Hello, and welcome to the October 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 113B "The Cat as Sham Holy Man." Let's begin with a Syrian fable about the king of mice, the king of cats, and a pilgrimage to Mecca.
"The Cat Who Went to Mecca"
A long time ago the king of the cats went on the pilgrimage to Mecca. When he returned, the king of the mice felt obliged to pay him the traditional visit of congratulations on his safe return as a Hajji, or pilgrim. He said to his subjects the mice, "Etiquette demands that we go to his house and welcome him back formally." The mice were not convinced. "The cat is our enemy; how can we go near him in safety?" The king explained, "Now that he has been to Mecca and become a Hajji, he is no longer free to do what was permitted before. Nowadays he remains at prayer from dawn till sunset, and the prayer beads never leave his hands." The mice were not persuaded. "You call on him and see," they said. "We shall wait here for you."
So the king of the mice set out. He poked his head out of his hole and looked around. There sat the king of the cats, the white cap of a pilgrim on his head. He was praising God, murmuring prayers, and every now and then spitting over his shoulder, first to his left and then to his right, in case the devil was lurking behind to distract him from his devotions.
But no sooner had the king of the cats caught sight of the king of the mice peeping out of his hole than he dropped his rosary and sprang! And but for God the Preserver, he would have bitten the mouse's tail right off.
The king of the mice jumped back into his hole and rejoined his subjects. "How is the king of the cats after his pilgrimage?" they asked. "Let's hope he has changed for the better. "Never mind the pilgrimage," said the king of the mice. "He might pray like a Hajji, but he still pounces like a cat."1
ATU 113B is an Animal Tale under the sub-category "Wild Animals and Domestic Animals," and the ATU index summarizes it this way:
113B The Cat as Sham Holy Man. A cat (tom-cat) who pretends to be a holy man (a pilgrim) enlists mice (rats) as disciples. It eats them one by one as they file by or listen to his sermons. In some variants, the cat fails to deceive the mice [K815.13, cf. K815.7]. Cf. Types 20D*, 165.2
There are two tale types listed as additional references, and of them, 20D* is the more useful for our discussion:
20D* Pilgrimage of the Animals (previously Cock and Other Animals Journey to Rome to Become Pope). (Including the previous Type 61A.) A rooster wants to go to Rome in order to become pope [B296.1]. His wife accompanies him, along with more and more other animals. They meet the fox, who invites them to rest in his den. He asks them to sing and eats them one by one afterwards (see Type 20C).
Often the fox pretends to go on a pilgrimage (to a convent). Other animals (chicken, duck, goose, magpie, sparrow) go along with him. The fox asks to hear their confessions or accuses them of sins which are characteristic of different kinds of animals. Then the fox eats them as punishment.
In some variants the fox tells the rooster (partridge, lark) that he has become religious and repents his past actions [K2027], or he dresses as a nun [K2285]. Then he reproaches the rooster with his sins (his polygamy) and offers to hear his confession. When the rooster comes near, the fox catches him and gobbles him up.
Or, the rooster escapes by a ruse. (Previously Type 61A.) Cf. Types 113B, 165.3
There are two references to the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature listed in the entry for ATU 113B, so let's take a look at them now for a bit more context:
K815.7. Cat acts as judge between sparrow and hare; eats them both.
K815.13. Cat makes truce with mice. When they have become friendly, he eats them.4
"The Cat Who Went to Mecca" is comparable to last month's example story because they both have a foothold in more than one tale type. In this case, ATU 113B gives us a cat who pretends to be a holy man, but the king of cats in "The Cat Who Went to Mecca" does indeed go on a pilgrimage and return a Hajji. So his piety is genuine. At the same time, the tale type summary and the example story agree that the mice are not entirely deceived. In the summary, the tom-cat is pretending to be pious, but in the story, the cat is unwilling or unable to set aside his true nature as a predator. ATU 20D* is helpful because it summarizes the relationship between a predator and his prey in the context of a holy undertaking, though the plot of the tale type is certainly different from ATU 113B.
This predatory relationship in a holy context is our departure point for the moral of the fable, and it reminds me of a recent conversation with P.H. Lee, author of the Tales of the Great Sweet Sea series of short stories. Lee remarked that the elements of traditional folk narratives are time-tested and help us talk about difficult topics. I agreed and would add here that this is especially true of fables. Specifically, "The Cat Who Went to Mecca" may be admonishing us that the trappings of piety, whether or not they are sincerely worn, are not proof of good intentions. I can imagine many contexts where such an admonishment would be poorly received if it were not expressed in an animal tale about cats and mice or foxes and roosters.
