Carl Van Vechten (18801964). The Tiger in the House. 1922.
The Cat in Folklore
WHERE the cat came from is a mystery; you may believe the Noah story if you like. Wood says that the Egyptian Felis maniculata is the grandfather of our household pet, while Lydekker1 summons modern authorities to prove that this progenitor was the Kaffir Cat, a yellowish cat with tiger stripes, Felis lybica, which still roams about northeastern Africa, hunting at night and living in holes dug by other animals. Again, probably, for all of this is quite as uncertain as the Noah story, the Romans brought the Egyptian cat to England some time before the fifth century and there is a theory to the effect that our modern tabby is a cross between this ancient animal and the British wild cat. This theory does not account for Persian and Angora cats at all as Egyptian cats were short-haired. A cat of Central Asia, popularly known as Pallass cat, is suspected of the ancestry of these more aristocratic beasts. As to the ailuros of the Greeks, I have already intimated that current scholarly opinion, which, of course, is worth very little, has come to the conclusion that this was not a cat at all, but the snowy-breasted marten.
Where the cat is going is equally a mystery. Every one is aware, writes Mr. Andrew Lang, that a perfectly comfortable, well-fed cat will occasionally come to his house and settle there, deserting a family by whom it is lamented, and to whom it could, if it chose, find its way back with ease. This conduct is a mystery which may lead us to infer that cats form a great secret society, and that they come and go in pursuance of some policy connected with education, or perhaps with witchcraft. We have known a cat to abandon his home for years. Once in six months he would return, and look about him with an air of some contempt. Such, he seemed to say, were my humble beginnings. It must be remembered that the cat is an oriental and all orientals are mysterious. There seems to be even a canon of feline etiquette which forbids two cats to meet and pass without some display of solemn formalities, reminiscent of greetings in the Orient where time is of no particular value.
Even the derivation of the name of the cat is shrouded in darkness. From the Latin word felis we have extracted feline but the word cattus or catus came into use as late as the fourth century A. D. and is to be found first in the writings of an agricultural author, Palladius, who recommends that puss be kept in artichoke gardens as a protection against rodents and moles. Evagrius Scholasticus, a later Greek church historian, uses the word catta. Isidorus derives cattus from cattare, meaning to see, in reference doubtless to the animals vigilance and watchfulness. On the other hand a writer in Notes and Queries declares that the only language, so far as he can ascertain, in which the word cat is significant is the Zend, in which the word gatu means a place, a particularly expressive word in this connection. His inference is that Persia is the original home of the cat and he goes on to say that the cat was probably introduced from Persia, through Spain, into Europe because the Spanish word gato is almost identical with the Zend. The only flaws in this brilliant philological reasoning are that the Spanish word is also almost identical with the late Latin and that Persian cats and European cats are two distinct breeds. Adolphe Pictet2 derives catus from an African root: Arab, kitt, plural kitât; Syrian, katô; Nubian, kadiska, and in still other African tongues, kaddiska and gada. This ingenious etymologist further thinks that puss comes from an old Sanskrit word, puccha,piccha, meaning tail. There is a suggestion of this root in the Persian pushak; Afghan, pishik; Kurd, psig; Lithuanian, puize; Irish pus, feisag, fiseog, and feisain. A still more ingenious pundit thinks that the French chat is an onomatope for the cats spitting.
To come to more familiar tongues, in Dutch the word is kat; in Swedish, katt; Italian, gatto; Portuguese and Spanish gato; Polish, kot; Russian, kots; Turkish, keti; Welsh, cath; Cornish, kath; German, die Katze (a Frenchman deploring that chat is masculine in French, admires this choice of gender); Basque, catua; Armenian, kitta; Picardian, ca, co; Burgundian, chai; Catalonian, gat. The antique rituals in the Louvre give the Egyptian name as mau, mai, maau.3 These and the Chinese word, mao, seem the most natural of all.
In every language allusions to the cat are sprinkled as thickly as currants in a good fruit-cake. Many of these take the form of derivative words, the formation of a good half of which is as mysterious as puss herself. Others are metaphorical or proverbial, and have a bearing on the popular ideas, prejudices, and superstitions concerning the cat. Murrays Oxford Dictionary devotes two full pages to cat and its derivative words; nor is the list in Murray by any means exhaustive. Many of the following examples are from other sources.
There are, to begin with, the sea-terms, which seem to offer cumulative evidence that the cat is a favourite marine animal. There is the cat-boat, which formerly was called merely the cat, and some students of folklore have tried to prove that this was the kind of cat Dick Whittington owned. The significance of catamaran, another variety of boat, which rights itself in a surf, is quite clear. The word is derived from the Italian, gatta marina, and is an allusion to the faculty the cat possesses of falling on his feet. Cat is also the name for a tackle or combination of pulleys used to suspend the anchor at the cats-head of a ship. Cat-harping is the name for a purchase of ropes employed to brace the shrouds in the lower masts behind their yards. The cat-fall is the rope employed upon the cats-head and the cat-hook is a large hook fitted to a cat-block, by which the anchor is raised to the cats-head. Two little holes astern, above the gun-room ports, are called cat-holes. A cats-paw is a particular turn in the bight of a rope made to work a tackle in and it is also the rippling on the water made by light air during a calm, which resembles the slight disturbance made in a pool when a cat delicately troubles the surface with his paw. Lastly there is the terrible cat-o-nine-tails. Folklorists have discovered cross references. How is it? asks David Fitzgerald, that we find the nine-tailed cat (a magical cat with no allusion to the scourge) in the legends of the Goban Saor? And a cat with ten tails in Scottish counting-out rhymes, and the phrase to whip the cat for to work against, among the tailors of Crieff?4
Many plants are named after cats: cat-briar, an Americanism for smilax, which I offer to H. L. Mencken; cat-chop, which I have not identified; cat-haw, the fruit of the hawthorne; cat-in-clover, birds-foot trefoil; cat-keys, the fruit of the ash-tree; cat-sloe, the wild sloe; cat-succory, wild succory; cats-head, a variety of apple and also a fossil, cat-trail, the beloved valerian; cat-thyme, a species of teucrium which causes sneezing; cat-tree, spindle tree; the familiar cat-tails and catnip; catkins, imperfect flowers hanging from trees in the manner of a cats tail; cats-foot, an herb; and curiously enough, cat-whin or dog-rose!
