Miss Cuddlywumps unpacks a nursery rhyme
Hey diddle diddle,
The Cat and the fiddle,
The Cow jumped over the moon.
The little Dog laughed,
To see such sport,
And the Dish ran away with the Spoon.
What does this children’s rhyme have to do with cats in history? Perhaps quite a lot, as it turns out, and that history goes all the way back to ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians did not have fiddles (as far as I know), but they did have a musical instrument called a sistrum. The sistrum was a jingly bronze percussion instrument that I imagine might have sounded something like a tambourine. It had a handle and a curved frame with bronze rods strung across it. The rods jingled when the sistrum was shaken. (This will make more sense if you look at the picture below of Bastet holding a sistrum.)
Now you may be wondering why I wrote a whole paragraph about an instrument that seems to have absolutely nothing to do with a fiddle, a cat, a cow, or the moon. Well, I do have a reason, and here it is:
The goddess Bastet and her sistrum
By Gunkarta (Own work)
via Wikimedia Commons.
The sistrum was often associated with Hathor, the great Egyptian mother goddess and goddess of fertility who was often portrayed as a cow. Many ancient sistrums have an image of Hathor in the handle. The instrument’s curved frame is said to represent the moon, and its sound was associated with fertility, which has long been associated with cats (we cats have astounding reproductive powers). Many of the instruments had figures of cats along the frame or at the top of the handle. Also, archaeologists have found statuettes of the cat-headed goddess Bastet holding her sistrum, and those statuettes look a lot like a cat playing a fiddle. Bastet, the protector of pregnant women, loved music, so it makes sense that she would shake a sistrum. According to some sources, Bastet and her sistrum morphed over time into a cat and a fiddle, an image that sometimes appeared in medieval religious contexts.
So now we have a possible explanation for the cat and the fiddle and the cow jumping over the moon, but what does it all mean? Why is the dog laughing and how can a dish and a spoon run anywhere? Well, gentle readers, I hate to admit it, but I do not know. I suspect this rhyme is mostly meant for nonsensical fun, which you humans seem to do so much of.
[She of Little Talent reminds me to tell you that information for this post came from Donald Engels’ excellent book Classical Cats (1999).]