USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘cat’
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cat Over the Coffin

The informant, JT, is the mother of one of my friends. She is Vietnamese, and she grew up in Ho Chi Min City. Here she shares a superstition regarding funerals and her own personal experience with it:

“In the Vietnamese culture, when someone passes away, there are many things you are never supposed to do with the body. Autopsies are looked down upon by some more traditional people because the body should remain whole. If someone steals a part of the body, they may be able to do black magic with it. The person is never cremated either.

They dress the body in simple clothes and put it in the coffin, where they leave it there for about three days, so family and friends can pay their respects. But the coffin always has to be supervised, at all times. They say that if a cat jumps over the coffin, the lid will open and the person will wake up!

Let me tell you something! When I was 12, I walked by the house where they have the funerals, and I saw exactly that happen. They would keep the coffins outside so people could go to look at them. A stray cat from the street went to where the coffin was and jumped over- and the lid of the coffin flew open! I saw it with my own eyes and it was the scariest thing I ever saw in my entire life! The man sat up for a second, and then he lay down and went back to how he was before. I heard people say though- and I don’t know if this is true- that it’s possible for someone to wake up after the cat jumps and stay alive.

I guess it’s because they say that cats have nine lives, they don’t die like we do. It’s really freaky actually!

 

My thoughts: Cats feature in many superstitions around the world. They’re often associated with bad luck, witches, and even the devil. This may be because of the secretive and solitary nature of cats- they have a certain sense of mystery surrounding them. In this folk belief, the cat is associated with bad luck at funerals. Many other cultures also have superstitions involving people coming back to life at their own funerals or wakes. This could be due to the fact that before modern medicine it was harder to determine whether the person in question had actually died. So there may have been real life cases were people seemed to come back from the dead when they were really never dead to begin with that in turn inspired folk beliefs such as this one.

I noted that superstitions still play an important part in the funeral traditions of Vietnam often clashing with the “modern” and the “scientific”, such as autopsies.

Game
general

“Mishka, mishka, mushka… Katikatushka!”

One day while hanging out with my friend, I was being playful by pretending to play the childish game of “peekaboo.” To my surprise, she responded by saying, “mishka, mishka, mushka… Katikatushka!” Then she went on to explain that this is a Russian kids’ game similar in concept to “peekaboo.” When she first explained it to me, she thought that “mishka” meant “mouse” and that  “katikatushka” meant “cat.” Therefore, the literal translation was supposedly, “mouse, mouse, mouse… cat!” But as I will explain after my interview with her, it turns out that’s not exactly the case.

Informant: “So, ‘mishka’ is a game that my dad used to play when I was very little. I would sit on his lap, and it’s the cat and mouse game, so… ok, it goes, you get really small like a mouse, and you go “mishka, mishka, mushka… and then you get really big and tickle the person and you go like, KATIKATUSHKA!!” which apparently, I asked my Russian friend what that means, and I think one of them means ‘bear.’ Or it means ‘big bear’ so maybe my dad lied to me… he didn’t know the actual names. So maybe it’s like ‘mouse, mouse, mouse, BIG BEAR!’

Collector: “Instead of ‘cat’?”

Informant: “Yeah. But he always thought it was ‘cat and mouse.’”

Collector: “Where does your dad get it from, do you know?”

Informant: “Probably his mother. His mother was a gregarious Russian woman.”

Collector: “Is this maybe a traditional Russian nursery rhyme or child’s game?”

Informant: “Yeah, I’ve heard other people who are Russian know of it as well”

Collector: “Do you know of this existing in other languages, or other cultures?”

Informant: “I haven’t heard of it, have you?”

Collector: “No, I haven’t either”

Informant: “But I think the game of surprise is always common…”

Collector: “Yeah, just in different forms”

Informant: “Yeah, like ‘peekaboo,’ similar…”

Collector: “And when you were little, was this just supposed to be a scary little, messing with you as a little kid game? I mean it sounds playful, but do you think it had any other purpose other than just pure playfulness?”

