Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Instructions" by Neil Gaiman

A poem by beloved fantasy author Neil Gaiman, on what one should do if one ever happens to find themselves in a Fairy-Tale...

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the
wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the under-
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.

Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.
Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.

When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.

Above: Red Riding Hood by artist Jessie Wilcox-Smith (1863-1935).

Sources: Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (2006), by Neil Gaiman. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Teeth (2007)

Dawn O’Keefe was just your regular everyday teenage girl, until the day her boyfriend tried to rape her. It was on that day that Dawn learned that she, unlike other girls, was in possession of an extra little anatomical feature: a fanged vagina.

Teeth (2007) is a dark-comedy/horror movie directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein and staring Jess Weixler as the pictures’ heroin Dawn O’Keefe. Teeth originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 07’ and later hit theaters in New York and L.A. that same month. It eventually reached North Carolina in late April/early May where it played the art houses for roughly two weeks.

Now I fully understand that for most people – most men in particular – Teeth does not sound like a film that anyone would ever want to go see. But trust me, it’s worth it. Not only is Teeth a good movie but it also funny and strangely touching in addition to being downright scary. The picture received largely positive reviews from critics (80% on Rotten Tomatoes) and when I told my friends, both male and female, to go see it all of them really liked it.

Now why did I go see Teeth? Well the reason is simple; as the film itself points out time and time again the motif of “the toothed vagina” is one that can be found in myths, legends, folktales and even religious lore all over the world. The technical term for these mythological femme fatales is the Latin phrase vagina dentata and frankly they are rather fascinating. World mythology is, after all, filled with all kinds of “bad girls.” There’s Eve and Lilith, Delilah and Jezebel, Circe and Medea, Morgan le Fay and Queen Mab, the Baba Yaga and the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s even the Poncan’s Deer Woman whom I just previously wrote about. But none of these girls can even hold a candle to how scary the vagina dentata is.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: variations on the vagina dentata myth can be found all over the world. In India, the vagina dentata are the daughters of the Rakshasas (demons who oppose the gods) while in South America the vagina dentata takes the form of a primeval mother-goddess who embodies the waters of chaos and whose vagina is home to a man-eating fish. Similarly, the Maori of Polynesia tell of Hinenuitepo; the goddess of death and darkness whose vagina is equipped with fangs. Even into the 16th-Century legend circulated the Queen Elizabeth I of England was a vagina dentata and had castrated Thomas Seymour, thus earning her the moniker of the “Virgin Queen.”

The most famous myth to concern the vagina dentata, however, comes from the Apache Indians of North America. According to the Apache, in the beginning no women were equipped with vaginas at all. The first women to actually have vaginas were the four daughters of an evil ogre called Kicking-Monster. Each of Kicking-Monsters four daughters looked like normal human females except for the fact that their vaginas were equip with razor sharp teeth and that after sex they had the preying mantis-like-habit of devouring their male suitors - via their fanged vaginas.

Now, in order to end these vagina dentatas sexual reign of terror the champion of the Apache people, a young brave known as Killer-of-Enemies whose father was none other than the Sun God, set out to stop them. When Killer-of-Enemies arrived at Kicking Monster’s lair he went inside were the four sisters who immediately tried to seduce him. However, Killer-of-Enemies was smarter than the men who had gone before him and first asked the sisters what had become of all the other men who had had sex with them. The sisters, being honest monsters, told the truth: “We ate them up, because we like to do that,” they said. Upon hearing this Killer-of-Enemies, now very much alarmed, cried out saying: “Keep away! That is no way to use the vagina!"

Killer-of-Enemies then set to work making a special sour jam out of four different kinds of berries. When he was done with the jam, he fed it to the four sisters who were then each instantly overcome with an orgasm so powerful that all the teeth in their vaginas feel out and it was in this way that Killer-of-Enemies domesticated the vagina, making it safe for use by men everywhere.

Of course, Killer-of-Enemies’ triumph over the frightful specter of the vagina dentata is typically the way all of the above stories end; the one exception being the Maori myth in which the hero falls victim to the dread goddess. The reason for this, as well as the reason these myths exist in the first place, is undoubtedly to provide a way for the male leaders of a society to justify the ruling patriarchal government, a means of maintaining the status quo. Which is another reason why Teeth is such a fascinating picture. It takes what was original a burden upon women, a means of keeping them down, and uses it to create an empowering and likeable heroin.

Lastly, I feel that it probably necessary to point out that myth of the vagina dentata is not always just a myth. As it turns out there is a rare medical condition known as a dermoid cyst which can cause hard deposits of calcium to grow out of the tissue inside the vagina. You can read about it here and here.

Teeth is now available on DVD from Dimension Extreme.