In American slang one old cat is a kind of primitive baseball game. Letting the old cat die is to allow a swing to prove that there is no such phenomenon as perpetual motion. As the swing sags back and forth eight or nine times after you have stopped pushing it this phrase possibly has reference to the nine lives of the cat. Cattycornered, meaning diagonally opposite or across, has reference to the oblique movements of the cat. Scat is an interjection used to tell puss to make a speedy departure. Pussyfoot is a term derived from the cats padded paws and stealthy approach but no cat in the world would be in favour of prohibition of any variety. In English thieves slang cat signifies a ladys muff. A kind of double tripod with six feet, intended to hold a plate before the fire and so constructed that in whatever position it is placed three of the legs rest on the ground is called a cat from the belief that however a cat may be thrown she always lands on her feet. The enemies of the feline race say as false as a cat and it is from this phrase that the terms cats gold and cats silver, the common names for mica on account of its deceptive appearance, are derived. There are sea-cats, cat-fish, cat-birds, cat-squirrels, and cat-owls, or flying cats. A French word for owl is chat-huant. Cats-eye is a well-known semi-precious stone. Cats purr is a thrill felt over the region of the heart in certain diseases. Cats tooth is white-lead ore from Ireland; cat-brain, a soil consisting of rough clay mixed with stones; cat-dirt a kind of clay. Cat-collops is cat-meat and the cats meat man, a familiar London figure, is frequently referred to as the pussy butcher. Cat-face is a mark in lumber wood; cat-ice, thin ice of a milky appearance from under which the water has receded. Cat-nap is a short nap taken while sitting; cat-ladder a kind of ladder used on sloping roofs of houses; cat-steps, the projections of the stones in the slanting part of the gable; cat-pipe, an artificial cat-call. Puss gentleman is eighteenth century for catamite. Kitty is a common poker term. Copy cat is a misnomer because cats never copy anybody. A common phrase for an unusual event is enough to make a cat laugh, but the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland is not the only recorded example of a laughing cat. Enough to make a cat speak is a similar expression, but as I have pointed out in the preceding chapter, speaking cats are almost a commonplace. Cats paw is a reference to a monkeys idle jest. Salt-cat is a mess of coarse meal placed in a dove-cote to allure strangers. A cats walk is a little way and back. To jerk, shoot, or whip the cat means to vomit. Cat-harrow, Cat and Dog, Cat or Kit-Cat5 are games. It was once a trick of farmers to bring a cat to market in a bag and sell it for a suckling pig to the unwary. If the purchaser discovered the deception he let the cat out of the bag; if he did not he was said to have bought a pig in a poke. Both expressions have become proverbial. An island in the Bahama group is named Cat Island and Moncrif writes of the Cape of Cats. You may have heard of the Catskills. An ancestor of mine, Derrick Teunis Van Vechten,6 was the founder of the extremely unimportant town in New York bearing that name. Cat was a movable pent-house used in the middle ages by besiegers to protect themselves when approaching fortifications. It was also called a cat-house;7 something else is called a cat-house in modern times, just as certain pretty ladies in London and Geisha girls in Japan are called cats.
All languages are rich in cat proverbs, many of which appear to have been the inventions of those who believe what Buffon and Noah Webster had to say about the animal. Many others have reference to the cats prowess and special instincts, a few to her grace and beauty. Plutarch, when in Egypt, heard the proverb, An overdressed lady is like a cat dressed in saffron. An old Chinese saying is, A lame cat is better than a swift horse when rats infest the palace. It is not the fleas of dogs that will make cats mew, is also Chinese. A Japanese proverb has it that A dog will remember a three days kindness three years while a cat will forget a three years kindness in three days. This may be regarded as a compliment to the intelligence of the cat. A Hindu saying is, If you want to know what a tiger is like, look at a cat; if you want to know what a tiger is like, look at a butcher. I am inclined to agree with Lockwood Kipling that only the first half of this proverb is true. As cats are sometimes slung in a net in India, a proverb descriptive of sudden success is The cat is in luck; the net is torn. I was not so angry at the cat for stealing the butter as at her wagging her tail shows that Hindu humanity is not so very different in some respects from European or American. Of a hypocrite the Hindu remarks: The cat, with mouse tails still hanging out of her mouth, saysNow I feel good, I will go on a pilgrimage to Mecca! The Indian cat miyaus; so one says to a child or a servant, What! my own cat, and miyau at me! The cat does not catch mice for God is a priceless bit of wisdom. Even a cat is a lion in her own lair is said of mild-tempered people who fly into sudden rages. A cats moon is a Kashmiri expression for a sleepless night. It is also in Kashmir that they say, If cats had wings there would be no ducks in the lake. An Indian mother will say to an idle girl, Did the cat sneeze or what? A sneering proverb has it, In a learned house even the cat is learned. A sly man is said to look like a drowned cat; a live cat is said to be better than a dead tiger. It is easy to understand the meaning of The cowed cat allows even a mouse to bite its ears but did the thing ever happen?8
John Hay9 gives, A miawling cat takes no mice as a Spanish proverb but, of course, this occurs in every language. Other Spanish proverbs are They whip the cat if our mistress does not spin; The mouse does not go away with a bellyful from the cats house; When the cats go away the mice grow saucy; Dont turn the cat out of the house for being a thief (spoken of those who expect what is contrary to nature from servants); Let us see who will carry the cat to water; and The meat is on the hook because there is no cat. The Portuguese say: The cat is certainly friendly but it scratches. A charming Russian proverb says: The day is young, said the cat, remembering that he could wait. Plays of cat, tears of mice is also Russian. The cat will catch fish but he does not soil his paws is German. A delightful Italian saying is: Four things are necessary for a home: grain, a cock, a cat, and a wife.
