Saturday 30 March 2019

Cabinet of Curiosities - A Cat's Got In! - by Charlotte Wightwick

The last few weeks for me have been all about one thing. No, not Brexit.

February and March have, for me, been the months of The Cat. Within days of my Feline Overlord arriving, I was fully under the paw, accepting as standard the fact that I will be woken up every day at 5am by a barrage of yowls, followed by a large furry creature sitting on my head, attempting to lick my face and demanding I get up to feed it. Not to mention all the 'help' I get whenever I sit down to write anything.

Stevie the Cat, helping. Source: C. Wightwick

The joys of cat ‘ownership’ have made me wonder what feline artefact should be placed in the Cabinet of Curiosities to celebrate the thousands of years that humans have been domesticated by cats.

The obvious place to start is of course ancient Egypt, where cats were famously worshipped as gods and millions of cat mummies have been found. Personally, I’ve never quite got over the horror/ fascination of seeing kitten mummies at the British Museum as a small child: somehow the idea disturbed me more than the idea of embalmed people. I’m not sure what this says about me – nothing good, I fear. 

Ancient Egyptian cat mummies
Source: Wikipedia Commons
One of my favourite ‘real life’ historical cats is Pangur Ban, the subject of a ninth-century Irish poem, who spends his time hunting mice while his master, the monk and author of the poem, styles himself as a hunter of words. As a lover of medieval history, there’s something about this poem that really appeals to me: it gives me an incredibly vivid image of a tonsured and robed monk, writing long into the night with only his white cat, chasing mice through the library, for company.

The next candidate for the Cabinet of Curiosities has to be the suit of feline armour recently doing the rounds on Twitter, reportedly made for Henry VIII’s cat Dagobert. I suspect I wasn’t alone spending a few confused minutes wondering how on earth one persuaded a cat to wear said armour (presumably a LOT of whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of Dreamies were) before finding out that Dagobert probably never existed, and the armour is modern, created by Canadian artist Jeff de Boer. A disappointment.

I saw my final option on Twitter too, but this one is attested by the good folks (and specifically Mark Forsyth, author of A Short History of Drunkenness) at History Extra. And it’s a good one: the ‘Puss and Mew Machine’: a mechanical cat-shaped gin dispenser. The machine was a way of illegal gin-sellers avoiding the swingeing taxes that the government had imposed in an effort to ban drinking among the lower classes in the eighteenth century. You can find out more at I knew there was something missing from my life, and now I know what it is.

So, which feline delight shall go into the Cabinet? A mummified kitten, a ninth-century monk’s companion, some impossible feline armour or a mechanical gin-dispensing cat? Its tricky. But as a ‘word hunter’ myself, I think it will have to be the memory of a small white cat, over a thousand years old but immortalised forever:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight

Hunting words I sit all night.

Written by an unknown Irish monk, 9th century. Trans Robin Flower. 
The page of the Reichenau Primer on which the Pangur Ban 
poem is preserved. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Ann Turnbull said...

I love the Pangur Ban poem! I'd heard the name, but thought it was a story from somewhere in India or Malaysia...

As for the mummified cats, apparently they were bred deliberately for mummification, so that the priests could sell them to people who wanted to make an offering. Sometimes, though, the 'mummies' turned out to contain not a cat but a cat-shaped bundle of rags. The one that got away, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

If I ever own another cat, I shall call it Pangur Bán!

Ruan Peat said...

I have 4 current owners who like to wake me with mews and demand food at frequent intervals. Love the gin cat, and like you, I find the cat mummies a bit more distasteful than the human ones, maybe humans had a chance to know or agree, while the cats didn't :-( I also adore the cat poem, and that is such a good name, mind you wanted to call our first one Anna Karenina but my daughter got to the house first and chose and named the kitten! so we got Splodge! the Queen of the house. we since gained Smudge, Smokey and Smidnight (yes I know it should be Midnight but with the others being S's it makes it easier to call her smidnight)