Indeed!

cheaptrick from the bridge of sighs on July 04, 2013:

Humpty was pushed off that wall...Obama did it

drbj and sherry from south Florida on July 03, 2013:

What a brilliant, fascinating exposition, Mohan, on the origins of Humpty Dumpty. I shall never look at that nursery rhyme in the same way again. Thank you for this treat. Voted up of course.

Suzie from Carson City on July 03, 2013:

Awwwww, Pig Sty, you hunk-a-burnin-love.....flattery will get you everywhere............:)

Nell Rose from England on July 03, 2013:

I love the German version! lol! and the word prosopagnosia, which means 'face blindness' or not recognising someone does sound familiar, I didn't know the word but the effect of it. This was fascinating reading, and the bit about the guns being humpty dumpty does make sense, voted up and tweeted!

Mary Craig from New York on July 03, 2013:

Regardless of which version we believe, we know history has changed many things including nursery rhymes. If I may quote from one of my hubs, "Yet all of the people knew from the start

That Humpty Dumpty hadn't a heart" whichever version we believe, he's still Humpty Dumpty.

This is a brilliant series Mohan, shedding light on the origins so many people know nothing about, interesting and fun to read when you write it so well. Your research is impeccable and interesting. Loved it.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on July 03, 2013:

@lumen2light- Thank you so much for your visit and information- I did originally consider the cannon myth and discarded it but seeing your and vicki's comments decided to include the true story behind this civil war story in the hub. Really appreciate your input.

@sha- thank you so much. I too am looking forward to hopefully meet up and share a cold one. As for my head, it is no coincidence I chose humpty dumpty as my dead sure does feel like one with all the info that floats around inside it!

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on July 03, 2013:

@Dotti -you flatterer. My head doth swell like Humpty Dumpty reading your sumptuous praises. I am not worthy! But you do make me grin like a proud child showing his work off. Thank you so much.

@Vickiw- thank you so much. I did know about the Cannon myth and knew it was fanciful and discarded, but seeing your comment and others here, I decided for completion sake to include the full story behind the Cannon of colchester, locally known as Humpty Dumpty. I have now updated htis hub to include this- thank you for your prompt.

@Dana- Thank you so much. Sweet of you to visit and comment as I know how busy you have been. appreciate your comments and I am glad you liked the cosmic egg myth.

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on July 03, 2013:

@Paula- dear Paula what a delight to see you here , thank you very much. Yes, as you will see from the future chapters, there are some gruesome origins to other rhymes. The original versions of Fairy tales ( Grimms and Charles Perrault) are also quite a gory spectacle. Unlike you, whose presence is a vision of peace, harmony and beauty!

@Faithreaper- Thank you so much. that is what got me fascinated with this subject, the curious and often gory origins to innocent nursery thymes. Glad you enjoyed this.

@jabelufiroz- thank you very much.

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on July 03, 2013:

@Wayne- Thanks for your visit Wayne, I'm glad you found this interesting.

@LABeashear- thank you so much for your visit and comment.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 03, 2013:

Doc, you amaze me. How do you keep all this information in your head and tend to people's health, too? I learned a lot from you, once again!

Hope to see you when you come to Orlando....

Neil Coulson from Dundee, Scotland on July 03, 2013:

I love your HUB. And although there are many theories on the origin of this particular nursery rhyme, the reference of Humpty Dumpty was the nick name given to a canon; a dumpy cannon, which was a short barrelled cannon weighing around 2 ton, that was situated on the fortified wall that surrounded the town of Colchester, England.

During the siege of Colchester, the Roundheads (Parliamentarians) managed to destroy the wall beneath the cannon on the 14th July 1648, sending it crashing to the ground. The Royalists attempted to right the cannon and move it to a new location, but because of its sheer size and weight were unable to do so.

By the end of August 1648, the Loyalists, who could not fix the cannon, laid down their arms and surrendered to the Roundheads.

I am sure that almost every nursery rhyme has a specific origin. I only know this one because of a history lesson at school.

Dana Strang from Ohio on July 03, 2013:


I always love knowing the origins of and stories behind things. This contains so many things I love: eggs, the humpty dumpty rhyme, Alice....

I adore what you added about the cosmic egg and the world-egg. I am a huge fan of origin myths and stories. I have studied them as far back as when I was a teen....

very glad I took a minute to read this!

Vickiw on July 03, 2013:

Hi Docmo, lovely Hub, and written with your usual flair and panache, which always seems to turn what is ordinary into extraordinary! This is a very enduring nursery rhyme, and it s endearing too, as children love to hear it, and draw their versions of it. There is of course another explanation, and that is that he was a cannon, situated on a wall, and which fell when the wall was hit by enemy fire. The enchanting thing about all of these versions is that each one can be considered quite believable! Love returning to nursery rhymes - they are a wonderful tradition, and usually received quite nonchalantly by small children, in spite if their somewhat graphic violence, which is individually interpreted in their minds!

D.Juris Stetser from South Dakota on July 03, 2013:

Mohan the magnificent does it again! You never cease to amaze, Docmo...taking each hub to the highest apex of perfection... This is just wonderful and your choices of images / artwork...the whole thing is...there should be a better word for... sheer Perfection.. Awesome, Beautiful, Interesting, and Voting up. There should be an even higher possibility to choose from...

sharing too, of course

Firoz from India on July 03, 2013:

Wonderful poetry DOCMO. Voted up.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on July 02, 2013:

I really did enjoy this hub and found it very informative as to the very curious origins of nursery rhymes!

It is funny, as I was just thinking of the sometimes very strange verses of nursery rhymes when reciting them to my grands. Some are very violent too, if you think about it, to be read to children.

Really loved this write here.

Voted up ++++ and sharing

God bless, Faith Reaper

Suzie from Carson City on July 02, 2013:

Mohan.....It's been so long.....I haven't been around. Forgive me. "I've put myself together again."......

I loved ole Humpty.....the fat clumsy oaf! I remember having it read to me as a child.....and reading it to my own children, over and over. ..not to mention all the other Nursery Rhymes of Yore.

The history you've given, is very interesting and certainly nothing I knew! Who knew Humpty had such a complex BIO?

Along these lines, I read an article recently, about how most of these rhymes have been changed and re-written several times, from their original form. Surprisingly, I learned the reasons were to create more children-friendly rhymes. Apparently, many of the originals were quite gory and frightening! This would never do, to put our children, peacefully to bed! LOL.

Your work is always too fabulous, you multi-talented man!....UP+++

LABrashear from My Perfect Place, USA on July 02, 2013:

Who would have thought! I always associated him with the nursery rhyme.very interesting and thorough information. Voted up!

Wayne Barrett from Clearwater Florida on July 02, 2013:

Docmo, I shall never see Humpty the same again. Very informative hub. Thank you for sharing.