The available examples of cat proverbs in English are so very numerous that I must content myself with giving only a few of them. Some of these are true folk-sayings; others have become popular through their appearance in plays and novels. Care will kill a cat. A muffled cat is no good mouser. The cat is out of kind that sweet milk will not lap. You can have no more of a cat than her skin, a proverb which does not take into account the French custom of using puss for rabbit stew.10 When the cat winketh little wots the mouse what the cat thinketh. Fain would the cat eat fish but she is loth to wet her feet. The cat sees not the mouse ever. Though the cat winks awhile, yet sure she is not blind. The more you rub a cat on her back the higher she sets up her tail. Well might the cat wink when both her eyes were out. How can the cat help it if the maid be a fool? That that comes of a cat will catch mice. A cat may look at a king. An old cat laps as much as a young kitten. When the cat is away the mice will play. The cat knows whose lips she licks. Cry you mercy killed my cat (this was spoken of those who played tricks and then tried to escape punishment by begging pardon). When candles are out all cats are grey. By biting and scratching cats and dogs come together. Ill keep no more cats than will catch mice. A cat has nine lives and a woman has nine cats lives. Cats eat what hussies spare. In October not even a cat is to be found in London. A good wife and a good cat are best at home. A cat will never drown if she sees the shore. An ugly cat will have pretty kittens. The cat with the straw tail sitteth not before the fire. Cats hide their claws. The wandering cat gets many a rap. The cat is hungry when a crust contents her. He lives under the sign of the cats foot (his wife scratches him). A blate cat makes a proud mouse is a Scotch form of saying that a stupid or timid foe is not to be feared. A dead cat feels no cold. A piece of kid is worth two of cat. A scaulded cat fears cold water is a translation of the French Chat échaudé craint leau froide. As melancholy as a cat, or as melancholy as a gibcat is a common phrase in England. I am melancholy as a gib-cat or lugged bear, says a Shakespearean character. It should be explained that toms are called gib or ram-cats11 in Northern England. In Pepyss Diary for November 29, 1667, for instance, you may read: Our young gib-cat did leap down our stairs at two leaps. To turn the cat in the pan is to reverse the order of things. Before the cat can lick her ear, of course, means never. Cats and carlins sit in the sun. Denhams Popular Sayings (1846) gives Every days no yule; cast the cat a castock, which is to say spare no expense, bring another bottle of beer. In reference to the cats elusiveness an old saying has it: He bydes as fast as a cat bound with a sacer. He can hold the cat to the sun is said of a man of extreme daring.
The French are quite as prolific as the English in proverbs referring to the cat. Note, for example, this charming aphorism, which is entirely Parisian: The three animals that spend the most time over their toilet are cats, flies, and women. To run very swiftly without tiring oneself is courir comme un chat maigre. Discordant music is une musique de chats. The sudden embarrassment which results in the loss of voice is caused by un chat dans la gorge. The equivalent English saying employs the humbler frog. A person who likes delicate things is friande comme chatte. He who writes illegibly écrit comme un chat. Trying to inspire pity is faire la chatte mouillée. To pass rapidly over a delicate situation, to skate on thin ice, to use the English parallel expression, is passer par-dessus comme chat sur braise. To look clean and yet not be clean is to be propre comme une écuelle de chat. Viure comme chien et chat has its exact equivalent in English. Dignitaries who wear fur on their costumes of ceremony are called chats fourrés. To look surly is avoir une mine de chat fâché. Faire la chattemite is to effect humble, flattering manners. If there is nobody present, il ny a pas un chat. If by weakness or negligence one permits oneself to be deceived, on laisse aller le chat au fromage. Le chat a faim quand il mange du pain is said of those who eat what does not altogether please them, but cats often like to eat bread, indeed sometimes prefer it to other food. To expose oneself to danger without taking precaution is prendre le chat sans mitaines. There are several French variations of this phrase, which also occurs in English, and probably in many other languages as well. On ne prend pas le chat sans moufles and Chat emmouflé ne prend pas souris are the most common. Gourmand comme un chat is said of gluttons. To torment an adversary is jouer comme le chat avec la souris. Of a dangerous or impossible situation one says Cest le nid dune souris dans loreille dun chat. To watch everybody is avoir un oeil à la poêle et lautre au chat. Those who are always conciliating never jettent le chat aux jambes de personne. Jeter sa langue au chat is to refuse to respond to an embarrassing question. Acheter chat en poche is, of course, as English as it is French. One also says in French acheter le chat pour le lièvre, a pretty custom which I have already touched upon. La nuit tous les chats sont gris I have given in its English dress; in its French form it occurs in Beaumarchaiss Le Barbier de Séville. A bon chat, bon rat: for a good attack, good defence. As it is in the kitchen that the cat most frequently is scaulded one says Chat échaudé ne revient pas en cuisine. The meaning of the following proverbs is quite obvious: Qui naquit chat court après les souris; On ne saurait retenir le chat quand il a goûté à la crème; Il fait le saint, il fait le chat; Qui vit avec les chats prendra goût aux souris; Les chats retombent toujours sur les pattes; Il ne faut pas faire passer tous les chats pour sorciers; Quand les chats sont absents les souris dansent, which is our; When the cats away the mice will play; Faire tirer au chat les marrons de feu is a reference to the fable of the cat and the ape. Enterdre bien chat sans quon dise minon is to have the wit to comprehend things quickly. According to a thirteenth century proverb Là où kas nest, li souris se tient fière. Faire de la bouillie pour les chats is to be careless. To take French leave is emporter le chat. Avoir dautres chats à fouetter is to have other fish to fry. Of something insignificant one says: Il ny a pas de quoi fouetter un chat. Appeler un chat un chat12 has an English parallel. So has Ne reveillons pas le chat qui dort. Payer en chats et en rats is to pay in driblets. There are rhymed proverbs such as:
