When I was a kid some other kid showed me how to make a cat’s cradle by looping a circle of string around my hands. That was only one of the many possible patterns, I realise now – and probably the most basic; but nobody told me so I just thought – been there, done that, boring!
Now I discover there’s all this sort of stuff, for one pair of hands or two. Maybe more!
I seem to be spending the whole of my old age discovering yet more ways in which my youth was totally and utterly wasted.
I thought I might venture a few cat and/or Halloween-related posts. I have a really good book of English folklore – obtained second-hand/falling to bits – and with some difficulty. I also have The Golden Bough. These should serve as a starting point. There’s the good old internet to fill in any gaps, of course, but I do like to start with books, old books; proper books, all heavy and faded and dusty and smelling of – ah! -book.
I always assumed it was called Cat’s Cradle because what you were making was a cradle for a rather small cat. However, apparently not. It’s likely to have come from cratch-cradle. Cratch is one of those archaic English words. It used to mean – well, it meant to scratch or claw (appropriate for cats) but it also meant crib, or manger. It’s related to the French word crèche, which also used to mean manger.
If you type cratch into Google images you’re more likely to see a kind of plain or fancy gate still used on English narrowboats, which is there to ‘restrain’ the boat’s cargo and hold up part of the roof . The connection, I think, is the wooden framework involved – you can see how the same kind of triangular or crutch pattern could also have been the basis of a crib.
It’s a kind of trellis, and cat’s cradle is also a kind of trellis.
I was looking for folklore around Cat’s Cradle, because apparently it is one of the oldest games ever, and has been played all over the world. The Golden Bough (1890) says that among the “Esquimaux” tribes, as they were referred to in those days, it was taboo for a little boy to play at Cat’s Cradle. Should he do so, when he grew to be an adult and went off hunting the whale his hands might become entangled in the harpoon line. I am guessing this would not do one’s hands any good. In fact, one might be handless at the end of it.
How is the one thing connected to the other? Because it’s an example of negative magic. In tribal (and not-so-tribal) societies magic can be both positive and negative. Positive magic would be to do a certain thing in order to make something desirable happen. Negative magic would be to avoid doing a certain thing in order to avoid something undesirable happening. So taboo and negative magic seem to be more or less the same. But it’s quite subtle. For example it’s not taboo to say ‘Do not put your hand in the fire’ – that’s just common sense. Taboo is to avoid doing something symbolic of the thing to be avoided, and the consequences of breaking the taboo will not necessarily take place now but at some time in the future.
Digressing slightly, it seems that in the past, in the village councils of one district of India, it was forbidden for anyone to twirl a spindle. (Since the meetings were all male, I would assume that both men and women might twirl spindles.) The twirling of the spindle would mean that the talk would be doomed to go round in circles and never reach a conclusion. It occurs to me that someone must have been secretly twirling in a dusty corner of the House of Commons over the last three years.
Cat’s Cradle has different names in different countries. In parts of America it is referred to, poetically, as Jack in the Pulpit. In China it’s Fan Sheng (turning rope) and in Russia, more prosaically, it is The Game of String.
In case you should be seeking inspiration for Cat’s Cradle-related reading there’s a book called Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I would like to claim to have known that all along, but I just found out, and I haven’t read it yet. I’m not entirely sure I want to. It’s science fiction (one of my favourites) but apparently it involves man’s greatest fear: the witnessing, or worse still, the survival of Armageddon.