• Ali Isaac

Pangur Bán, the White Cat, and Other Pets in Irish Mythology

Updated: May 16

I read a post on Facebook yesterday which claimed that animal behaviourists now believe that hugging your pet is harmful for them, as it causes their stress levels to rise. Apparently, they prefer tummy rubs, stroking and treats. Well, it’s hardly surprising; they haven’t evolved to hug each other, but instead show affection by licking and grooming each other, by sharing food and curling up together to sleep. I reckon not hugging your pet is going to upset you far more than your pet.


Which got me thinking… did our ancient ancestors form the same kind of relationships with their animals as we do, or did they see them merely as a source of food and income, or beasts of burden?


Well, take a look at this:


“I and Pangur Ban my cat, ‘Tis a like task we are at: Hunting mice is his delight, Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men ‘Tis to sit with book and pen; Pangur bears me no ill-will, He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry task to see At our tasks how glad are we, When at home we sit and find Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray In the hero Pangur’s way; Oftentimes my keen thought set Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye Full and fierce and sharp and sly; ‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den, O how glad is Pangur then! O what gladness do I prove When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply, Pangur Ban, my cat, and I; In our arts we find our bliss, I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made Pangur perfect in his trade; I get wisdom day and night Turning darkness into light.

translation by Robin Flower


This poem was written by a Christian scribe in the ninth century in Irish in the margins of his practice book. They learned their trade by copying religious texts, usually Latin, into their practice books, and these have been the source of many amusing anecdotes and fascinating insights into Irish life in the distant past.


This poem is preserved in the Reichenau Primer, which is kept in St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal, a Benedictine monastery in Austria. It is thought the scribe may have fled there to avoid Viking raids on Ireland, who were particularly fond of attacking religious institutions and carrying off their wealth.

This is the page on which Pangur Bán is written. By Dbachmann at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1821591

In this poem, the author is talking about his pet cat, Pangur Bán, bán meaning ‘white’ in Irish. Pangur means ‘fuller’, a tradesman involved in the production of woollen cloth, in which it is cleansed of oils, dirt and impurities, making it thicker. Perhaps this was a reference to the cat’s thick, white, clean fur. The author is comparing Pangur’s skill at hunting mice with his own industriousness as a wordsmith. It is quite clear from the poem that Pangur is his pet, and that there is fondness and companionship between them.


Saint Colman was the son of an Irish chieftain, Duagh, in the late 5th/ early 6th centuries AD. He became a priest, and according to legend, he kept three rather unusual pets: a rooster to wake him for prayers in the morning, a mouse to wake him for prayers during the night, and a fly to act as a sort of book mark and keep his place when he was called away from reading his prayer book.


Unfortunately, a fly’s life is short, and Saint Colman was devastated when his faithful little friend passed. He wrote to  Saint Columba expressing his grief, to which Columba replied, “You were too rich when you had them. That is why you are sad now. Trouble like that only comes where there are riches. Be rich no more.” That was how Colman learned that one can be rich even without wealth.


A century earlier, the King of Leinster had a little pet fox that he was extremely fond of one. One day, a servant out cutting wood in the forest killed the fox, thinking it was a wild animal. The King was so furious, he had the servant imprisoned, intending to execute him.

I visited St Colmans Holy Well in the Burren last summer. Look at the magnificent fairy tree leaning over the well and protecting it!

The poor man’s wife appealed to Saint Brigid, who charmed a fox cub from the woods as a gift to the King in exchange for the servant’s life. The King was so entranced by the little fox and its clever tricks, that he immediately agreed. The fox, however, ran off into the forest at the first opportunity, and although the King sent all his hounds and best huntsmen after it, it was never found.


In Irish mythology, many characters had particular animals they were associated with. Ulster’s hero, Cuchulainn, had two special horses which pulled his chariot. Their names were Liath Macha, meaning the ‘grey of Macha’, and Dub Sainglend, the ‘black of Saingliu’. They were said to have emerged from the pool of Linn Liaith in the mountains of Sliabh Fuaid as a gift from the Goddess, Macha. This association with water clearly indicates their Otherworldly origin. Cuchulainn leaped onto their backs and rode them around the whole of Ireland in just one day, after which they were tamed.


Fionn mac Cumhail had two magical hounds that he loved above all others, and it is said that he kept up to 200 of them. Bran and Sceolán were the unborn children of his aunt, Tuirean. She was abducted by a woman of the Sidhe and transformed into a hound whilst pregnant. She gave birth to two pups, which were then sent to Fionn as gifts.


Fionn, Bran and Sceolán were inseparable; they hunted and fought beside him, and appear in many stories together. They were certainly more companions to him than beasts, although the stories never mention if Fionn knew their true identity, or if they could communicate in any way other than any man does with his dog.


My favourite story, though, is a sad one…


Boann strides up the path, her face composed with fierce determination, her little dog Dabilla trotting faithfully at her heels. The way is winding and covert, meant not for the feet of the uninitiated, but Boann has learned its secrets; thus she feels she has earned the right to visit this most sacred of places, the Tobar Segais, also known as the Well of Wisdom.


The pool is silent and dark, reflecting neither sky nor earth, an upwelling of water from the deepest reaches of the Otherworld, bringing with it all the arcane knowledge and mysteries contained therein. Around it stand the Nine Ancient Hazels of Knowledge. Boann catches her breath in awe as she gazes at them, for their branches are laden with blossom, fruit and leaf all at once.


As she watches, nuts fall into the shaded water with a hushed splash, and the five spotted salmon which reside there rise up gently to eat them. Dabilla rushes to the water’s edge and snaps at the benign creatures excitedly, but they just flip their tails at her and sink back down to safety.


Boann’s heart is pounding; should she catch a salmon, and eat of its flesh to gain the knowledge she seeks? It feels like sacrilege, and besides would take time she might not have, for every moment she delays, she risks capture. Perhaps she should just eat the nuts, but how many would she need in order to gain enlightenment?


The fear of discovery, her long search for knowledge, and the proximity to her heart’s desire stir up a heady concoction of exhilaration and turmoil in her blood, which causes her to throw caution to the wind.  She begins her circuit of the lake, chanting as she goes, but her perambulations take her widdershins rather than deasal-wise.


Perhaps this is her undoing, or perhaps her presence uninvited violates this holy place. Perhaps she is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case, the waters begin to rise and stir. Wavelets grow into watery mountains which slop at the banks which contain them, chafing at their restraints like caged beasts.


Boann falters in her enchantment, gripped with sudden fear. Even as she turns to run, she knows in her heart escape is futile; she risked the wrath of the Gods, now she must pay. The roaring water towers above her, streaked with white foam and fury. It runs much faster than she; it sweeps her up as if she were no more than a feather, devouring everything in its path as it cascades down the hillside toward the call of the stormy grey ocean. Little Dabilla is tossed from wave to wave, like a sliotar between hurlers.


They say retribution was cruel; Boann lost an eye, an arm and a leg, her faithful pet, some even say her life in the lakeburst which carried her out to sea. And thus the River Boyne was formed and named after her, so that the tragic Goddess lives on forever in the landscape, and in the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland, gone but never forgotten.


Poor Boan, and poor little faithful Dabilla. Nevertheless, we can see from all these stories that in ancient Ireland, people formed attachments to animals, and loved their pets just like we do. 😍

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About Ali

I recently graduated from Maynooth University with a First Class Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History with a Special Interest in Irish Cultural Heritage. Here is where I write about my passions...

 

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