In the Temple of Liberty which Tiberius Gracchus erected in Rome, the goddess was represented holding a sceptre in one hand and a cap in the other, while at her feet reposed a cat, the symbol of freedom. The company of soldiers, Ordines Augustei, who marched under the command of the Colonel of Infantry, sub Magistro peditum, bore on their white or silver shield, a cat of the colour of the mineral prase, which is sinople, or sea-green. The cat is courant and turns its head over its back. Another company of the same regiment, called the happy old men (felices seniores) carried a demi-cat, red, on a buckler gules; in parma punica diluciore, with its paws up, as if playing with some one. Under the same chief, a third cat passant, gules, with one eye and one ear, was carried by the soldiers qui Alpini vocabantur.13 The Vandals and the Suevi carried a cat sable upon their armorial bearings, among the Greeks and Romans. The cat, indeed, plays no inconsiderable part in heraldry. The Burgundians used the device with the same significance of liberty and fearlessness and Clotilde, wife of Clovis the Burgundian, chose for her sigel a cat sable springing at a mouse. Other noble houses were enamoured of the emblem. We need exhibit no surprise upon learning that the Katzen familys azure shield flaunted a cat argent holding a rat nor that the crest of the Della Gatta family of Naples bore a magnificent cat couchant. Two cats argent on an azure shield signified the Chetaldie family of Limoges and the motto of the Scotch Clann Chatain is Touch not the cat but (without) a glove.14 The Chaffardon family bore on azure three cats, or two, full face in chief. The cognizance of Richard III was a boar, passant argent, whence the rhyme which cost William Collingborne his life:
Cervantes, it will be recalled, speaks of the ever victorious and never vanquished Timonel of Carcajona, Prince of New Biscay, whose shield bore a golden cat and the single word, Miau in honour of his lady, the lovely Miaulina, daughter of the Alfeniquen of the Algarve. More recently the tank corps of the American army carried on its machines huge black cats with snarling fangs and flashing electric green eyes and with the motto, Treat em rough! and the insignia of the Eighty-first division of the American Expeditionary Forces were wild cats. The men of this division, conscripts from North and South Carolina, Florida and Porto Rico, were the pioneers who introduced the custom of divisional emblems into the American army. According to Col. Robert E. Wyllie of the General Staff, when the Eighty-first division arrived at Hoboken, the port of embarkation, every man was wearing the wild cat on his left shoulder. General Shanks, commander of the port, immediately informed Washington army headquarters of the novel distinguishing mark of the Carolina wild cats and asked if the insignia were authorized. Before a negative reply reached General Shanks the division had sailed. When the Eighty-first landed in France the eyes of every doughboy in other divisions were focussed on the vicious feline and within the week the other divisions had invented similar insignia. So general, indeed, had the custom become that General Pershing realized that an order authorizing the decorations must follow. This authorization, so far as I know, was not issued, but the insignia were never prohibited and, as all who have seen the returning soldiers must know, they were eventually used by all divisions.
It is no longer the general custom to name shops or to label them with fantastic signboards but in the old days when such fashions were in vogue cat signs were as frequent as any others. A bookseller in London in 1612 called his shop The Cat and Parrot. Other shops, or inns, bore such quaint titles as Cat and Cage, Cat and Lion, Cat and Bagpipes, and Cat and Fiddle. The Catherine Wheel sign put up in honour of Catherine of Aragon, Queen of Henry VIII, was changed by the Puritans into Cat and Wheel! An old English tavern was called the Salutation and Cat. This is as good as the Hotel of the Virgin Mary and the Prince of Wales, which I once visited on the Italian Riviera. The name was calculated to capture both the Catholic and the English trade.
Of the French signs, La Maison du Chat qui Pelote (used by Balzac), Le Chat qui Pêche, and above all, Le Chat Noir are the most common. The latter once served for restaurants or bakeries but latterly it has been identified with one of the most celebrated of the Paris cabarets. The cabaret itself has passed but the name still persists. Even in New York a restaurant carries it and so does a well-known magazine. Parisian shoe-makers frequently affected Le Chat Botté. Le Chat qui Fume is a charming name. One of Anatole Frances stories bears as its title the name of a little Parisian Café, Le Chat Maigre. An American dry-cleaning establishment uses a cat washing clothes for its trademark.
is as well known as anything in Shakespeare. Nor can there be many who have neglected to learn
Ding, dong, bell, Pussys in the well,
Pussy cat, Pussy cat, where have you been?
The three little kittens, they lost their mittens.
This is a very pleasant ditty:
Hey, my kitten, my kitten,
Hey, my kitten, my deary;
Such a sweet pet as this
Was neither far nor neary.
And this is philosophical and fatalistic:
Pussy-cat ate the dumplings, the dumplings;
Pussy-cat ate the dumplings.
Mamma stood by, and cried, Oh, fie!
Why did you eat the dumplings?
In many other rhymes the cat is an important figure. For instance in the epic poem about the woman who wanted to get her pig over the stile it was the cat that killed the rat and in A frog he would a-wooing go,
A cat and her kittens came tumbling in,
With a rowley powley, gammon and spinach.
