Humpty Dumpty. Jack Horner. Miss Muffet. You knew them as a child, and if you have youngsters of your own, chances are they know them, too. Mother Goose and her nursery rhymes are old friends. Seems as if they've been around forever, and with the tenacity of Golden Oldies, they'll stick with you for life.

But where, you might wonder, did the fragile Humpty and the arachnophobic Miss Muffet come from?

Like many nursery rhymes, they are centuries old. According to Iona and Peter Opie, editors of the authoritative classic on the subject, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, one-fourth of the ones we know today could have been familiar, in some form, to Shakespeare. Some are relics of old traditions and superstitions; some celebrate -- or, more often, poke fun at -- real people and events. Separating fact from fiction, however, is not always easy. Scholars and folklorists have gone to great lengths to discover hidden significance in nursery rhymes, often with absurd results. In the Opies' expert assessment, "The bulk of these speculations are worthless." They cite as an example "Sing a Song of Sixpence," which "has been described as alluding to the choirs of Tudor monasteries, the printing of the English Bible, the malpractices of the Romish clergy and the infinite workings of the solar system." Sometimes a nursery rhyme is just that -- a versified bit of humor, silliness or whimsy designed to entertain children. And sometimes there's more to the rhyme than meets the eye. Bearing the above caveat in mind, here are a few of the stories behind the stories. Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top, When the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, And down will come baby, cradle and all. Lyrics to this lullaby first appeared in print about 1765 in a volume called Mother Goose's Melody, with the note: "This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last." Dubious moralizing aside, tradition says the lullaby's author was a young Pilgrim man, though why a man the story doesn't say. He supposedly came to America on the Mayflower and was struck by the American Indian practice of hanging birchbark cradles on the branches of trees, where they rocked in the wind. The lullaby has been called the first poem written in America, a claim difficult to prove. "Rock-a-Bye Baby" may predate the May-flower; other rhymes suggest that people in the Old World also used wind-rocked cradles. Little Jack Horner Sat in the corner, Eating a Christmas pie; He put in his thumb, And pulled out a plum, And said, What a good boy am I! According to tradition, Jack Horner served as steward to Richard Whiting, abbot of Glastonbury Abbey in England, during the reign of King Henry VIII, who split with the pope and put the English church under his personal control. When the king began dissolving the church's abbeys and taking their land and wealth for himself, Abbot Whiting, hoping to mollify the rapacious monarch, sent Horner to the king with a gift: a pie stuffed with deeds to 12 manors. On the way, Jack dipped into the pie and pulled out the deed (the "plum") to the Manor of Mells, where his descendants still live. That's the legend. What is known is that a Thomas Horner did take occupancy of Mells soon after Henry's dissolution of the abbeys. Thomas could have been known as Jack, a common nickname in those days, often applied to scamps and scoundrels. One source also mentions a John Horner in contemporary records, perhaps a brother of Thomas. Though the Horner family insists that its ancestor purchased the manor from the king, history doesn't entirely dismiss the juicier traditional story. Abbot Whiting did send several Christmas gifts to Henry VIII, though they didn't do the abbot much good -- Whiting eventually was tried and executed during the king's reign, with Thomas Horner sitting on the jury that condemned him. As for the pie, it was common, in the 16th century and after, to bake surprises into pastries. (See the next item.) Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye; Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing; Wasn't that dainty dish To set before the king? The king was in his counting-house, Counting out his money; The queen was in the parlor, Eating bread and honey. The maid was in the garden, Hanging out the clothes, Then came a little blackbird, And snapped off her nose. Bird lovers, take heart. Those "four and twenty blackbirds" make it through alive and singing. The rhyme probably commemorates a recipe found in an Italian cookbook printed in 1549 and translated into English in 1598 as Epulario, or, the Italian Banquet. The recipe gives instructions on how to make pies containing live birds. When the pies were cut, the birds would fly out -- an airborne party favor guaranteed to enliven any feast. Many have tried to find political allusions in "Sing a Song of Sixpence." One of the most entertaining holds that the king is Henry VIII; the queen is his first wife, the soon-to-be-discarded Catherine of Aragon, and the maid is Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, whose beheading is prefigured in the line about the blackbird snapping off her nose. And the blackbirds? They could be the black-robed monks of monasteries that Henry dissolved. No wonder he spent so much time in the counting-house -- a "dainty dish," indeed. