Egypt in the modern world History Legacy

King Pharim

At Christmas, people traditionally come together to sing carols. Some of these carols are religious and some are more secular.

King Pharim

One of the strangest Christmas carols, however has to be ‘King Pharim’. It tells the miraculous tales of the birth of Jesus, including a roast chicken which comes back to life and a field of corn which grows in a single day in order to trick King Herod.

For if it is true, is true, good man,
What you’ve been telling me,
This roasted cock, that’s in the dish,
Shall crow full fences three.

Well the cock soon feathered and he grew soon well,
By the work of God’s own hand.
Three times that roasted cock did crow
In the dish where he did stand.

King Pharim, also contains two figures. King Pharim and King Herod. King Herod is the archetypal baddie of the Nativity. It is likely that Pharim refers to the pharaoh of Egypt.

This song was first recorded from singers of the traveller community. It was suggested their interest in the song was due to the legends that claimed for them a descent from Egypt (“Gypsies” being seen as a corruption of Egyptian).

Versions of the stories found in this ballad survive in other ballads. The tale of the reviving bird can be found in the ballad ‘Herod and the Cock’, it may be part of a longer series of bands which also form the ballads ‘The Carnal and the Crane’ and ‘St Stephen and King Herod’. These ballads contain tales about the miracles surrounding the infancy of Jesus.

The Carnal and the Crane

The Carnal and the Crane (Child 55) is a ballad which is a framed as a conversation between two birds, a crow (carnal) and a crane. The crane tells the crow about the miraculous events surrounding Christ’s birth. These include a roast cock coming back to life and crowing in front of an astonished Herod, to announce the truth of the Wise Men’s words and a harvest of corn that rises with a day and tricks Herod into leaving off his pursuit of the holy family in Egypt.

Another interesting story found in this song (as recorded in my copy of Child’s ballads) is the peaceful nature of wild beasts in Egypt:

“And when they came to Egypt’s land,
Amongst these fierce wild beasts,
Mary, she being weary,
Must needs sit down to rest.

‘Come sit thee down’, says Jesus,
‘Come sit thee down by me,
And thou shalt see how these wild beasts
Do come and worship me.’

First came the lovely lion,
Which Jesus’s grace did bring
And of the wild beast in the field
The lion shall be king.”

Child writes that no copies of this ballad survive later than the eighteenth century, although he supposes it is earlier. Similar stories were found in ballads across Europe.

A later example from around 1800 (according to Mollie McCabe) shows similarities to other medieval ballads and original additions by the printer, Susannah Martin:

A panick seiz’d king Herod,
  Who thus in rage reply’d,
Then may this cock revive and crow,
  In sign you have not ly’d;
No sooner spoke but straight,
  To admiration rose,
The naked cock, his youthful plumes,
  Around his body shows.|
In gaudy pride array’d,
  Thrice o’er he clap’d his wings,
And crow’d as usual thrice,

McCabe also writes that “the Carnal and the Crane” contains different rhymes, rhythms and tones and may be a compilation of different medieval ballads.

St Stephen and Herod

The story of the reviving cock also resembles a scene from St Stephen and Herod (Child 22), which was found in a fifteenth century manuscript.

‘Þat is al so soþ, Steuyn, al so soþ, iwys
As þis capoun, crowe xal þat lyþ here in myn dysh.’

Þat word was not so sone seyd, þat word in þat halle,
Þe capon crew Cristus natus est! among þe lordes alle.

Rysyt vp, myn turmentowres, be to and al be on,
And ledyt Steuyn out of þis town, and stonyt hym with ston!

Of course, this is anachronistic and contradicts Acts 6, which tells of Stephen’s martyrdom. The one fact which the carol has taken from the Biblical version, is the means of death. This may be due to iconography. Stephen was often portrayed with stones. The carol points to a time when the bible was remote from the lives of ordinary people and that separate traditions grew up around particular stories.

Sources for the ballads

The amount of ballads surviving with these stories in, suggest a relatively popular ballad tradition. Where then did these traditions come from?

A major problem we need to consider first is that several of these ballads survive in printed form (broadsides) from the eighteenth century. Molly McCabe argues that the eighteenth century experienced a growth in “mysterious legends” in ballad form. She writes:

A basic problem confronting the student of folklore is whether ancient legends found in folk material have really been handed down orally from the Middle Ages or whether they have been ‘dug up’ by some assiduous broadside hack from an accessible source such as Caxton’s Golden Legend.

The question of whether these ballads represent a continuous oral tradition from the medieval period is a complicated one. It is beyond the scope of this blog piece anyway. However the similarities to one ancient source are obvious.

Infancy gospels

Several sets of texts survive from the Ancient World which claim to be true gospels of the Christian revelation. One of these texts (the Gospel of Thomas) may even be as old as the canonical gospels found in the New Testament today. These texts are often called apocryphal. Some of these gospels “disappeared” at an early stage. For example, we know only the names of some of these books, whereas others were discovered in the modern era. The most famous of these rediscoveries was the Nag Hammadi codices, although related books had been found before (Pistis Sophia) and since (the Gospel of Judas). It is sometimes assumed that these texts were deliberately suppressed by the growingly authoritarian Orthodox Church in the fourth century.

The infancy gospels are a collection of such texts pertaining to the virgin birth and childhood of Jesus. For example a Greek Gospel of Thomas (different to the more famous text mentioned above) tells a tale of a miraculous corn harvest:

Again, in the time of the sowing the young child went forth with his father to sow when in their land: and as his father sowed, the young child Jesus sowed also one corn of wheat. And he reaped it and threshed it and made thereof an hundred measures [XII 1 in James, Pg 52]

In a Latin version of the Gospel of Thomas, the young Jesus takes an ear of wheat to eat whilst a refugee fleeing from Herod.

And he gave such flavour unto that field that year by year when it was sown it yielded unto the Lord of it do many measures of wheat as the number of grains which he had taken from it. [James, Pg 59]

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew contains tales of the wild beasts in Egypt (dragons, lions, leopards and wolves) not injuring the holy family.

The roasted fowl

The roasted fowl is not found in the apocryphal infancy gospels. It is found in texts which were based on the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Acts of Peter:

It happened on the day of the Holy Supper, that Lord Christ was served a roast cock, and when Judas left to sell the Lord, he ordered the cock to rise and follow Judas, and the cock did ac- cordingly, then reported to Lord Christ how Judas betrayed him, and because of this it is said to be allowed to follow him to Paradise.

[An account of the tales of the Copts from seventeenth century].

The Ethiopic church recognise a Book of the Cock which develops this story of Judas’ guilt. Fragments survive of Coptic texts.

However, it was only in the eleventh century that the tale of the roasted fowl entered the European vernacular. Other examples survived in the South Eastern European traditions and were recorded as late as the 1990s.


It is  interesting that such stores were continued in the oral traditions across much of Europe. The growth of interest in the eighteenth century, does not necessarily argue against a continuous rich vernacular culture which developed out of the earlier apocryphal traditions.

Further research is needed, but it is interesting that apocryphal texts which were always supposed to have an educated and literate audience in their immediate societies, nevertheless found nourishment in largely illiterate classes at a much later date.

Printed references

Child Ballads

James, M.R. (tr. ed.) (1986), The apocryphal New Testament : being the apocryphal gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses : with other narratives and fragments. Oxford: Clarendon Press

McCabe, Mollie (1984), ‘A Rewritten Version of the Carnal and the Crane (Child 55)’, Folk Music Journal, Vol. 4, No. 5 (1984), pp. 528-538

Featured image

Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Public Domain)