A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to author Roby Sweet. Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Tigers and Mirrors

Miniature of a knight on horseback and a tiger with a mirror,
illustrating a supposed trick for stealing tiger cubs.
 Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds,
2nd quarter of 13th century, England.
Public domain, via
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
It seems that humans have always been fond of sharing “tips and tricks” for getting things done. Unfortunately, some human tips and tricks are just weird. Consider the following ancient and medieval human tricks for stealing tiger cubs from their mother:

The ancient trick: Grab more than you need

Portion of the Worcester Hunt mosaic showing the hunter throwing
a tiger cub back to its mother.
Antioch, Turkey, early sixth century.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) wrote of one method in his Natural History (25.18):

Hyrcania and India produce the tiger, an animal of tremendous swiftness, a quality which is more especially tested when we deprive it of all its whelps, which are always very numerous. They are seized by the hunter, who lies in wait for them, being provided with the fleetest horse he can possibly obtain, and which he frequently changes for a fresh one. As soon as the female finds her lair empty—for the male takes no care whatever of his offspring—headlong she darts forth, and traces them by the smell. Her approach is made known by her cries, upon which the hunter throws down one of the whelps; this she snatches up with her teeth, and more swift, even, under the weight, returns to her lair, and then again sets out in pursuit; and this she continues to do, until the hunter has reached his vessel, while the animal vainly vents her fury upon the shore.

In short, when the mother tiger gets too close, throw one of the cubs down and continue your getaway while she is distracted by caring for it. Obviously, this method only works if you have several cubs to throw back before you either reach your ship or are attacked by the mother tiger.

The medieval trick: They do it with mirrors


Miniature of a tiger, distracted from the capture
of its cub by its own reflection in a mirror.
From Bestiary and various theological texts,
1st quarter of 13th century.  England.
Public domain, via
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 

 

The method recorded by medieval authors was similar, but with a twist. According to a 13th–century Franciscan monk called Bartholomeus Anglicus, it went something like this:

He that will bear away the whelps, leaveth in the way great mirrors, and the mother followeth and findeth the mirrors in the way, and looketh on them and seeth her own shadow and image therein, and weeneth that she seeth her children therein, and is long occupied therefore to deliver her children out of the glass, and so the hunter hath time and space for to scape, and so she is beguiled with her own shadow, and she followeth no farther after the hunter to deliver her children. (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18)

So, you toss a mirror to the mother, and she mistakes her image in the glass for one of her cubs. Really?

Here we see what the tiger supposedly saw when she
looked in the mirror: her cub.
Mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale,
Piazza Armerina, Sicily.
Photo by psub
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

Did anyone ever actually use these tricks?

Well, the texts we have were written by men who recorded what they’d heard or read from other sources. They weren’t based on firsthand knowledge. And you know how stories tend to change—and grow—with each retelling. Also, we called the methods “tips and tricks,” but the authors quoted were not writing how-to manuals; they were relating current knowledge about tigers.

The mirror trick sounds pretty farfetched to us, though we can’t rule out someone actually trying it. The trick recorded by Pliny seems more plausible, but without firm evidence, we still have to consider it a legend. It’s possible that this ancient legend was passed down to later writers, who updated it with the addition of mirrors. This is just our guess though.



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