Sunday, October 30, 2011

Some 'I'll bite yer legs off' moments in mythology

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes fiction is stranger than other fiction. In this case, myth is weirder than the Monty Python version, which was weird enough.

As a kid I read every myth and legend I could get my hands on, except the British ones. For some reason Matter of Britain and / or Morte d'Artur just gave me hives. Possibly because it was positioned to me as a romance – doomed Art and Jennifer and their friend Lance and all their machinations. I read Lord of the Rings, of course, and loved it to an unnatural extent. And I loved Monty Python. Who else could think up the Black Knight, who fought on when all his limbs had been sliced away, threatening to bite our heroic ker-nig-h-t on the legs? Who could think up the Killer Bunny, the fluffy cave-dweller that dismembered the Grail seekers with its flying attack?

Recently I obtained from a second hand shop a rather dry tome called Nine Lives—Cats in Folklore, by Katharine M Briggs.  One story she details is from The Vulgate Merlin – of which I had never heard – as detailed by a Lady Wilde.  It concerns a killer cat.

Apparently, a fisherman had promised his next catch to God, but when he caught it, he thought it would be better to eat it himself. And so he promised the next catch to God, and you can guess what happened. And so, when he cast the net the third time, he drew out a coal-black kitten. Thinking it would make a good ratter (as you do) he took it home. It's not entirely explained why the cat was living underwater, but a rapid Google search to get me up to speed on Arthurian legend leads me to believe it was his kitten, and he had been feeding it on Sirens' milk. And feeding cats on Sirens' milk is apparently much like getting your Gremlin wet and/or feeding it after midnight.

Well, the Devil Cat caused so much damage that Merlin mentioned it to King Arthur as something he ought to be doing something about.  Merlin, the King and his knights set off to the Lake of Lausanne, where they found that all the people had fled, because no one would live there for fear of the kitty. 

Merlin showed him a deep cave with a wide mouth, set in the mountain.  And here I'm going to switch to Lady Wilde's actual words. Since Briggs quoted them and they are already on the internet at Library Ireland, I'm assuming they are out of copyright.
"And how shall the cat come out?" said the king.

"That shall ye see hastily," quoth Merlin; "but look you, be ready to defend, for anon he will assail you."

"Then draw ye all back," said the king, "for I will prove his power."

And when they withdrew, Merlin whistled loud, and the cat leaped out of the cave, thinking it was some wild beast, for he was hungry and fasting; and he ran boldly to the king, who was ready with his spear, and thought to smite him through the body. But the fiend seized the spear in his mouth and broke it in twain.

Then the king drew his sword, holding his shield also before him. And as the cat leaped at his throat, he struck him so fiercely that the creature fell to the ground; but soon was up again, and ran at the king so hard that his claws gripped through the hauberk to the flesh, and the red blood followed the claws.

Now the king was nigh falling to earth; but when he saw the red blood he was wonder-wrath, and with his sword in his right hand and his shield at his breast, he ran at the cat vigorously, who sat licking his claws, all wet with blood. But when he saw the king coming towards him, he leapt up to seize him by the throat, as before, and stuck his fore-feet so firmly in the shield that they stayed there; and the king smote him on the legs, so that he cut them off to the knees, and the cat fell to the ground.

Then the king ran at him with his sword; but the cat stood on his hind-legs and grinned with his teeth, and coveted the throat of the king, and the king tried to smite him on the head; but the cat strained his hinder feet and leaped at the king's breast, and fixed his teeth in the flesh, so that the blood streamed down from breast and shoulder.

Then the king struck him fiercely on the body, and the cat fell head downwards, but the feet stayed fixed in the hauberk. And the king smote them asunder, on which the cat fell to the ground, where she howled and brayed so loudly that it was heard through all the host, and she began to creep towards the cave; but the king stood between her and the cave, and when she tried to catch him with her teeth he struck her dead.

The cat's feet were still in the hauberk and the shield; and rather than get them out of the shield, they left them in as a trophy. But the feet left in the hauberk were put into a coffin and kept.

The Monty Python crew were well-versed in the classics - at least they went to the right university for it - so they may indeed have read the story of the Killer Cat. Their version is a little more hilarious, though.

I can't find a copy of The Vulgate Merlin on line, so I'll have to take Lady Wilde's word for it. Her book is ANCIENT LEGENDS, MYSTIC CHARMS, AND SUPERSTITIONS OF IRELAND WITH SKETCHES OF THE IRISH PAST, 1888

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