Though the black cat has become the traditional feline October representative (and year-round bad omen), seldom mentioned is its opposite, the white cat, and there is one who stands out above all others, Ireland’s Pangur Bán.
Fascination with our furry feline friends is a long and varied relationship from adoration by the ancients to our contemporary digital age. Although dogs may be humankind’s best friend, there is something especially, curiously alluring about cats of any color. Is it because they are so like us or unlike us? Their exquisite movements and independent nature? We have a tendency to define ourselves by what we are not; however in the case of the poem “Pangur Bán” (literally white Pangur), written in the old Irish, the verse reveals how we seek a simpatico to one another.
Penned in the ninth century along the bottom portion of a theologian script by an anonymous monk at Reichenau Abbey in Southern Germany, the poem illustrates the monk’s perceived similarities between himself and his feline pet named Pangur Bán. As the monk observes the cat on the hunt he sees himself reflected in its behavior. His scholarly endeavor, his quest and probing for words and meaning, is not unlike the cat’s chase for his prey. The pursuit is their raison d’être and the challenges that ensue are part of the journey. Our human condition is also relatable to that of all creatures perhaps and the monk’s account is like that of a whimsical duet.
A 2016 illustrated children’s book by Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith shows the essence of coexistence in the narrative: admiration and not the debasing of other’s achievements and talents. Competitiveness can go too far and respectful and quiet camaraderie is a virtue. The poem has also enchanted twentieth-century poets such as W.H. Auden, Eavan Boland, and more recently, the Noble Laureate Seamus Heaney; they each labored over a rightful translation, however, it is often Robert Flowers’s translation in 1946 for which many literary minds agree is the one that echoes its true poetic spirit and old wording.
The verse also provides an inspiration for the acclaimed 2009 animated flick The Secret of Kells. This Oscar-nominated Irish artistic creation intertwines the basis for Pangur Bán with an adventurous story and the origins of medieval illuminated manuscripts with the Book of Kells. A young monk’s dedication to books and knowledge spurs his fortitude to defend against the destructive and barbaric Viking invaders. The movie also went analog; I mean really analog. The imagery is simply rendered with flat geometric shapes like the medieval decorative texts yet it still resonates in a contemporary digital age.
Many a millennia has mused upon the feline. In ancient Egypt, cats were highly revered, which was often articulated through their artwork and religious iconography as well as the popularity of keeping domesticated cats as pets. They did not directly worship cats but did associate certain characteristics to that of divine ones as well what was respected in other persons. They were dually esteemed for their feminine features of mothering, peaceful protectiveness, and fertility. Counter to this, was the respect ancient Egyptians had for their fierce predatory instincts that kept vermin at bay. A yin and yang is evident in their esteem that is not unlike the disparate complexities of human personalities. Divinities, both male and female are were depicted with feline features. Consider the grandiose Sphinx at Giza. Half lion and half man, its presence is that of protector as it also represents great wisdom.
The venerable beasties continued to be subjects of literary contemplation and adoration into the modern era. Poetic ponderings of cats demonstrate our curiosity and admiration for particular qualities. The dandy Baudelaire, more known for broaching provocative, even racy topics, was also compelled to write about cats. In Flowers by Evil, 1857, a poem praises the duality of their extravagant nature: their wisdom, curiosity, indolence, playfulness. It seems Baudelaire’s own lifestyle and character is invoked through the household pet.
Notably enjoyable is T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939. Eliot’s extreme fondness for that of the feline persuasion is undeniable. Each chapter is devoted to a specific personality characteristic of a cat. There is obvious delight in his descriptions of their temperament and idiosyncrasies. “The Naming of Cats,” demonstrates the high honor and affection Eliot possesses for the adorable furry animals. He really just loves cats. The existential and erudite poet’s recitation, in a deadpan voice, is a recommended listen on Spotify. The charming book inspired the wildly popular Broadway musical Cats, first performed in 1988.
Folklore and fairytales focus less on adorableness and more on other aspects of human characteristics in cats such as devilishness and the carnivalesque. A modern iconic prankster favorite is Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat. The upright walking cat with a tall, striped, silly hat invades the dull lives of the two well-behaved children, upsetting normalcy. He demonstrates the unbridled nature and nonsensical urges that lurks within ourselves. This chaos and mischievousness also strikes a chord with another aspect for which we are attune: the playful child within us. These trickster cats provide an alter ego for us. Their animal simplicity provides a departure from our adult responsibilities.
The belief that cats are entirely aloof to us has been debunked by some recent scientific studies. In 2005 a study showed cats looked to humans when problem solving, particularly in this case of acquiring food. A later study showed how domesticated cats respond to their human owners. They look to humans for comfort, and experience distress when they are gone for extended periods. Albeit independent and defiant creatures, they pick up on human’s moods and manners too. They observe us as we do them and perhaps take note of our behavior. Everyone knows the term copycat.
In popular culture, cats have always had a prominent place. I still recall from time to time the super sweet calendar and poster image of a kitten from the 1970s with the caption “Hang in there!” The sentiment and adorableness resonated so persuasively, it launched a phenomena. Cat and caption has been done and redone and now for digital means. The meme is available to purchase for clip art. The kitty inspires one to persevere and gets right to core of our human existence however saccharine it may be.
One can hardly go a week without a spying an online kitty. Cat videos and Instagram shots are some of the most viewed subjects for social media and online entertainment often going viral. Cats that exhibit human-like behavior especially tend to be hits, such as kitties playing piano, or dressed up in people clothes, or getting into mischief. This fascination clearly shows our tendency to look for human qualities in other very different beings.
In “Pangur Bán,” the monk also remarks on another aspects that all beings share—that we are happiest and thriving when we are most ourselves and our true nature is uninhibited. Humans exercising their intellectual curiosity, whether creatively or analytically, and the cat’s nature as predator, are actions where persistence is necessary. How we go forth often defines our success as a being.
Spanning time periods and language, Pangur Bán delightfully elucidates that we seek what is familiar when we define ourselves or even existential questions. They provide endless entertainment and continue to captivate our imaginations.