Pawprints 4: Ancient monk immortalizes his cat

The first cat I had as an adult was a wonderful black moggie (a rescued stray) named Pangur, who lived to the ripe age of 18.  Everyone used to ask about his name, and I told them that it is was first cat name to appear in English literature—if you count Gaelic as English!

Well, I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but the name does appear in a 9th-century Irish manuscript written at Reichenau Abbey, and has since been turned into both poetry and music. It all started when a bored monk took a break from his studies to write a poem about his white cat (“Pangur Bán” apparently means “white Pangur”).

As The Victorian Librarian recounts:

When I began learning Old Irish, one of our texts was the poem written by a monk about his cat and was found in the Reichenau Primer (MS Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1), a ninth-century manuscript which comprises of said monk’s Greek language study notes. Compare it to Zürich Zentralbibliothek MS C 58; as mentioned above, Dr Lähnemann described it as an arts student’s lecture notes. The poem has become known as Pangur Bán.

Whitley Stokes’ translation is available here. [JAC: Stokes’s translation is scholarly, but I prefer another that I’ve put below.] You’ll find that the poem compares the study of Greek to the cat’s hunting of a mouse, and it makes for a most entertaining read. I don’t doubt for a second that all cat owners will see their own cat’s adventures as they read.

More information appears at Fish Eaters:

But let’s end this digression and move on to the absolutely delightful poem, Pangur Ban. It was written in the 8th or 9th century, on a 4-page manuscript (see picture at the bottom of the page) by an anonymous Irish Benedictine monk who lived in the extant St. Paul’s Monastery on Reichenau Island in Lake Constance (Bodensee), where Germany meets with Carinthia, Austria. Imagine the monk at night in his candlelit cell, delving into Sacred Scripture’s eternal Truths, together and happy with his kitty, who went about his own business. Little did he know that 1,200 years later, others would fall in love with Pangur Ban, too.

The famous Pangur Bán poem, which I dearly love, is in the lower left here, and is enlarged in the second photograph:

pangurban3

x

pangur-ban-ms-page

Here’s the original Gaelic, which you can make out in the manuscript above, and what I think is the best (or most artistic) translation, by Robin Flowers. It resonates with me because I was a postdoc and young professor when I owed my black Pangur:

Picture 1

Wikipedia gives a bit of other information:

A critical edition of the poem was published in 1903 by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan in the second volume of the Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus.[2] The most famous of the many English translations is that by Robin Flower. In W. H. Auden’s translation, the poem was set by Samuel Barber as the eighth of his ten Hermit Songs (1952-3).

Fay Sampson wrote a series of books based on the poem. They follow the adventures of Pangur Bán, his friend, Niall the monk, and Finnglas, a Welsh princess.

In the 2009 animated movie The Secret of Kells, which is heavily inspired by Irish mythology, one of the supporting characters is a white cat named Pangur Bán who arrives in the company of a monk. A verse of the poem is read out during the credit roll.

Here is a rendition of Samuel Barber’s song by Gerald Finley. I really like what Barber did with the poem.

pangursmall

45 Comments

  1. Sigmund
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    “if you count Gaelic as English!”
    Ha!
    Gaelic, being one of the celtic languages, is a distant cousin of English, one of the members of the germanic language group.
    It’s about as English as French, Russian or Greek!
    For some reason it sounds quite Scandinavian in terms of the vocalizations involved, although the actual words are very different (Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, like English, are germanic languages.)

    • Dominic
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 2:15 am | Permalink

      You only need to look at place names in Western Scotland to see the influence of Old Norse – places ending -aig for example come from -vik.

  2. Chris Slaby
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ll chime in after Sigmund for some more language-based grumbling. Words matter. Word choice matters. There is no such language as Gaelic. Yes, the word Gaelic gets used all the time to mean all sorts of things. It can refer to a culture, to a type of football, and depending on the context, people understand it to mean a certain language. However, to refer to the Gaelic language, even when qualified, isn’t quite accurate. There are the Celtic Languages, which is a multi-branched family of languages that includes Modern Irish and Scottish (Gaelic), both of which are part of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic family. Old Irish is the ancestral language of Modern Irish, Scottish (Gaelic), and Manx (the native Celtic language originally spoken on the Isle of Man). I’m sure that I’m being a bit pedantic, and I’m not a Celtic linguist or anything like that, but I appeal to the biologist, scientist, and rationalist in all of us. Some people worked pretty hard to understand the origins and evolution of these languages, let’s use terms that are as specific and accurate as possible! (End rant.)

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Okay, okay, I’ll call it whatever you want– I took the language from the website!

      These posts are more than simply an opportunity for people to find errors. I appreciate the correction, but really, a sentence like this comes off as pretty snotty:

      . . . .but I appeal to the biologist, scientist, and rationalist in all of us. Some people worked pretty hard to understand the origins and evolution of these languages, let’s use terms that are as specific and accurate as possible! (End rant.)

      • Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know, I’m Irish and we would refer to it as Irish as ‘gaeilge’. We’d say ‘ag caint as gaeilge’- ‘talking in Irish’.

        • Dave
          Posted February 26, 2013 at 2:49 am | Permalink

          I live in the West Highlands of Scotland. The language which gave rise to most of the local placenames, and which still has a residual spoken presence, is universally referred to as “Gaelic” (or “Gaidhlig”, as it refers to itself)

      • Chris Slaby
        Posted February 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, Jerry! I didn’t mean for my comment to come off as snobby, just the opposite, in fact.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      To support what Arlene says below, the modest number of native (as in, “with their mother’s milk”) speakers of Scottish Gaelic that I’ve known in my 30-odd years up here have simply referred to their language as “Gaelic” ; not “Scots Gaelic”, or “Erse”, or anything else ; just “Gaelic”. (And certainly not “Scots”, or “Doric”, which are completely different local languages, taught separately in schools and possessed of their own distinct professors in the University.)
      It makes a difference, as one such found when he was unable to translate his thoughts in his finals exam into English … so he wrote them down in Gaelic. And as a bi-lingual university, the department had to find a qualified marker – fully bilingual in Gaelic (the script’s language) and English (the paper’s language), and at professorial level in the Philosophy variant that Fionnlaigh was studying. The marker and markee were, inevitably, cousins. which is a very “Islands” way of doing things.
      I can’t tell if Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic are mutually comprehensible (I’m assured that they more-or-less are) ; it’s certainly not a question that bothered the University Celtic Society (of which I was the Science Officer), unlike the vital questions of the relative merits of Bushmills, Talisker, and Aidan’s Poteen (for which the post of Science Officer was created).
      Vale, Fionnlaigh! Fa’s lik yee? Damned few, an’ the’re aa’ deid!

      • Dominic
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 2:39 am | Permalink

        That is a lovely story!

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted February 26, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

          Fionnlaigh was a lovely guy. Only found out about his death a couple of weeks ago by bumping into a mutual friend at the cash machine. Industrial-scale pisshead, it has to be said, but a lovely guy nonetheless.

      • harrystarkus
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

        I am a native speaker of Gaeilge from the west of Ireland and I can readily read and understand the Gaelic of Scotland. There are three very distinct dialects in Ireland in the individual Gaeltachts ( areas where Gaeilge is spoken as the first language ). The Gaeltacht of Donegal in Ulster is obviously the dialect most like the Scottish, but each area has its own words and very distinct accent. Indeed the Aran Islands all have their own unique words that are not used elsewhere.
        As regards being like English – it isn’t! The order of the noun and the verb are reversed and pronunciations are very dissimilar. Also the alphabet is smaller ( there are no V,W,X,Y,Z or Q ) in Gaeilge, but the “V” sound is created with “mh” and “W” is created with “bh” …. for example the word “bhfuil” as in “An bhfuil tu go maith?” ( meaning “are you well?” ) is pronounced “will”.

        Loved the piece Jerry – thanks.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted February 26, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

          I would never try playing Scrabble in any of the Gaelics. No where near enough ‘h’ tiles. Or vowels.

          • harrystarkus
            Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

            Ditto for me with Welsh …. you would need many, many L’s and Y’s :)

            One more little interesting thing about Gaeilge is there is no word for “yes” or “no”. As a consequence it has informed how Irish people speak English.

            For example if you asked an Irish person who was 36 years of age if they were 36 … most would answer “I am” instead of “yes”, this comes from the Irish answer to the question “táim” ( I am ).

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

              A language with no yes or no?! I wouldn’t have believed it!

              • Lars
                Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

                I believe that this is true of Latin as well.

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted February 27, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

                I find it a touch surprising too.
                I find it less surprising that, if there IS a language without yes/no words, then it would be Irish. Seems fitting.

              • harrystarkus
                Posted February 27, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

                hehe – even if there was a “yes” or “no” I don’t think you’d ever get it straight :)

  3. gerdien
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Could anyone produce something like a phonetic rendering of the Old Irish?

    • gerdien
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Or is there anywhere on YouTube someone who tries to pronounce it?

    • Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      You can listen to the poem in Old Irish [not like modern Irish or Scots Gaelic] here:-

      Lovely

      • Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        Didn’t mean to embed. I’m sorry Jerry. I prefer this English translation below because I suspect it’s closer in meaning to the original ~ less poetical I guess.

        I and white Pangur
        practise each of us his special art:
        his mind is set on hunting,
        my mind on my special craft.

        I love — it is better than all fame — to be quiet
        beside my book, diligently pursuing knowledge.
        White Pangur does not envy me:
        he loves his childish craft.

        When the two of us — this tale never wearies us —
        are alone together in our house,
        we have something to which we
        may apply our skill, an endless sport.

        It is usual, at times, for a mouse to stick in his net,
        as a result of warlike battlings.
        For my part, into my net falls
        some difficult rule of hard meaning.

        He directs his bright perfect eye against an enclosing wall.
        Though my clear eye is very weak,
        I direct it against keenness
        of knowledge.

