Posts filed under ‘THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE’
THE ROLE OF CATS IN NURSERY RHYMES
by Sarah Hartwell
Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon!
Over the years, several meaning have attached themselves to this rhyme. “Cat and the fiddle” is sometimes claimed to be a nonsense rhyme based on a corruption of “catus fideles”, referring to a faithful cat. Another interpretation is that it refers to the animals and implements owned by a poor household – a cat to keep away mice, a dog to protect the home, a cow to provide milk, a dish and spoon to eat with and a fiddle for making music.
A more elaborate interpretation claims the rhyme to be derived from Egyptian mythology or artwork. The fiddle is not a fiddle at all, but an Egyptian instrument called a sistrum. A drawing of a sistrum does resemble a fiddle standing on its neck. The cat, dog and cow are, respectively, the Egyptian gods Bast, Anubis and Hathor although whoever created the rhyme may not have realised the animal-headed figures depicted in Egyptian art represented deities. The dish and spoon are ritual implements, just as the sistrum was used at religious ceremonies. Bast was a local deity associated with Bubastis and many depictions show her holding a sistrum. To those not versed in Egyptology, this could indeed have resembled a cat holding a fiddle. Hathor was most often depicted carrying the sun disk between her horns and this might have been misidentified as the moon.
Other variations of the verse have a slightly different second section. The dog may be laughing at fun, sport or craft. “Craft” has sometimes been interpreted as meaning witchcraft and the cat and dog as the witch’s familiars. The following is a play on the sounds of laughed, craft and after:
“The little dog laug’d,
To see such craft,
While the dish ran after the spoon”
The first known publication date of Hey Diddle Diddle (originally called High Diddle Diddle) is 1765. The colloquial phrase “hey diddle diddle” is used in traditional songs in the same way as “hey nonny no”. The most likely explanation is a nonsense rhyme about impossible and amusing actions that appeal to a child’s imagination. A similar nonsense verse (below), albeit without a fiddle has a similar mix of rhythmic nonsense phrases and improbable images. It conjures up a picture of amusing chaos in the household.
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
The dog has eaten the mop;
The pig’s in a hurry,
The cat’s in a flurry
Higglety, pigglety, pop!
Though Hey Diddle Diddle is a nonsense verse with no historical meaning, this hasn’t stopped it attracting some royal explanations. For example, in Elizabethan times it was the custom to give those in the royal court nicknames based on their personalities. Elizabeth I was known as “The Cat” from the way she “fiddled” with her Cabinet ministers as if they were mice. The cow, moon and her “lap-dog” were likewise characters in these court charades. The “dish” was Elizabeth’s serving lady and the “spoon” the royal taster. When the dish and spoon secretly eloped, Elizabeth had them captured and confined to the Tower of London.
If you aren’t convinced by the Elizabeth story (and you’d be right to be unconvinced, since “High Diddle Diddle” appeared around 200 years later) how about another royal tale? Alternatively you can interpret it as Richard III’s path to the throne of England; “diddle diddle” being the way he got rid of Edward V; the “cat and the fiddle” being William Catesby and the pre-contract; the jumping cow referring to the Nevilles (whose emblem was a cow) while “over the moon” meant the Nevilles (the cow) eclipsed the Percys, whose emblem was a moon. The little dog laughing was Viscount Lovel, Richard’s best friend, whose emblem was a dog. The running dish was Richard himself while the spoon was the anointing spoon at his coronation. Other explanations claim the cat to be either Catherine of Aragon or Catherine the Great. What a lot of royal nonsense attaches itself to a simple nonsense rhyme!
An April Fool joke suggess that Hey Diddle Diddle is a cryptic prophecy relating to the new millennium (year 2000/2001). The new millennium has arrived without major global catastrophe, but here is the Nostrodamus-style interpretation of the rhyme – if nothing else, it proves that if you try hard enough you can read almost anything into nonsense verse! “Diddle” means “swindle” and hence refers to a time of money-laundering and fraud; cybercrime was on the rise throughout the 1990s.
