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:
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:
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. 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.