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Kassi helge kuju eesti rahvapärimuses

By Kristi Salve

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The article opens with an overview about the extremely positive image of the cat in contemporary Estonian media, but also about the considerably more ambivalent image familiar from modern beliefs, truisms, narrative sequels, and comparisons. Some truisms and other lore material that have remained active in the tradition until the 21st century are considerably older, but have also been subject to transformation of function and genre – for example, an earlier belief has transformed into a narrative sequel. A brief characterisation of cats in various folklore genres – folktales, legends of origin, folk songs, riddles, etc. – has been provided. The image of cat in these genres, and compared to the image of cat in beliefs, is highly variable. The article is largely based on material found in the files of folk beliefs at the Estonian Folklore Archives. Very generally, the files include material on the beliefs of 19th-century Estonians and the taboos, orders, etc. proceeding from these. Although the Estonian village cat was a domestic animal, primarily of pragmatic function, the bond between people and cats was somewhat closer. Many belief reports concerning the housetraining of cat or the loss of such habits, and also a number of specific predictions on the observance and interpretation of cat’s behaviour, reveal that cats spent a lot of time together with people in the living quarters. Evidently, it was only the modernisation processes that commenced in the late 19th century that started to keep cats away from the living quarters, where they returned as pets only in modern times. Some truisms and myths or beliefs known in the recent past, and partly today, are most likely quite recent, having been introduced by literary sources towards the end of the 19th century. In these sources, a cat is viewed as a demonic and dangerous creature, the (black) cat is interpreted as a witch’s animal or a tool used in witchcraft. Earlier layers of beliefs about cats are concerned with his productive-magic function. A cat was believed to be closely related to horses: holding a cat, feeding it well and taking good care of it was rewarded with luck in horse-breeding, and vice versa: hitting or mistreating a cat resulted in feeble and weak horses. Cat here functions as the substitute of weasel, which was formerly believed to be the spirit of stables and the embodiment of the guardian of horses. According to a more independent belief about the relationship of cats and horses, it was forbidden to take a cat somewhere with horses – a situation which would be rarely encountered, or indeed needed, in real life. Taboos concerning the choosing of a kitten, bringing one home and feeding are associated with using magic to influence its skills of catching mice. The skills of catching mice were also behind the taboos concerning feeding an adult cat, whereas mistreating a cat (hitting, pulling its tail) was sanctioned (next to the loss of luck with horses) by the cat stopping to be house-trained, and other problems. Different texts and associations reflect the principle that taking a good care of a cat ensures a general wellbeing in this world, and also helps after death. Ignoring this principle was believed to bring poverty and other ailments. Drowning kittens, however, was inevitable in old days. Interestingly, this unpleasant duty was delegated to women, who were compensated with having good luck in growing flax, as a result. Beliefs about cats were in more than one way interrelated with the cardinal points and stages in peoples’ lives. According to a rather remarkable belief, an infant was not allowed to play with a cat, or touch it, in the cradle, or s/he might lose what was figuratively called the “golden balls (toys)” from the tips of his/her fingers, i.e. the baby would no longer play quietly by him/herself. In sum, the composite image of a cat in the 19th-century beliefs of Estonians is generally positive. The available sources reveal that at least 90% of single beliefs about cats are also known among Latvians and Germans. It has not been established with any certainty whether the preconception of a cat as the representative of evil forces was generally popular in Germany (and Western Europe at large) or was it mostly shared by learned demonologists, whose views were gradually disseminated among the common people and eventually may have become more fixed there than in Estonia (and probably, Latvia)


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2007
Publication Title Mäetagused. Hüperajakiri
Volume 35
Pages 47-94
ISBN/ISSN 1406-992X (Print); 1406-9938 (Online)
Publisher Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum and Eesti Folkloori Instituut
DOI doi:10.7592/MT2007.35.salve
Language Estonian
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Animals in culture
  3. Belief
  4. Cats
  5. Estonia
  6. Folklore and legends
  7. Mammals
  8. Pets and companion animals