The “cat” meant the lion; symbol of the British empire. Cats are associated with women so it meant a time when Britain had a queen i.e. the reigning monarch Elizabeth II. Royal scandals means she must to do some dramatic “fiddling” to save the monarchy (which many believe to be an anachronism). The fiddling also suggests Nero fiddling while Rome burned. In modern times, Rome means the Pope/Catholicism. The British monarch is head of the British protestant church; marriage of a British heir to a Catholic would be a constitutional crisis. However, this would conflict with anti-discrimination laws so the Queen would have to do some major fiddling to keep both sides happy.
“The cow jumped over the moon” simply refers to the outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain. Lunacy was once believed to be moon-madness (“lunar” means something related to the moon). Alternatively, the cow is a religious reference e.g. sacred cow or the important reference is “moon” indicating events related to the moon, or to the space programme. This is borne out by the laughing little dog: the star Sirius or even the Mars “Rover” project. The true rhyme is “the little dog laughed to see such craft” meaning that space “craft” will continue to be “dogged by failure”. This has already come true with a space shuttle disaster and the loss of Beagle II. The “dish” would therefore be a radio telescope dish. The dish might also mean plate tectonics and hence refer to a major earthquake; these are accompanied by tidal waves (tides otherwise being under the control of the moon). The “spoon” would mean spoon-benders, meaning psychics with psychokinetic abilities, a manifestation of which is the ability to bend cutlery. The field of psychic ability is drawing serious research.
There are also various joke versions of Hey Diddle Diddle, for example the following verse. It is through joke versions and mis-heard versions that nursery rhymes evolved into numerous variants. Printed form has made many rhymes almost static in modern times – once written down, they are virtually fossilised! Luckily word-of-mouth in the school playground continues to create and perpetuate variations on a rhyme.
Hey diddle diddle, the cat did a piddle
All over the bedside clock.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
When the cat died of electric shock.
Perhaps the association of cats and fiddles is due to the sound made when someone plays a violin badly, something my mother calls “sounds like someone’s strangling a cat”. Another nursery rhyme about cats and fiddles:
A cat came fiddling out of a barn,
With a pair of bag-pipes under her arm;
She could sing nothing but fiddle cum fee,
The mouse has married the humble-bee;
Pipe, cat, – dance, mouse,
We’ll have a wedding at our good house.
In another variant of the cat’s wedding, this time from a Scottish source, the bumble-bee ends up married to both a cat and a fly.
The cat has married the bumble-bee!
They went to the Church, and married was he,
The fly has married the bumble-bee!
It is this latter rhyme, now less common than Hey Diddle Diddle, that is believed to be the inspiration of Cat-and-Fiddle pub signs; perhaps advertising that music could be found or made on the premises. Below is yet another cat-and-fiddle rhyme, but this time it’s not the cat playing the instrument.
The cat sat asleep by the side of the fire,
The mistress snored loud as a pig;
Jack took up his fiddle by Jenny’s desire,
And struck up a bit of a jig.
The follow is less obviously a cat-and-fiddle rhyme and forms part of the “Froggy Goes A-Courting” family of folksongs. A “crowd” is an old British three-stringed fiddle with no neck. “Heigho crowdie”, a common refrain, is a call to strike up this fiddle, usually for dancing or a chorus. “Crowdy” therefore means revelry, where even the cat is making music. Perhaps again it alludes to the sound of a badly played instrument.
Come dance a jig to my granny’s pig,
With a rowdy, howdy, dowdy.
Come dance a jig to my granny’s pig
And pussy cat shall crowdy.
Sometimes the fiddle is replaced by some other instrument. In the following rhyme, a banjo has been substituted in place of the fiddle. The rhyme brings to mind cats serenading each other, but fortunately a more tuneful instrument (this being a matter of opinion of course!) replaces the tomcat’s yowling.
The cats went out to serenade
And on a banjo sweetly played;
And summer nights they climbed a tree
And sang, “My love, oh, come to me!”
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.