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Who is Mother Goose?

Mother Goose is the legendary figure associated with a collection of beloved nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Often depicted as an elderly woman, her origins are shrouded in mystery, with tales dating back centuries. Her stories have enchanted children and adults alike, transcending time and culture. What timeless lessons might we uncover in her enduring verses? Continue reading to find out.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Mother Goose is an iconic figure in literature, associated with both fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The modern American reader may be most familiar with the classic book of short poems called The Real Mother Goose first published in 1916. Many of these poems are well known adaptations of poems or songs for children, long predating the publication of the book.

References to Mother Goose date back to the 17th century, and usually included the idea that she spun fairy tales in addition to poems. Any stories suitable to children were according to French writer Jean Loret in his 1650 La Muse Historique, like the Mother Goose tales. This suggests that the character was well known, and that she was essentially a figurehead description of a certain genre of literature. Poems of this genre would later be called nursery rhymes, as told in the nursery by mothers, perhaps fathers, and often children’s nurses or nannies.

Mother Goose is an iconic figure in children's literature.
Mother Goose is an iconic figure in children's literature.

There have been several hypotheses that a real Mother Goose at one point existed. Two French queens prior to 12th century were considered by some to be Mother Goose. This is largely discredited. Another refuted theory is that her poems were written by a 19th century American woman named Elizabeth Goose. This urban legend was enough to earn the possibly non-existent Elizabeth a place in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum as a wax figure. In this case, don’t believe it; many of the works in The Real Mother Goose can be traced centuries back.

Nursery rhymes are often consolidated into collections, such as Mother Goose.
Nursery rhymes are often consolidated into collections, such as Mother Goose.

More likely, Mother Goose was a reference to any farmer woman who might raise geese, or who might care for children and collect them about her in flocks to tell tales. Some have also suggested that the figure is pagan in origin. Her costuming and appearance in illustrations does seem an early model for depictions of witches. Especially her pointed nose, glasses, and witch hat are suggestive in the 1916 collection.

Some of the Mother Goose stories contain jokes that children enjoy.
Some of the Mother Goose stories contain jokes that children enjoy.

Sometimes Mother Goose is merely depicted as a goose. This is definitely a modern take in keeping with the many anthropomorphic animals that entertain modern children in books and on television. The Real Mother Goose published in several forms retains the older illustrations and remains a delightful book for children. It often serves as an excellent way to teach quite young children about poetry, and to help them learn to memorize short rhythmic poems.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent LanguageHumanities contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent LanguageHumanities contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

FernValley

The original Mother Goose, to my mind, is sort of like the original Red Riding Hood. The original Red Riding Hood story was a dark tale of a girl who basically gets raped/eaten in the woods by a scary wolf, and in that version there was no happy ending; she just died. Most stories at that time, the 17th century and earlier, were written to frighten children into behaving; similarly, the original collections of stories were intended to give children a list of lessons to study to learn to behave.

I imagine that Mother Goose also developed from, if anything, a woman who told many warning stories to children; over time, she has become much more benevolent.

accordion

There are many different "Mother Goose" books of stories, many of which are derivatives of older tales from any number of countries. We probably will never know who the original Mother Goose was, if she existed, but it's nice to think that a figure like her can exist for this long in imaginations.

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    • Mother Goose is an iconic figure in children's literature.
      By: atikinka2
      Mother Goose is an iconic figure in children's literature.
    • Nursery rhymes are often consolidated into collections, such as Mother Goose.
      By: Iriana Shiyan
      Nursery rhymes are often consolidated into collections, such as Mother Goose.
    • Some of the Mother Goose stories contain jokes that children enjoy.
      By: blantiag
      Some of the Mother Goose stories contain jokes that children enjoy.