Mongooses belong to the Old World. Unlike their mustelid counterparts from the suborder Caniformia, the Herpestidae are restricted to Africa and southern Eurasia. That would hold true if we didn’t take into account the actions of human beings. The snake-killing exploits of mongooses have earned them legendary status in the folklore of multiple cultures. Who would overlook the sheer nerve and derring-do of a creature that takes on poisonous snakes many times its size? Tales of mongooses fighting hideous serpents are found across the length and breadth of South Asia. One example (a cautionary tale about the folly of being hasty in thought and deed) is to be found in the Panchatantra, Hitopadesha and Kathasaritasagara – ‘The Brahmin and the Mongoose’.
The German philologist Theodor Benfey believed this particular fable to be very old, originating from the corpus of tales that made up the Buddhist Jatakas (stories of Gautama Buddha’s previous lives). While one cannot determine the exact point of origin, it is a tale that became immensely popular in the subcontinent. From South Asia it travelled East and West, ending up in Chinese editions of the Vinaya Pitaka (one of the core texts of Buddhism) and Persian, Syriac and Arab folklore (under the name of Kalila wa Dimna). From the Middle East, it pressed on to Europe, taking different forms in different countries. In Europe, exotic mongooses were replaced by more familiar hounds. But the substance of the tales did not change. Two of these versions became particularly famous, and the canids figuring in them became objects of veneration (Guinefort of France and Gellert of Wales). Here’s a comparison:
The Brahman’s Wife and the Mongoose (from India)
On the banks of the Ganges, which also flows by the most holy city of Benares, there is a town named Mithila, where dwelt a very poor Brahman called Vidyadhara. He had no children, and to compensate for this want, he and his wife tenderly nourished in their house a mongoose – a species of weasel. It was their all in all – their younger son, their elder daughter – their younger son, their elder daughter – their elder son, their younger daughter, so fondly did they regard that little creature.
The god Visvesvara and his spouse Visalakshi observed this and had pity for the unhappy pair; so by their divine power they blessed them with a son. This most welcome addition to their family did not alienate the affections of the Brahman and his wife from the mongoose; on the contrary, their attachment increased, for they believed that it was because of their having adopted the pet that a son had been born to them. So the child and the mongoose were brought up together, as twin brothers, in the same cradle.
It happened one day when the Brahman had gone out to beg alms of the pious and charitable, that his wife went into the garden to cull some pot-herbs, leaving the child asleep in his cradle, and by his side the mongoose kept guard. An old serpent, which was living in the well in the garden, crept into the house and under the cradle, and was beginning to climb into it to bite the child when the mongoose fiercely attacked it and tore it into several pieces, thus saving the life of the Brahman’s little son, and the venomous snake, that came to slay, itself lay dead beneath the cradle.
Pleased at having performed such an exploit, the mongoose ran into the garden to show the Brahman’s wife its blood-smeared mouth, but she rashly mistook the deliverer of her child for his destroyer, and with one stroke of the knife in her hand with which she was cutting herbs she killed the faithful creature, and then hastened into the house to see her dead son. But there she found the child in his cradle alive and well, only crying at the absence of his little companion, the mongoose, and under the cradle lay the great serpent cut to pieces. The real state of affairs was now evident, and the Brahman presently returning home, his wife told him of her rash act and then put an end to her life. The Brahman, in his turn, disconsolate at the death of the mongoose and his wife, first slew his child and then killed himself.
Folliculus and His Greyhound (from England)
Folliculus, a knight, was fond of hunting and tournaments. He had an only son, for whom three nurses were provided. Next to this child he loved his falcon and his greyhound. It happened one day that he was called to a tournament, whither his wife and domestics went also, leaving the child in the cradle, the greyhound lying by him, and the falcon on his perch.
A serpent that inhabited a hole near the castle, taking advantage of the profound silence that reigned, crept from his habitation and advanced towards the cradle to devour the child. The falcon, perceiving the danger, fluttered with his wings till he awoke the dog, who instantly attacked the invader, and after a fierce conflict, in which he was sorely wounded, killed him. He then lay down on the ground to lick and heal his wounds.