There is also the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
The French rhymes, while often not so fantastic, are naturally lovelier. What could be more irresistible than
Le chat sauta sur les souris,
Il les croqua toute la nuit.
Coco des moustaches, mirlo joli,
Here is another:
Sur ma gouttière un jour je vis
Un chat de bonne mine
Qui, sans soccuper des souris,
Miaulait en sourdine.
Ah! il men souviendra,
Du chat de ma voisine.
An old Mother Goose rhyme has it that
Puss-cat Mew jumped over a coal;
In her best petticoat burnt a great hole;
Puss-cat Mew shant have any milk
Till her best petticoats mended with silk.
With this verse for his inspiration E. H. Knatchbull-Hugessen composed a fairy story, Puss-Cat Mew, which is a mixture of familiar folklore elements: the ogres are the giants of Jack and the Beanstalk and Joe Brown, the millers son who is befriended in the magic forest by a tortoise-shell cat, who, of course, at the proper moment becomes a beautiful and marriageable young lady and the daughter of no less a personage than the Queen of the Fairies, is easily recognizable. Still when I recently reread the story I again felt its charm and its thrill and the horrible man-eating ogres still inspired terror.
There are so many folk-tales about cats that some enterprising young man of the future may fill a large book with these alone. Very often the cat plays a cruel or reprehensible part in these stories but he never plays a stupid or foolish rôle. In one of La Fontaines fables, indeed, the cat outwits even the fox. He is seldom lacking in wit; indeed he may be regarded as the Till Eulenspiegel of the animal world. It is well to remember Andrew Langs casual remark that Animals are always most intelligent when most depraved. Of the stories Puss in Boots16 is the most familiar; some form of this fable occurs in almost every language. Mr. Lang points out that it is a moral story in Russia, Sicily, among the Arabs, and at Zanzibar. In these countries the cat assists the man from motives of gratitude. In France, Italy, India, and elsewhere it is an immoral story; the cat is a swindler and the Marquis de Carabas is his accomplice. Gaston de Paris is convinced that the Zanzibar version is the original. In this version the man is ungrateful to the kind beast and awakes to find his prosperity a dream. The White Cat, which the Comtesse DAulnoy gave to France in 1682 is a wholly pretty story in which the graceful feline with her pattes de velours is transformed into a princess. Gelett Burgess has symbolized this theme in a novel bearing the name of the original story.
The tale of Dick Whittington and his cat has afforded scope for research work among the English folklorists and historians which still continues. W. R. S. Ralston writes in The Nineteenth Century: There used to exist in the Mercers Hall a portrait of Whittington, dated 1536, in which a black-and-white cat figured at his left hand. A still existing portrait by Reginald Elstrack, who flourished about 1590, represents him with his hand resting on a cat. The story is told that the hand originally rested on a skull, but that in deference to public opinion a cat was substituted, which proves that the legend or the history had by that time completely spread. That is also proved by a reference to the cat legend in Heywoods If You Know Not Me, and by another in Beaumont and Fletchers The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Newgate gaol was rebuilt by Whittingtons executors, and a statue, with a cat at his feet, is said to have been set up on the gate, and to have remained there until the fire of 1666. Moreover a piece of plate on which figured heraldic cats was presented to the Mercers company in 1572; and in the house at Gloucester, which the Whittingtons occupied till 1460, there was dug up a stone, when repairs were made in 1862, on which in basso relievo, is represented the figure of a boy carrying in his arms a cat. The workmanship appears to be of the fifteenth century. This is all that can be said in favour of the legend. Against it, besides its inherent improbability, may be called as witnesses many folk-tales,17 which at least suggest that the story is one of the commonplaces of fiction, capable of being associated with any historical or fictitious personage. So some destroyers of our belief in Santa Claus assure us that Whittingtons cat was a boat, while others affirm that trading or buying and selling at a profit was called achat and probably pronounced acat in the fifteenth century.
Moncrif relates an enchanting Hindu story, which, it would seem to me, has not been retold sufficiently often: At the court of Salamgam, King of the Indies, a Brahmin and a Penitent each boasted that he was the most virtuous. A trial was proposed and the Brahmin offered to ascend to the Heaven of Devendiren and return therefrom with the flower of the tree called Parisadam, only indigenous to that particular celestial realm. He made good his promise, returning with the blossom to the great astonishment of all the court with the exception of the Penitent, who refused to be impressed. My virtue is so great, he asserted, that I can send my cat for the flower of Parisadam. He was requested to do so and immediately the adorable Patripatan ascended to the skies in full view of the King and his nobles. Now, however, Fate interfered with the Penitents plans. The Heaven of Devendiren was inhabited by forty-eight million goddesses who had for husbands one hundred and twenty-four gods of which Devendiren was the sovereign. Now the instant the favourite goddess of the King of the Gods set her eyes on Patripatan she made up her mind to keep him for her very own. Devendiren, after he had listened to the cat, explained to the goddess that Patripatan was awaited with impatience by the court of Salamgam, that the reputation of the Penitent was at stake, and that the greatest affront one could offer to a mortal was to steal his cat. The goddess listened inattentively to this argument and finally promised, as a special favour to his godship, that she would return the beloved puss in three centuries. The court waited through this period without any other inconvenience than impatience because the Penitent by the power of his virtue was able to preserve everybodys youth. When the time had elapsed the sky reddened, and the cat appeared on a throne in a cloud of a thousand hues, bearing in his paws an entire branch of the tree of Parisadam. I believe the King awarded the croix de vertu to Patripatan. The only incredible part of the story is that the goddess should ever have permitted herself to be separated from a cat she had known and loved for three centuries.