        He is joyful with swift movement
        when a mouse sticks in his sharp paw.
        I too am joyful when I understand a
        dearly loved difficult problem.

        Though we be thus at any time,
        neither of us hinders the other:
        each of us likes his craft,
        severally rejoicing in them

        • Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

          This is very lovely to listen to … thanks!

          • Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

            Yes. Lovely. The speaker has tones of modern Northern Irish intonation ~ I wonder how close his delivery is to Old Irish really. Lovely all the same.

            • whyevolutionistrue
              Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

              Indeed; I’ve never heard that language spoken!

  4. bpuharic
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    My ex was an English major and we always liked this poem when we read it 40 years ago. Of course, we had 2 cats at the time who were, in their own ways, quite heroic.

  5. Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Ban is Irish for white, so it’s Pangur the white. He’s a white cat ( and a good mouser) it seems.

  6. Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    And your old Pangur would have been Pangur Dubh(Pangur the black).

  7. Lars
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    My old girlfriend and I named our black female cat Pangur Ban as well – double strike-out, for sex and for colour. But it’s a nice name for a cat.

  8. will
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    My gosh. That Barber song sounds as if it might have been composed by Stephen Sondheim. It also has a touch of that CATcerto played by Nora the Piano Cat.

    • Posted February 25, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

      Odd, I thought it sounded like Britten.

  9. Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    The rendition of Samuel Barber’s song is lovely.

    • Alektorophile
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      It is indeed. I had never heard it before. On an aside, the poster on YouTube must have been looking for an appropriate image, but I guess a monk with a white cat is hard to find, even on the intertubes. He opted for St.Jerome and his lion instead, close enough I guess.

  10. madscientist
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    That’s much more pleasant than the ancient Egyptian technique of immortalizing their guardians. There seems to be innumerable genuine cat mummies out there (and even more fakes).

  11. Allen
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    The next cat I get will be named Pangur regardless of it colour. I liked both translations of the poem.

  12. Posted February 25, 2013 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    What’s the grid, with writing on the diagonal, at the foot of the next page?

    • Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:03 am | Permalink

      It’s called the Reichenau Primer [Reichenauer Schulheft]

      According to Wiki the content is in insular script, apparently scribal practice by an Irish monk. It contains mainly Latin hymns and grammatical texts, with added glosses in Old High German, but also Greek declination tables, astronomical tables & Old Irish poems.

      The table [excluding the top row & right column] is 12 boxes across x 13 boxes down
      I take this to be 13 months of 4 weeks each perhaps because it’s the easiest way to organise events in a calendar year

      The right column appears to be numbers [my mum was Irish & used a similar strange non-decimal numbering system]

      I suspect it’s a calendar relating to…
      the sky
      the agricultural seasons
      the yearly liturgical cycle

      • Ben Breuer
        Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:49 am | Permalink

        from how little I can read of the chart at thr bottom right, there are the numbers I through XXX in the right column (the days of the months? VII and XVI having been scratched out?), the constellations (I can just about read leo and gemini) in the main field of the chart, and the names of the months (abbreviated) in the top row.

        So, something that connects months and constellations to numbers of days. Probably the basics for some kind of computus.

  13. Jake
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    A post combining your flair for the literary with your ailurophilia… very impressive.
    A somewhat lulzy link which will perhaps prove tickling to the funny bone:

    http://www.petanim.com/9408/msutton/facts-beautiful-intelligent-tuxedo-cat/

  14. Charles Sullivan
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    Fort Vancouver< Washington, 2,000 tear old brick found with cat prints.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/02/1-kitty-2-empires-2-000-years-world-history-told-through-a-brick/273320/

    • Dominic
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

      Incredible! Thanks for the link.

  15. SES
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    What an absolutely lovely way to start the day (a cold, gray, snowy one in my world)– thank you so much for sharing all this: MSS, poetry, Pangur Ban and his monk, each quietly rejoicing in what they are.

  16. Diane G.
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    These posts are more than simply an opportunity for people to find errors.

    I was reading it and thinking, “…such a polymath! And how does he manage to write so well and so quickly at the same time?”

    Though of course, WEIT readers never fail to amaze me, either!

  17. alice
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Ooh as a professional pianist and singer, to have my favourite science blog post a G Finley recording is a joy! Fabulous song and singer.

  18. Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for quoting me – I blush! Great post, nice to hear about a real Pangur. Have you seen “The Secret of Kells”? I highly recommend it – it’s beautifully animated.

    Would you recommend the Fay Sampson books?

  19. Lars
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    A note on the translation – there is no doubt that “ban” means white, but Pangur isn’t a Gaelic word – went looking, and some Erse scholars had looked at this questions and proposed that (by way of the Welsh) it meant “fuller”, as in one who washes clothes. And from this they got Pangur Ban = Dazzling White, which is a bit of flattery that few cats could resist, I’m sure


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  1. […] Jerry Coyne drops some history on us about Pangur, one of the earliest recorded cats named in history. Listen to the song at the end, […]

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