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses, And all the king's men, Couldn't put Humpty together again. One of the oldest known nursery rhymes, "Humpty Dumpty" is really a riddle describing an egg, an origin to which generations of illustrators have paid tribute. It's so old that one of the Opies' linguistic sources suggested that its age "is to be measured in thousands of years." Strikingly similar rhymes turn up in Germany ("Humpelken-Pumpelken"), France ("Boule, boule"), Sweden ("Thille, Lille"), Finland ("Hillerin-Lillerin") and other European countries. A few linguistic curiosities: The Oxford English Dictionary notes that 18th-century drinkers could enjoy a boiled ale-and-brandy concoction named a "Humpty-dumpty." By the end of that century, the term was being applied to "a short clumsy person of either sex." In the 19th century, girls played a game called "Humpty Dumpty," in which players would sit, hold their skirts around their ankles and roll backwards, the point being to try to get back up without letting go. And author Lewis Carroll famously incorporated Humpty into Through the Looking-Glass, writing, "It's very provoking to be called an egg -- very." Little Miss Muffet Sat on a tuffet, Eating her curds and whey; Along came a spider, Who sat down beside her And frightened Miss Muffet away. There's a story, usually dismissed as bunk, that Miss Muffet represents Mary Queen of Scots (1542-87), and that the unpleasant spider is Presbyterian reformer John Knox, who perpetually berated the Roman Catholic monarch about her religion. Miss Muffet may have been Patience Muffet, daughter of a 16th century English entomologist, Thomas Muffet. He adored spiders and wrote a natural history called The Silkwormes and their flies. It's tempting to think that Muffet wrote the rhyme for his daughter. Or perhaps somebody else felt sorry for the entomologist's daughter, surrounded by many-legged creatures. Though Miss Muffet often is pictured sitting on a stool, a "tuffet" more likely means a grassy hillock. The rhyme is similar in structure to several others, including "Little Jack Horner," and may have pre-Christian roots, with a possible connection to ancient May Day festivities. The Opies found suggestions that "the form of the rhyme, a person sitting and waiting and something important arriving, dates to heathen times. It is possible that most of these rhymes are parodies of whichever is the earliest of them." Ring around the rosie, A pocket full of posies, Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down. One persistent theory about this rhyme is that it recalls either the Great Plague of London in 1665 or the Black Death of the 14th century. In this interpretation, "ring around the rosie" is the symptomatic red rash that afflicted plague victims, while "posies" recall the bundles of herbs carried to ward off infection. "All fall down," still acted out by children, would, of course, be what happens when the plague strikes. As for "Ashes! Ashes!", the common American phrasing, it may be a corruption of the English line, "A-tishoo! A-tishoo!", which indicates sneezing, possibly another plague symptom. Of course, if the rhyme is about the plague, "Ashes! Ashes!" has an appropriately mortal sound. Tempting though this interpretation is, folklorists have objected to it. Nobody has been able to find a printed version older than an American one about 1790. The "tumble down" wording first appears in Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose in 1881. Some 19th-century versions replace the fall with a bow or curtsy, and some English and Irish variants add a verse that has the players stand up again. So it's possible that the rhyme originated as a dancing game. One American folklorist, Philip Hiscock, even suggests that it may have been invented as a way to skirt the ban on dancing decreed by some Protestant sects in England and America. London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, London Bridge is falling down, My fair lady. This old nursery song-game, according to the Opies, is "one of the few, perhaps the only one, in which there is