One of the Japanese fairy stories translated by Lafcadio Hearn is called The Boy Who Drew Cats. This boy, the son of a poor farmer, had been sent to a priest, so that he might be trained as an acolyte. The child, however, refused to take an interest in his new studies and spent all his time drawing cats. The old priest, realizing that the boys talent was for art rather than for religion, sent him out into the world. In his wanderings the lad passed the night in a deserted temple but before he went to sleep he could not resist painting cats on the naked white screens. In his dreams he heard shrieks and in the morning he awakened to find an enormous goblin-rat lying dead on the floor, while the whiskers and jaws of his painted cats were red with blood.
An amusing Persian story tells of a long-sighted cat with fascinating eyes, long whiskers, and sharp teeth, who hunted like a lion in the city of Kerman. One day, perceiving the wine cellar of his house open, the cat walked in and caught a mouse. Thereafter he repented, went to the mosque, passed his paws over his face, poured water on his paws, and anointed himself as he had seen the faithful do at the hours of prayer. He swore he would never kill another mouse, praised Allah, and began to weep. The mice heard of this oath and held a celebration; a few days later the king of the mice suggested that gifts be carried to this temperate cat. So the mice brought wine, mussels stuffed with rice, raisins, and pignolia nuts; melon seeds and lumps of cheese; little cakes iced with sugar; Indian shawls and cloaks. Upon the receipt of these presents the cat reasoned thus: I am rewarded for becoming a pious Mussulman. It is clear that Allah is appeased. Then he sprang among the mice and killed a great number of them. The others went their way in sorrow. The king of the mice, when he heard of this unwarranted assault, declared war on the cats and three hundred and thirty thousand mice went forth, armed with swords, guns, and spears. The cats on horseback came out to meet them and the armies fell upon each other. So many cats and mice were killed that finally there was no ground for the horses to stand on. At length the king of the cats was captured and condemned to execution. He was carried to the block, bound paw to paw, but he burst his fetters, darted here and there, seizing and slaying till the whole army of mice was routed and there was none left to oppose him.
Gottfried Kellers story of Spiegel, das Kätzchen18 has a folk air and was probably not entirely the invention of the author. A certain wizard in a Swiss village, taking a walk one day, met a ram-cat looking very thin and miserable. He had been the favourite feline of a rich old gentlewoman, whose sudden death had left him without means of support. Now cats grease was an invaluable ingredient in certain magical preparations, but the thaumaturgical condition prescribed that the cat must make a willing donation of it. The wizard saw his opportunity in the present situation. Spiegel was hungry and he offered him a months luxurious living in return for his grease. The bargain was struck and the wizard fitted up an apartment as an artificial landscape with a little wood on a mountain and a little lake. Tiny roasted birds perched on the trees. Baked mice, seasoned with stuffing and larded with bacon, peered out of the mountain caves. Fish swam in the milk lake. Spiegel enjoyed himself but as he found himself getting very fat a ruse occurred to him. Towards the end of the month he stopped eating and grew very thin again. He continued this procedure every time his waist line increased in size until the wizard accused him of trying to escape from his bargain. It was on this day, and no other, that forcible feeding was invented! But Spiegel was again inspired; he told the wizard that he knew where 10,000 florins were buried at the bottom of a well, waiting as the wedding portion of a man who could find a beautiful and penniless maiden. The story was false. The money existed but a curse lay upon it. The wizard, however, took Spiegel on a chain to the well, saw the gold bricks and believed in them, and released his prisoner. Now the cat was the friend of an owl-companion to an old hag; with the aid of a magic net these two contrived to seize the beldam and transform her into a personable young lady. In this form she married the wizard at high noon as is the respectable custom, but at night-fall she regained her rightful shape, so that he found himself possessed of a hag for a wife and a pot of cursed gold for a dowry. Spiegel, of course, lived happily ever after.
Thomas A. Janvier found the following story among some old Mexican papers and printed it in Stories of Old New Spain: It was about the year 1540 that the Reverend Father Friar Francisco de Tembleque felt stirring in his heart a good desire (that, assuredly, God put there) to build an aqueduct by which the towns of Otumba and Zempoala should be supplied abundantly with water wholesome to drinkwhich at that time the people of these towns were compelled to bring from springs seven leagues away. And his plan was to make an aqueduct over all that distance, carrying it across three wide valleys on no less than one hundred and thirty-six arches, and making over the deepest of the valleys one arch so great that beneath it might pass (had there been any such thereabouts) a ship under full sail. And to this work the servant of Godfor so Father Tembleque was calledset himself with a stout heart; and the Indians worked for him joyfully. And at the spot where the great arch was to be, in what then was a tangle of wooded wild land, he built a little chapel to the Glory of Our Lady of Belen, and close beside the chapel he made for himself a cell so narrow that scarcely was there room within it for him to lie down to sleep.
And God showed his love to his servant by giving to dwell with him a grey cat, which every day from the wild woodland round about brought quails for his masters sustenance; and in the season of rabbits, a rabbit. And between the servant of God and this cat there was much love.
To Father Tembleque there came one day a stranger, who courteously, yet with a curious particularity, questioned him about the progress of the great work that he had in hand. For certain persons of the baser sort had said in the ears of the Viceroy that Father Tembleque was wasting his time and the substance of the church in striving to do an impossible thing; and this stranger really was an alcalde of the court, whom, that he might know the truth, the Viceroy had sent thus secretly to ask searching questions and to see for himself how the work went on. And as the two communed together, behold the cat came out of the wood to where they stood in talk and laid a rabbit at his masters feet!
Hearing these words, the cat in due obedience, betook himself once more to the thicket. But the alcalde, thinking that this might be a trick that was put upon him, sent after the cat to spy upon him one of his own servants. And the servant presently beheld a greater wonder. For in a moment the cat met with another rabbit,19 which he caught without any resistance at all on the creatures part, and with it returned to his master again: thus plainly showing that all had been disposed thus by God.
