FOLLOW THAT MOUSE – mice in folklore

That cat sure is lazy!

I’ve had one of the best World Book Days this year.  I was the guest author at Southville Primary in Feltham.  The children all came dressed up as characters from their favourite books, and so did the teachers and supporting staff.  At the end of the school assembly, there was a fashion parade for everyone to show off their costumes, including the adults.    My favourite were the three blind mice who braved the catwalk with help and encouragement from the children and each other.

By sheer coincidence, I received copies of my next two titles in the GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES series, and one of them is LITTLE MOUSE AND LAZY CAT.  It got me thinking about mice in folklore, so I went through my notes, and here is what I found:

The Ancient Egyptians, who endowed their gods with animal heads, were terrified of mice, whom they saw as the carriers of disease and destroyers of crops.  They associated all rodents with the goddess Sekhmet, the bringer of pestilence.  Ruins of houses from the times of the great Pharaohs were found with mouse-holes, plugged up with stones. Curiously, the Egyptians also used mice as medicine, using them to cure anything from upset stomachs to baldness.  As mice were usually seen emerging from mud or holes in the ground, people believed they were reborn with every inundation of the Nile. So, although they sometimes brought disease, they were also seen as the givers of life – hence their use in ritualistic medicine. Dead mice were often mummified and placed in temples. Legends and stories about powerful mice abounded, as can be seen in an illustration on papyrus at the British Museum.

A grand mouse being waited on by cats.

The Ancient Greeks considered the mouse a powerful animal. It was associated with Apollo, who was sometimes called Lord of the Mice, and often allowed, even encouraged, to nest under his altar in temples. An image of a small rodent was placed by his sacred tripod. No one is sure if these images were put there to honour Apollo or to pacify him in his avatar as the god of disease and pestilence. The mouse, like Apollo, was believed to be a healer not just in Ancient Greece but in other cultures too, where he was often invoked as a healer from snake bite. The profiles of mice were stamped on coins for various city-states.

Perhaps because of his size, the mouse is often portrayed as brave and helpful in folklore.  Whatever the Greeks, and later the Romans thought of mice, the little rodents gnawed their way into legends and folktales.  Perhaps the most famous of these is Aesop’s The Lion and The Mouse, in which a lion’s kindness to a captured mouse is returned a hundred-fold. Another ubiquitous Aesop fable tells of a country mouse comparing his lifestyle with that of a sophisticated town mouse and learning to appreciate what he has. Tales like these projected a wholesome image of the mouse, as a hardworking and sensible character.

Read me a story, Mouse.

According to Balinese mythology, the field mouse is the protector of the goddess of the rice. So farmers in Bali have always been loathe to kill rice.  Even when hordes of them have been known to plunder rice fields, the farmers would choose to placate their spirits with offerings at the local temples rather than destroy them.

In more recent folklore, the mouse appears as a ravishing bride in Finnish legends, as a cook in Japan, a dancer in east Africa, and a wise king in Indian mythology.  Modern authors and artists too continue to harness the cuteness we associate with mice to great effect. Maisy Mouse!  Mickey and Minnie Mouse! Rastamouse!  It’s getting crowded in the mouse-hole of fame.

I leave you with the shortest folk tale I have ever read.  It’ from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas, published in 1901.

THE TWO MICE.

THERE was a mouse in the hill, and a mouse in a farm.

“It were well,” said the hill mouse, “to be in the farm, where one might get things.”

Said the farm mouse, “Better is peace.”

Have you a favourite mouse story, new or old?  Please comment about it below!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “FOLLOW THAT MOUSE – mice in folklore

  1. I think all this Mouse Tale history must have seeped into my subconscious – I’ve written about a Mouse, brave and loyal (and a massive show off with a thing about dressing up and terrible toilet habits)…That’s my favourite mouse story – because I love my Mouse and he will not leave me alone. Great post :o) I had no idea Mouse Tales went so far back.

  2. Somewhere I came across a wonderful tale about mice in ancient Tibet. The ruler of the city lets the mice take away rice from the grain store in a time of fmaine but in return, when the city is besieged, the mice go out among the invading army and nibble at their bow-strings and the leather straps on their armour and sandals and even on the grand warrior moustaches. The city is saved and all the mice ask is that dangerous unknown creatures they have just heard about – cats – are never allowed to live in the city or the lands around.

    (There’s also the elephants and mice link I used in my The Third Elephant book – and the rodent-like creature that accompanies the elephant headed god Lord Ganesh – and of course the nickname Mouse as in my “Boy Called MOUSE” children’s novel.)

    Mice definitely have a way of creeping in!

  3. It’s amazing how mice seem to feature in myth, legend and folk tales as well, Penny. I know there are quite a few stories in Hindu mythology that feature mice. And, of course, your book and many other works of modern literature continue to pay homage to this humble and fascinating creature.

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