justification for suggesting that it preserves the memory of a dark and terrible rite of past times" -- human sacrifice. It was an ancient belief in many regions that river gods resented the building of bridges and could be placated only by sealing a living person, often a child, into the foundations. Having appeased the gods, the victim also would serve as the bridge's guardian spirit. This rhyme has a surprising number of verses. One picks up on the idea of a guardian of the bridge: "We will set a man to watch, man to watch, man to watch...." In one chilling confirmation of this tale, the Opies report that, when the Bridge Gate was demolished in Bremen, Germany, in the 19th century, workers found a child's skeleton in its foundations. Similar stories are associated with other bridges. The bridge at Arya in Italy, for instance, kept falling down until the master mason's wife was walled in it, or so the story goes. The Opies tantalizingly mention a London tradition that "the stones of {London Bridge} were once bespattered with the blood of little children," though what supports the tradition they don't say. One source, Gloria T. Delamar, author of Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, reports that Peter of Colebrook, a monk who engineered the first London Bridge built from 1176 to 1209, died before the edifice was completed and was buried in a chapel on the bridge, perhaps reinforcing accounts of human sacrifice. In the days when people actually had houses and shops on London Bridge, a center of city life for hundreds of years, the whole thing probably was prone to falling down, in a sense. It certainly was a fire hazard. Hey diddle diddle, The cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon, The little dog laughed To see such sport, And the dish ran away with the spoon. People have gotten downright silly about this one. "Probably the best-known nonsense verse in the language, a considerable amount of nonsense has been written about it," the Opies note. Among the wildest speculation is that it's connected with worship of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love, mirth and joy; that it refers to the constellations Taurus and Canis Minor, "the little dog"; and that "cat and the fiddle" is a corruption of Katherine la Fidele (Katherine the Faithful), a name sometimes applied to Catherine of Aragon. A more credible story involves England's Queen Elizabeth I and her court. A 16th century dance, current in her time, was called "Hey diddle diddle," and Elizabeth had a fondness for dancing to fiddle music. Because she tended to toy with hapless ministers, she sometimes was called "the cat." The "little dog" could be Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whom Elizabeth considered marrying and of whom she once said: "He is like my little lap dog." As for the dish and the spoon, according to The Annotated Mother Goose by William and Ceil Baring-Gould, the courtier who carried ceremonial dishes at state dinners was called "the dish," and that the lady-in-waiting who tasted the queen's food to ascertain that it wasn't poisoned was known as "the spoon." In fact, a "dish" did elope with a "spoon." Edward, Earl of Hertford, and Lady Katherine Grey, sister of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, fell in love and were married secretly. When Elizabeth found out, she had both imprisoned in the Tower of London, where they lived out their lives, producing two children. Jennifer Howard writes frequently about literature and the literary life. She lives in Charlottesville. TO LEARN MORE The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1951). A new edition is due out in October. Nursery Rhymes and Tales: Their Origin and History, by Henry Bett (Methuen; reissued by Singing Tree Press, 1968). The Annotated Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes Old and New, Arranged and explained, by William S. Baring-Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould (Bramhall House, 1962). Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, by Gloria T. Delamar (McFarland and Co., 1987). CAPTION: Humpty Dumpty has a great fall in this illustration from Blanche Fisher Wright's The Real Mother Goose, 1916. CAPTION: Four and twenty may have been more blackbirds than would fit, but putting live birds in pies was a 16th century way to enliven a feast. Was Henry VIII the king? CAPTION: Innocent evocation of the Black Death or a Puritan's evasion of rules against dancing? "Ring Around the Rosie" from Kate Greenaway's 1881 Mother Goose. CAPTION: Frederick Richardson's version of a falling Humpty. CAPTION: A spider guaranteed to frighten anyone away approaches Miss Muffet, seated on a tuffet in this drawing from a 1913 Mother Goose.