Adaptation and Subversion
I believe we have an obligation to tell difficult stories, and our storytelling predecessors clearly agreed. But not every challenging topic can be addressed with the anthropomorphic animals and straightforward moral messages of fables. We live in a time of unprecedented traumas, all taking their individual and collective tolls on our minds, bodies, and lives. How do we deal with these traumas ourselves and still muster the inner reserves to tell stories about them? I'm still learning how to do this, but I've taken some wisdom from scholars I hope you'll also find helpful.
Ruth Behar's 1996 book The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart discusses the importance of vulnerability to ethnographic research and puts that discussion into practice with powerful, sometimes personal ethnographic writing. In the following passage, Behar is the story listener, but we are story listeners as well, every time we take in the world's trauma and transmute it into story. She writes that:
In the midst of a massacre, in the face of torture, in the eye of a hurricane, in the aftermath of an earthquake, or even, say, when horror looms apparently more gently in memories that won’t recede and so come pouring forth in the late-night quiet of a kitchen, as a storyteller opens her heart to a story listener, recounting hurts that cut deep and raw into the gullies of the self, do you, the observer, stay behind the lens of the camera, switch on the tape recorder, keep pen in hand? Are there limits—of respect, piety, pathos—that should not be crossed, even to leave a record? But if you can’t stop the horror, shouldn’t you at least document it?5
Yes, Behar tells us, sometimes we are desperately small before the terrors of the world. And yes, she continues, those in the path of these terrors deserve our deepest respect. Even so, we must go forward; to do the work of ethnography and to tell difficult stories.
But it's tough to let our hearts break for the world and get on with the business of story craft, especially when "Vulnerability doesn’t mean that anything personal goes. The exposure of the self who is also a spectator has to take us somewhere we couldn’t otherwise get to. It has to be essential to the argument, not a decorative flourish, not exposure for its own sake."6 Ethnographers are trained to foreground the lived experiences of research participants even when we write from a place of vulnerability. In a similar way, storytellers must learn to foreground the plot, characters, conflict, and other narrative elements of a story even when they emerge from a broken heart.
Of course, the traumas we commit to stories also affect the people who read them, and Behar acknowledges this as well. She tells us that "When you write vulnerably, others respond vulnerably. A different set of problems and predicaments arise which would never surface in response to more detached writing. What is the writer’s responsibility to those who are moved by her writing?"7 If we are fatigued by traumatic events, it's logical to conclude that our audience is too. So we need to balance the trauma itself, our own vulnerability to it, and the story craft we utilize against the responsibility we have to audiences. But how do we do that? Elin Kelsey, author of Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis, offers good insight on this issue, writing that:
...worrying about a problem that is way too big for you to tackle inevitably feels discouraging. It's disempowering. It breeds apathy. The same phenomenon happens in politics. When someone says "Why would I bother voting?" they may be finding it hard to see how their single ballot among thousands or millions makes a difference.
To counter this feeling, psychologists say it's important to see how our individual actions make a collective positive impact. Indeed research demonstrates that when the news focuses on success stories about entrepreneurial activism and actions ordinary people are taking in local contexts we can relate to, we feel more enthusiastic and optimistic about our capacity to tackle climate change.8
So while Behar tells us to be vulnerable, Kelsey tells us to be optimistic, and this is another important component of telling difficult stories. Kelsey also writes that "To hope is not to wait around until you are feeling optimistic, but to join with others in defiant response to what we are doing to the planet. It is an action that you do rather than a feeling that you have."9 I'm not suggesting that all our stories about trauma should have happy endings, but we need to let enough light into them that our audiences can see it. We need to have hope and bring hope to our storytelling.
So be vulnerable, and let your heart break for the world. Be a professional storyteller too, who knows how to foreground the narrative elements of a story even when it's difficult. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, shine some light into the dark places you travel for the sake of your craft.
Solarpunk is an aesthetic, an art movement, and a genre of speculative fiction that imagines a future where our ecological and social problems are solved in constructive ways. Your mission this month, should you choose to accept it, is to read a few stories in the solarpunk genre. Here are a few collections fellow writers and I have enjoyed:
- Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland
- Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, edited by Serena Ulibarri
- Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters, edited by Serena Ulibarri
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 450 "Little Brother and Little Sister." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
- 1. Inea Bushnaq, ed., “The Cat Who Went to Mecca,” in Arab Folktales, trans. Inea Bushnaq (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 216.
- 2. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011), 84.
- 3. Ibid, 28-29.
- 4. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Four J-K (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.
- 5. Ruth Behar, The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), chap. 1, Kindle.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Elin Kelsey, Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis (Greystone Books, 2020), 23-24.
- 9. Ibid, 56.