And the Senor Alcalde, being so substantially assured of the miracle, returned to the Viceroy and said, Though it seems to be impossible to bring the water by the way that Father Tembleque hath chosen, and thought the work that he hath set himself to do seems to be beyond the power of man to accomplish, yet assuredly will he succeed; for I have seen that which proves beyond a peradventure that God hath vouchsafed to him his all-powerful aid; and he told to the Viceroy the whole of the miracle which through the cat had been wrought. Therefore did the Viceroy encourage Father Tembleque in his great work; and Gods blessing continuing upon it, in seventeen years time the aqueduct was finishedthe very aqueduct through which the water comes to the towns of Otumba and Zempoala at the present day.20
Doubtless many miraculous cat stories are to be found in the archives of Negro folklore. I remember one which I have heard both Kitty Cheatham and Bert Williams tell. An itinerant Negro preacher, finding himself a long distance from the next farmhouse at an inconveniently late hour, decided to accommodate himself for the night in a deserted hut. He lighted a fire in the fireplace and settled down before it to read his Bible when suddenly a black kitten appeared. He caressed the animal and was indeed glad to have company for he began to recall a legend that the house was haunted. Presently a larger cat joined the kitten and the preacher was astonished to hear him remark, We caint do nothin till Martin gits here. The old man, however, decided that his ears must have deceived him and continued to read his Bible aloud fervidly. Pretty soon along came a cat the size of a collie dog, who settled down on his haunches alongside the others. We caint do nothin till Martin gits here, he remarked plaintively. The preachers knees shook and his kinky hair began to grow straighter, but he bent over the Holy Word and began to intone the lines. But the next arrival was a cat as big as a lion. He sat down with the others and his tone was an angry deep growl as he said, We caint do nothin till Martin gits here. This was too much for the preacher who dropped his Bible and fled, shouting over his shoulder, You tell Martin when he gits here dat I caint wait for him!
In Russia, according to Thiselton Dyer, the cat enjoys a better reputation among the people than she does in some other countries. There is a curious legend current about Moscow that when Lucifer once tried to creep back into Paradise, he assumed the form of a mouse. The dog and the cat were on guard at the gates, and the dog allowed the evil one to pass, but the cat pounced upon him and so defeated another treacherous attempt against human felicity.
At any rate the Russian folk-tales in which puss plays a prominent part are usually based on accurate observation of the animals traits. The following fable of Ivan Krilof certainly epitomizes the spirit of the cat:
A certain cook, rather more educated than his fellows, went from his kitchen one day to a neighbouring tavern, leaving his cat at home to protect his store of food from the mice. But on his return he found the floor strewn with the fragments of a pie and Vaska the cat crouching in a corner behind a vinegar barrel, purring with satisfaction, and busily engaged in disposing of a chicken.
Ah, glutton, ah, evil-doer! exclaimed the reproachful cook. Are you not ashamed to be seen by these walls, let alone living witnesses? You, an honourable cat up to this time, one who might be pointed out as a model of discretion! And now, think of the disgrace! Now, all the neighbours will say, Vaska is a rogue; Vaska is a thief. Vaska must be kept out of the kitchen, even out of the courtyard, like a ravenous wolf from the sheepfold. He is corrupt; he is a pest, the plague of the neighourhood.
Note 1. R. Lydekker: The Pedigree of the Cat; Knowledge; Vol. 20, p. 181; August 2, 1897. [back]
Note 2. Les Origines Indo-Européenes ou les Aryas Primitifs, Paris, 1859. [back]
Note 3. Some Egyptologists have read chaou on certain monuments. [back]
Note 4. The Cat in Legend and Myth: Belgravia; London; November 1885. The Norwegian gorging cat (whose history we once heard well related by Mr. Ralston) swallows the man and wife (goodman and goody in the translators dialect), a number of animals, a wedding party, and a funeral train, and the sun and moonall of which he disgorges as wonderfully as they are swallowed down continues Mr. Fitzgerald. In Ireland this same ancient monster appeared in at least six forms. He is Kate Kearneys cat, oldest of things (As old as Kate Kearneys cat is an Irish proverb). He is the proverbial cat that ate the year. He is the dreadful cat a leasa. He is the piping cat, sculptured on ancient crosses, and figuring on tavern signs. He is the cat with two tails, cat with ten tails, cat with nine tails, of the Goban Saor. And he is the cat in (seven-leagued) boots.The myth further appears among the Iroquois Indians in the shape of a two-headed serpent which devours the nation, all but one man and woman; slain, however, it rolls into a lake and disgorges them all. This two-headed dragon appears in Ireland as a bi-tailed cat, as the Cat of the Fort, cat a leasa, a colossal monster, circling the hill in a coil miles long. The twy-tailed cat (Day and Night?) was sculptured at Holycross Abbey, Tipperary, and in the French chapel at Canterbury. Angelo de Gubernatis, too, is infected with this familiar and somewhat silly method of trying to explain all folk-stories symbolically. In Zoological Mythology, or the Legends of Animals, he gives it as his belief that the celebrated fable of the Kilkenny Cats may mean the mythological contest between night and twilight. God pity these men! Moncure Daniel Conway (Demonology and Devil-Lore) refers to a similar legend: Thor, the Norse Hercules, once tried to lift a cat, as it seemed to him, off the ground, but it was the great mid-earth serpent which encircles the whole world. Thor succeeded in lifting one paw of the supposed cat. [back]
Note 5. Kit-Cat and Cat and Dog are described in William Carew Hazlitts Faiths and Folklore. [back]
Note 6. Catskill was settled about 1680 by Derrick Teunis Van Vechten: Encyclopedia Americana; 1918; Vol. 6, p. 108. [back]
Note 7. Morley Adams in his book, In the Footsteps of Borrow and Fitzgerald (p. 113), speaks of the Cat-House on the River Orwell: This little lodge played an important part in the smuggling which took place hereabouts a century ago, the occupants, if report be true, being in league with the contraband men. When the coast was clear a large stuffed cat was displayed in the window, and when the preventative men were on the look-out the cat was taken away. [back]
Note 8. These examples are from John Lockwood Kiplings Beast and Man in India. [back]
Car lhomme est sans scrupule et le lapin est cher.
