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A Controversial Creature (part 2)
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A Controversial Creature (part 2)Myths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Last month we looked at the history and myth of the cat in Europe and Egypt, from the times of the Pharaohs, to tenth century Wales, to Shakespeare. It is just in Elizabethan England (and not in the so called 'dark' Middle Ages) that we find the first documented evidence of a witchcraft trial involving a cat.
The victim's name was Agnes Waterhouse, owner of a white-and-spotted cat by the rather ill-chosen name of 'Sathan' allegedly given to her by a neighbor who had received it as a familiar from her mother. Agnes was tried and executed in July 1566 at the Chelmsford Assizes under the authority of the Witchcraft Act which had been promulgated four years earlier (1).
Although the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would be the height of the witch-hunt, not every place was equally bleak for our feline friends. We know, for instance, that Cardinal Richelieu (2) was a cat lover (so much so that he willed his palace and collections to the Crown with the stipulation that his cats would be allowed to live there for the duration of their natural lives). Again, given that the cardinal was extremely unpopular with a good part of French aristocracy in his times, I find highly unlikely that, if the cat was considered such an indicator of diabolical dealings as some cat-related books would have us believe, the fact would not be used against him.
It is in seventeenth century France that one of the most popular fictional cats was officially born. There, in 1697 (not so long after Richelieu's times), Charles Perrault put into writing a folktale he called "Puss in Boots" (3). In this story, as we know, the cunning of a granary cat (a legacy of Tybalt?) makes of a penniless miller's son the husband of the princess and heir to the throne.
All around the world fairy tales involving animal helpers abound, among those the cat is often featured.
In the Russian tale, "The Cat and the Ram," Murr the cat risks his life by repeatedly stealing his masters' only available food and source of income: milk and cream. When he overhears plans for his impending demise, he runs, tricking a ram into accompanying him. After a long road and scarce food, the two meet a pack of wolves led by the white Prince of Wolves, whom they trick into believing that Murr is a renowned wolf-killer. After their narrow escape, the two go back home, and are welcomed with open arms by their owners who believed them lost.
In a tale from Central Africa, a young boy is sent to the market to sell grain, and, much to his mother's displeasure, brings back a dog and a cat he has saved instead of the expected money. He is then involved in a quest that, with the help of his cat, brings him his fortune.
In this tale the dog is a lazy coward, only intent on his own comfort, who tries to take credit for the cat's doing but is finally unmasked. Merit is given where it was due and that is the reason why, says the tale, cats sleep comfortably in the house while dogs are left out.
If you have been to Japan (or in Japanese themed or owned shops or restaurants) it is very likely you have seen a statuette or a drawing of a sitting cat with a paw raised.
It is the Maneki Neko (beckoning cat), an extremely popular charm believed to ward off a variety of evils and bring good fortune to the owner. It is believed that the maneki neko popularity began in the latter half of the Edo period (4), although then it was rarely mentioned by name, while we have proof of its popularity increasing over the Meiji period (5).
In Japan there are many legends on the origin of the figurine. My favored is this one, linked to the Goutokuji Temple:
Once there was a poor monk, who took care of an almost-abandoned temple. Poor as he was, nevertheless he shared his food with a stray cat who took residence with him.
One day, a nobleman was stopped by a thunderstorm during a trip and took shelter under a tree. While he was there, waiting for the rain to stop, he saw a cat a few steps away, who sat with a paw raised, as if it was beckoning. Curious, the nobleman went to the cat, and a few moments later the tree was struck by lighting. The cat guided the nobleman and his retainers to a poor temple, where they were welcomed by a lonely monk that offered them the best hospitality he could.
In gratitude the nobleman became the temple's patron, restoring it to its former splendour. It is said that when the monk's cat died the first maneki neko was made in its honor, and later its fame spread to the whole of Japan.
Maneki neko images are usually based on the Japanese Bobtail breed. The luckiest color is believed to be the calico (in Japan called mi-ke, meaning three-fur), although they may be of many different colors, each implying a sort of specialization: white neko indicate purity, black ward off evil, red ones are supposed to keep away illnesses, gold ones are the quintessential money bringers, green should favour academic achievements and the recently introduced pink ones bring luck in love matters.
In folklore there are many believes linked to specific cats behaviours: in China is it said that a cat washing its face forecasts rain, this is believed in Italy too, but only if the cat's paw goes behind its ears. Cats of different colors and in different circumstances are believed to bring either good luck or bad, and the same circumstance or color may be interpreted very differently in the popular belief of different countries.
This is all for this month (a rather difficult column to write, since the youngest of my four cats was set on helping me type). Next month we'll be back to Japan to delve into legends of the ninja.
(1) Info taken from http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-witchcraft-and-witches.htm
(2) Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal and Duke of Richelieu (September 9 1585 - December 4 1642) Chief Minister of the King of France from 1624 to his death his policy aiming to strengthen the king's power at the expense of aristocracy brought him many enemies.
(3) The oldest known written version of the tale is called Costantino Fortunato (lucky Constantine) by Giovanni Francesco Straparola an Italian writer and fairy tale collector. The English translation of Straparola's work, The Facetious Nights of Straparola, can be read at http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/facetiousnights/index.html
(4) Edo period 1603-1868.
(5) Meiji period 1868-1912
Maneki Neko piggybank photo from Wikipedia, photo taken by BC Lafferty, July 11, 2004
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