The prominent role of cats in folklore: Part 2

Following on from last month, Eugene Daly continues sharing some of the legends and sayings around cats in Ireland and other countries.

There are many legends of cats in other countries. In Brittany a silver or ‘money’ cat (chat d’argent) could serve nine masters and make them all rich. In the Isle of Man a traditional story explains how the Manx cat lost its tail. According to the story, invaders of the island cut the tails off all the island’s cats to decorate their helmets. Manx mother cats became anxious to protect their kittens from harm, and so bit off their tails at birth until eventually the kittens were born tailless. In Scotland it was believed that a storm could be averted by throwing the cat out of the house. This was because it would attract any bolts of lightning present, due to the evil spirits it contained. A widely held belief throughout Europe was that witches were able to turn into cats nine times in their lives, hence the saying that cats have nine lives.

In Gaelic Ireland cats were considered useful for keeping their owner’s house and grain store free of vermin and were also valued as pets. In fact, in the Old Irish Brehon Laws a cat was considered to be worth no less than three cows if it could purr and guard the barn and corn mill against mice. Cats were noted for their love of milk, and a favourite Old Irish proverb declared ‘cuiirm lemm, lemlacht la cat’ – ‘I like beer, as the cat likes milk’.  Just like today, cats were noted for their skill at stealing food from kitchens, but the Brehon Laws made allowance for their nature. If food had been carelessly left out without proper supervision the cat was not considered liable. However, if the cat had been devious enough to take food from a secure place of storage or a vessel, then the cat’s owner had to replace the food.

The ordinary domestic cat, relation of the big wild cats – lion, leopard, and so on – is a favourite pet with many people. The cat, usually, is a solitary animal and does not accept a master as completely as a dog. Unlike dogs, all domestic cats have much the same sort of size or shape, but can be divided into two groups – short-haired and long-haired. Short-haired breeds include two unusual cats, the Siamese and the Manx, which has practically no tail.

In ancient Egypt, cats were the most respected of all animals. Egypt was a great grain-producing country and they helped to keep down the numbers of rats and other pests which attacked the grain stored in granaries. The Egyptians even had a cat goddess called Baset or Bubestis; they kept cats in their temples and offered sacrifices to them. When they died cats were often preserved as mummies just as kings and nobles were.

The word ‘cat’ is used in various ways. The ‘cat-o-nine-tails’ used to be a fearsome weapon of punishment, particularly in the British navy and usually had nine cords or leather thongs.  Catgut, which is used for the strings of musical instruments and for sewing up wounds, does not come from the inside of a cat at all but usually from a sheep. The name cats’ eyes is given to the small glass reflection set in rubber in the middle of the road to show up the headlights of a car at night.

Ordinary speech, too, is full of phrases which reflect the cat’s long association with men. People say ‘wait to see which way the cat jumps’ meaning they will not take action themselves until they know what someone else is going to do; or they may accuse somebody of ‘letting the cat of out the bag’, that is giving away a secret. When Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, said that ‘a cat may look at a king’, she was talking about the independent nature of the cat. If people live ‘a cat and dog life’ they are constantly quarrelling, for as we know cats and dogs are rarely friendly. To play ‘cat and mouse’ refers to waiting and watching for the right moment to attack and dispose of one’s enemy, like a cat stalking a mouse.

In nautical terms, ‘a cat’s paw’ refers to a very light breeze. A ‘cat-walk’ is a footway where models display fashion. A ‘cat-head’ is one of two strong beams projecting from the bow of a ship through which passes the tackle by which the anchor is raised. If the anchor is ‘catted and fished’ it is raised to the cathead and secured to the ship’s side. If a person is like ‘a cat on a hot tin roof’, he is very uneasy and nervous. If a person is described as ‘like something the cat brought in’, he is bedraggled or slovenly dressed. ‘To put the cat among the pigeons’ is to stir up trouble deliberately. If it’s ‘raining cats and dogs’, there is very heavy rain falling. If a person ‘hasn’t room to swing a cat’, he has very confined space. If something is the ‘cat’s pyjamas’ or the ‘cat’s whiskers’, it is the very thing that is wanted, something very good.

The saying ‘a cat has nine lives’ refers to the fact that a cat is more tenacious of life than other animals because it lands upon its feet without injury. ‘To live under the cat’s foot’ is to be under petticoat government, to be henpecked.  ‘A cat’s sleep’ is a sham sleep, like that of a cat watching a mouse. ‘Kilkenny cats’, proverbially, are cats who fight till each destroys the other. To grin like a ‘Cheshire cat’ is to be very pleased with oneself, like the cat in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Who will ‘bell the cat’? – Who will risk his own life to save somebody else? Anybody who faces great personal danger for the sake of others undertakes to ‘bell the cat’. Proverbially the allusion is to the fable in which a cunning old mouse, who suggested to his friends that they should hang a bell on the cat’s neck to give notice of his approach, ‘Excellent’ said a wise young mouse, “but who will undertake the job?”.

Eugene Daly

A retired primary teacher, West Cork native Eugene Daly has a lifelong interest in the Irish language and the islands (both his parents were islanders). He has published a number of local history books and is a regular contributor on folklore to Ireland’s Own magazine. Eugene’s fields of interest span local history, folklore, Irish mythology, traditions and placenames.

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