A cat, writes Browne, in his Natural History of Jamaica, is a very dainty dish among the Negroes. The Portuguese eat the cat, according to Darwin. The Abbé Lenoir informs us that the Chinese consider the cat excellent food and that in their provision shops enormous felines are hung up with their heads and tails on. They are bred on farms, secured by light chains, and fattened with the remains of the rice cooked for the family. Edward Topsell, who is as quotable as Bernard Shaw, and much more amusing, in his History of Four-Footed Beasts (1658) writes: It is reported that the flesh of Cats salted and sweetened hath power in it to draw wens from the body, and being warmed to cure the Hemmorhoids and pains in the reins and back, according to the Verse of Ursinus. In Spain and Gallia Norbon, they eat Cats, but first of all take away their head and tail, and hang the prepared flesh a night or two in the open cold air, to exhale the savour and poison of it, finding the flesh thereof almost as sweet as a cony. Topsell, however, does not approve of this practice: The flesh of Cats can seldom be free from poison, by reason of their daily food, eating Rats and Mice, Wrens and other birds which feed on poison, and above all the brain of the Cat is most venomous, for it being above all measure dry, stoppeth the animal spirits, that they cannot pass into the venticle, by reason thereof memory faileth, and the infected person falleth into a Phrenzie. The cure whereof may be this, take the water of sweet majoram with terra lemnia the weight of a groat mingled together, and drink it twice a month, putting good store of spirits into all your meat to recreate the spirits withall, let him drink pure wine, wherein put the seed of Diamoschu. But a Cat doth as much harm with her venomous teeth, therefore to cure her biting, they prescribe a good diet, sometimes taking Honey, turpentine, and Oil of Roses melt together and laid to the wound with Centory; sometimes they wash the wound with the urine of a man, and lay to it the brains of some other beast and pure wine mingled both together. The hair also of a Cat being eaten unawares, stoppeth the artery and causeth suffocation: and I have heard that when a childe hath gotten the hair of a Cat in his mouth, it hath so cloven and stuck to the place that it could not be gotten off again, and hath in that place bred either the wens or the Kings evill. To conclude this point it appeareth that this is a dangerous beast, and that therefore as for necessity we are constrained to nourish them for the suppressing of small vermin: so with a wary and discreet eye we must avoid their harms, making more account of their use than of their persons. [back]
Note 11. Gib or Gyb is an abbreviation of Gilbert; in Europe this frequently became Tybalt or Tybert, Tyb or Tib. Mercutio insults Tybalt on this score. Gibbe is the Icelandic gabba, to delude, and our gibber, writes Moncure Daniel Conway (Demonology and Devil-lore; Vol. II, p. 313). It is the Gib cat of Reinicke Fuchs, and of the Romaunt of the Rose. In Gammer Gurton we read Hath no man gelded Gyb, her cat; and in Henry IV, I am as melancholy as a gib cat. Another cat is called Inges, that is ignis, fire. Another old English name for the male cat was carl-cat, and boar-cat was not uncommon. [back]
Note 12. Félicien Ropss motto, according to James Huneker, was Jappelle un chat un chat. Promenades of an Impressionist, p. 35. [back]
Note 13. Palliot: Le Vraye et Parfaicte Science des Armoires (Paris, 1664). [back]
Note 14. Seumas, Chief of Clann Fhearghuis of Stra-chur, informs me that the Clann a Chatain (Children of the Cats) is a great clann with six tribes. The Mackintosh of Mackintosh is Chief of this Clann. I am also indebted to Fhearghuis for a translation of a song about this Clann:
Note 15. A. R. Frey: Sobriquets and Nicknames; Ticknor and Co.; Boston; 1888. The cat was William Catesby, the dog, Lord Lovel. [back]
Note 16. Jules-Séverin Caillot has written a pretty sequel to this tale: La Chatte Blanche, in Contes après les contes; Plon-Nourrit; Paris; 1919. [back]
Note 17. Among the analogues of the Whittington story may be mentioned the Brittany black cat who made silver; the Danish dog who barked money; and the gold-producing horse or, as in the Midas story, a ram or swine with fleece or bristles of gold. On page 43 of W. R. S. Ralstons Russian Folk-Tales (Smith, Elder and Co., London, 1873) you may find a Russian story which is very similar. [back]
Note 19. Stories of cats who have fed families are not uncommon. There is, for instance, that of the ploughman who lived at the foot of the Orchils and his cat, Mysie. The ploughman had long been illhis home was in povertywhen the doctor said the poor man would die if his strength was not kept up by stimulants and animal food. I put awa my marriage gown and ring to get him wine, related the ploughmans wife, but we had naething in the house but milk and meal. Surely, sir, it was the Lord himself that put it into that cats head; for that same night she brought in a fine young rabbit, and laid it on the verra bed; and the next night the same, and every night the same, for a month, whiles a rabbit and whiles a bird, till George was up, and going to his work as usual. But she never brought anything after that. Agnes Repplier found a similar story in Watsons Annals, which she quotes on page 237 of The Fireside Sphinx. [back]
Note 20. Found by Mr. Janvier in MS. of Fray Agustin de Vetancourt in the Menologio Franciscano, October 1, of his Teatro Mexicano (City of Mexico; 1698; folio). [back]