Informant: “Yeah, I think it was a way to connect… I think it was something to do, like ‘I’m bored, what do you wanna do?’ ‘I don’t know… let’s play the cat and mouse game!!’ you know, cause you tickle each other and you laugh! And then it ends in tickle fight”

After interviewing the informer, I looked up the meaning of “mishka,” “mushka,” and “katikatushka,” to almost no avail. There seem to be many words with similar spellings and pronunciations, but different meanings in Russian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian. So instead of attempting to translate from Russian to English, I used google translate to find the Russian words for mouse, cat, and bear. According to google, mouse is “mysh,'” pronounced “moosh.” Cat is “kot,” pronounced “khot.” And bear is “nesti,” pronounced “neesty.” So I’m not sure how my friend’s dad’s game got translated interpreted at cat and mouse, because although there is a slight resemblance to the words I found via google translate, they seem too far off to be correct. Perhaps there’s variations of the same word depending on the tense and other grammatical rules. Or perhaps the language of the game got mixed up as it was passed down generations of Americans from Russian descent.

Musical

Tuntun-Tuntun-Taara

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

Chhat par billi bhaagi hai,

Neend se (Baby) jaagi hai

Chhat par billi bhaagi hai,

Neend se (Baby) jaagi hai

Billi ne chuhe ko maara

Hai!

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

Galli me bola chawkidaar,

“Choron se rehna hushiyar”

Galli me bola chawkidaar,

“Choron se rehna hushiyar”

Chawkidaar ne chor ko maara

Hai!

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

 

Translation:

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

It struck 12 o’clock (Chorus)

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

It struck 12 o’clock

The cat ran along the roof

(Baby) woke up from her sleep

The cat ran along the roof

(Baby) woke up from her sleep

The cat killed the mouse

Hai!

(Chorus) x 2

In the street the guardsman said,

“Beware of thieves!”

In the street the guardsman said,

“Beware of thieves!”

The guard killed the thief

Hai!

(Chorus)

Analysis: For some reason, similar to many Western nursery rhymes and lullabies, this song is a particularly violent one. It talks about the elimination of a small threat (a mouse) and then of a much larger, much more serious threat (a thief). But this elimination takes place in a very definitive, violent manner–murder, essentially. Unlike Western lullabies, however (some that come to mind are Rockabye Baby, Rain Rain Go Away, Old Daddy Long Legs, and Sing a Song of Sixpence), the violence is not perpetrated on children or seemingly innocent bystanders, but on entities who do pose a real threat to the health and safety of the child and indeed the whole family and therefore could be said to “deserve what they got”. Mice spread disease and could ruin a family’s crop and thereby cause them to starve. Thieves also could cause financial ruin and would not hesitate to do away with any family member who discovered them robbing the house in the dead of night. In rural areas, or places that didn’t have a very trustworthy law enforcement and protection system, the idea that there were people (or animals) that would be able to protect a child from harm must have been very comforting.

Folk speech
Humor

“Ah Ma Schwartz Katter”

“When somebody’s being lame, or kind of a wet blanket, there’s, I mean, okay, I mean, there’s two of them. One of them is “ah ma schwartz katter” which is “oh, my poor little black cat,” and that’s for if they’re being silly. So, just, for instance, if someone is like, ‘oh, poor pathetic me!’ it’s ‘ah, ma Schwartz katter,’ [she mimics patting someone on the head in mock sympathy]. And then sometimes I do a variation on it, which I don’t know if it’s even correct or not, but it’s ‘ah ma brune katter,’ which is ‘ah, my little brown cat.’ But honest to god, it’s probably a huge bastardization of German, I know the actual one when I’m saying it is correct, but I don’t know the actual spelling of it, because my mother did not deem to teach me it.”

 

It’s like saying “oh, poor thing,” but it’s a little bit mocking. The informant uses the brune version because sometimes she likes to “mix it up,” and because her cat is brown. Usually, when she is saying this to someone, it’s her mother (because her father doesn’t “get it”), and she uses the brune version because her mother’s hair is brown.

The informant first learned this when she was about seven from her mother, (who speaks multiple languages, including German). Both she and her mother are of German descent.

This is a good demonstration of how foreign languages are kept partially alive and spread throughout generations who may not be fluent in it. Sayings are easy to remember because of their brevity and they also seem to create strong bonds between those who say them (e.g. the informant here shares this with her mother and brother, but not outside her family or even with her father).

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