Aelwaer’s Cat

Aelwaer’s Cat is a fictional cat associated with or ‘owned’ by Saint Aelwaer who was a demonic anti-saint and mother of all vices. She was a ‘Virgin Mary in reverse’. She is portrayed in a Dutch woodcut of 1550. It is reproduced below.

Aelwaer's Cat

Aelwaer’s Cat raised aloft by Saint Aelwaer.

You can see that she is portrayed ridding a donkey. The magpie on her head symbolises immortality. The pig under her arm symbolises gluttony. The cat held aloft in her right hand symbolises the forces of evil. This cat is Aelwaer’s Cat.

The cat is raised high to advertise the fact that it is in league with the devil. This was the period in Europe when cats were brutally persecuted as familiars of witches and creatures of wickedness.

An alternative interpretation is provided by Sarah Hartwell (messybeast.com). She suggests that Dr Desmond Morris’s interpretation is incorrect. Aelwaer is part of a Dutch tradition of joke saints which mock Catholicism and its rituals. In her interpretation, the magpie represents a big mouth who refuses to be wrong. The cat represents a quarrelsome attitude reflecting noisy cat quarrels during cat fights and courtship rituals, the donkey represents intransigence and obstinacy while the squealing pig represents the injustices that St Aelwaer endured.

St. Aelwaer was a joke patron saint of drunkards, men who frequented taverns and arrived home late drunk where they were nagged by their wives. At the time, Sarah says, that there were lots of joke saints such as St Lazybones and St Emptiness.

Sources (1) Dr Desmond Morris’s Cat World A Feline Encyclopedia and British Museum online and (2) Sarah Hartwell of messybeast.com – “in pursuit of truth”..

The print was made by: Cornelis Anthonisz. Theunissen — publisher/printer; printmaker; painter/draughtsman; Dutch; Male; c.1505 – 1553.

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Aelwaer’s Cat — 1 Comment

  1. She wasn’t a demonic entity but was part of the carnival tradition where everything is turned upside down and satirized. The magpie symboblised the fact she is a chatterer and a scold. One of the verses in the ballad goes

    “On Saint All-True’s head sits a chattering magpie which doesn’t shut up. Like this bird is a quarrelsome man who never shuts up but who never has anything good to say.”

    The name “All True” is satirical of course, gossip is rarely true (she’s also called Saint Quarrelsome in English). Similar mock saints were St Luyaert (St Sluggard), St Reijnuut (St Spendthrift) and St Prattler (St Babille) and they represented human follies and foibles.

    Below the woodcut is a sixteenth century verse explaining her attributes. Bolte previously published this text in 1894, with a preliminary introduction. Morris evidently didn’t bother to research it.

    In Dutch a lot can be found at http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_spe011197501_01/_spe011197501_01_0012.php

    Aelwaer rides a donkey, who, according to the verse, “does not mess with and go” which is an expression for stubbornness or obstinacy. The grunt or squeal of the pig is the injustice in which she always lives with others. The crying of the cat also calls her a quarrel – it is not a demonic symbol!! The blaring magpie symbolises someone with a big mouth, who always wants to be right, it’s not a symbol of immortality.

    Morris really wasn’t one for doing his homework, sad to say, as I’ve found quite a few other errors of this sort in his works (and in other places he interprets almost anything as sexual symbolism and isn’t taken very seriously nowadays).

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