When the nurses returned they found the cradle overturned, the child thrown out, and the ground covered with blood, as well as the dog, who, they immediately concluded, had killed the child. Terrified at the idea of meeting the anger of the parents, they determined to escape, but in their flight fell in with their mistress, to whom they were compelled to relate the supposed murder of the child by the greyhound.
The knight soon arrived to hear the sad story, and, maddened with fury, rushed forward to the spot. The poor wounded and faithful animal made an effort to rise, and welcome his master with his accustomed fondness; but the enraged knight received him on the point of his sword, and he fell lifeless to the ground.
On examination of the cradle the infant was found alive and unhurt, and the dead serpent lying by him. the knight now perceived what had happened, lamented bitterly over his faithful dog, and blamed himself for having depended too hastily on the words of his wife. Abandoning the profession of arms, he broke his lance in three pieces, and vowed a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he spent the rest of his days in peace.
Beth Gellert (from Wales)
Prince Llewellyn had a favorite greyhound named Gellert that had been given to him by his father-in-law, King John. He was as gentle as a lamb at home but a lion in the chase. One day Llewellyn went to the chase and blew his horn in front of his castle. All his other dogs came to the call but Gellert never answered it. So he blew a louder blast on his horn and called Gellert by name, but still the greyhound did not come. At last Prince Llewellyn could wait no longer and went off to the hunt without Gellert. He had little sport that day because Gellert was not there, the swiftest and boldest of his hounds.
He turned back in a rage to his castle, and as he came to the gate, who should he see but Gellert come bounding out to meet him. But when the hound came near him, the prince was startled to see that his lips and fangs were dripping with blood. Llewellyn started back and the greyhound crouched down at his feet as if surprised or afraid at the way his master greeted him. Now Prince Llewellyn had a little son a year old with whom Gellert used to play, and a terrible thought crossed the prince’s mind that made him rush towards the child’s nursery. And the nearer he came the more blood and disorder he found about the rooms. He rushed into it and found the child’s cradle overturned and daubed with blood.
Prince Llewellyn grew more and more terrified, and sought for his little son everywhere. He could find him nowhere but only signs of some terrible conflict in which much blood had been shed. At last he felt sure the dog had destroyed his child, and shouting to Gellert, “Monster, thou hast devoured my child,” he drew out his sword and plunged it in the greyhound’s side, who fell with a deep yell and still gazing in his master’s eyes.
As Gellert raised his dying yell, a little child’s cry answered it from beneath the cradle, and there Llewellyn found his child unharmed and just awakened from sleep. But just beside him lay the body of a great gaunt wolf all torn to pieces and covered with blood. Too late, Llewellyn learned what had happened while he was away. Gellert had stayed behind to guard the child and had fought and slain the wolf that had tried to destroy Llewellyn’s heir. In vain was all Llewellyn’s grief; he could not bring his faithful dog to life again. So he buried him outside the castle walls within sight of the great mountain of Snowdon, where every passerby might see his grave, and raised over it a great cairn of stones. And to this day the place is called Beth Gellert, or the Grave of Gellert.
Image Attribution: The image above is taken from Wikimedia Commons and depicts a painting – ‘Who Knoweth the Spirit of Man’ by Byam Shaw, dating back to 1901. In it is illustrated the death of the brave hound Gellert, at the hands of his master, Llewellyn the Great (1173-1240), Prince of Gwynedd. The story of Gellert is one of the more famous ones in Welsh folklore. Byam Shaw (1872-1919) was a British illustrator. Born in Madras (present day Chennai), where his father worked in the High Court, he returned with his family to Britain, going on to pursue a career in the arts.
- University of Pittsburgh Folk & Mythology Electronic Texts (compiled by Professor D L Ashliman)
- Myths and Dreams by Edward Clodd
- The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-century Paris by Kathleen Kete
- Animals in Religion: Devotion, Symbol and Ritual by Barbara Allen
- Popular Tales and Fictions: Their Migrations and Transformations by William Alexander Clouston