Sources: The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983), by Barbara G. Walker, Primitive Mythology (1991), by Joseph Campbell, The World of Myth (1992), Goddess: Myths of the Female Devine (2001), and Myth, Legends and Folktales of America (2003), by David Adams Leeming

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Deer Woman (2005)

A few weeks ago I found myself with some free time, a laptop and a Netflix account that was being seriously underused. While browsing through Netflix’s large selections of movies that can be watched on one’s computer, I soon discovered that nearly every episode of Showtimes’ Masters of Horror series was available on-line. I had missed the Masters of Horror series when it had originally debuted back in 2005 and was anxious to watch some of the episodes which had been directed by some of my favorite cinematic storytellers. Among these directors was John Landis who is best know for his films An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Blues Brothers (1980); both of which are favorites of mine. Landis’ entry in the Masters of Horror series was called Deer Woman, a title which immediately caught my interest.

You see the Deer Woman is actually a little known monster from Native American mythology. A legend amongst the Poncan Indians of Nebraska; the Deer Woman is a seductive killer who appears as a beautiful woman with long, black hair and deep, dark eyes. She wears a long, white buckskin dress which conceals her torso, legs, and feet all of which are those of a deer. The Deer Woman will come out of the woods during festivals in order to seduce men who she will then lure away from the group and trample to death with her hoofed feet.

Now in case you’re afraid that I just ruined the whole movie for you by giving away the monster, don’t worry. Much like Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, the director makes no attempt to hide what this film is about and is overt about the whole thing from the get go. All of which is a good thing, because when you really think about it, being up front is really the only way to deal with a premises this ridiculous.

The plot of Deer Woman revolves around Detective Dwight Faraday (Brian Benben) a disgraced homicide detective who spends most of his time behind a desk handling “animal attack” cases. One morning, Faraday is asked to go out to the scene of a possible murder and look over things until another more qualified detective can be sent out.

Faraday is joined by Officer Jacob Reed (Anthony Griffith) and both men drive out to a truck stop where they find the pummeled remains of a trucker who appears to have been trampled by a deer. Faraday is intrigued by the bizarre nature of the murder and begins to question witnesses who say that the victim was last seen with a beautiful Native-American girl. However, no sooner does Faraday begin to get somewhere than does rival Detective Patterson (Alex Zahara) show up and force Faraday off the scene. Faraday then returns to his desk job handling animal attacks, but can’t seem to forget about the strange murder from that morning. Faraday then pays a visit to the coroner who informs him that the victim from the truck stop died in a state of sexual arousal, deepening the mystery.

The next morning, Reed informs Faraday that a second body, identical to the one found yesterday, has turned up. Faraday and Reed head out to the crime scene without authorization where they find a set of mysterious deer-like tracks leading away from the body. The only problem is that the creature that left them appears to have been running on two legs. Patterson then catches Faraday at the crime scene and reports him to the Chief of Police who then confronts Faraday asking him what he thinks he is doing investigating a case he has not been assigned to. Faraday tries to defend himself but only ends up sounding crazy when he starts espousing his “minotaur” theory concerning the murders. After the meeting with his boss, Faraday and Reed head down to a local casino where cops eat for free. While there Faraday and Reed discuss the murders and are overheard by a Native-American pit boss who tells them that what they are talking about sounds like the legendary Deer-Woman. After hearing the legend, Faraday and Reed part ways, Reed thinking the story is ridiculous while Faraday believes it could be true.

On his way out of the casino, Reed picks up a lovely young Native-American girl and after some flirting decides to take her back to his place. Then just as two are about to get it on, Faraday calls Reed telling him that he’s found evidence of the Deer Woman and that she has been slaying men in this area for hundreds of years. Reed tells him he can’t talk because he’s with a lady to which Faraday responds; “Have you seen her legs?”

So, can Faraday save Reed? Can he stop the Deer Woman from killing again? For that matter how do you stop a thousand year old Native-American myth? To find out you’ll have to watch Deer Woman for yourself. However, before leaving I will say this…

Overall, Deer Woman is a great little film. With a running time of roughly 60-mins, the whole thing feels like it could be an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker or The X-Files. Another thing which is great about Deer Woman, or any of Landis’ horrors films for that matter, is the amount of humor he is able to inject into it. There is a great scene early on in Deer Woman where Faraday is laying in bed trying to fathom how the first murder could have taken place, and manages to come up with three separate scenarios all of which are absolutely hilarious. Of course, more than anything Landis deserves a round of applauses for his handling of the legend of the Deer Woman. There has been a popular trend in monster movies for the last several years to try and give the creatures featured within (especially vampires and werewolves) a scientific explanation. Landis forgoes all of that nonsense in favor of a straight-forward mythological approach. When Faraday and Reed ask the pit boss at the casino where the Deer Woman comes from and why she seduces and kills men he responds by saying; “Why does everything have to have a why with you people? You know, it's a woman with deer legs, motive really isn't an issue here,” end of story.

Below: The trailer for Deer Woman.

John Landis’ Deer Woman is available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Source: The Field Guide to North American Monsters (1998), by W. Haden Blackman.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

East Meets West: A Christian Take on Journey to the West

As some of my readers may remember back in June I did a post on Monkey: Journey to the West, the contemporary Chinese opera based on the famous 16th-Century Chinese legend. When I saw Monkey back in June at the Spoleto Arts Festival in South Carolina I was blown away. Having been a big fan of the original Journey to the West myth I have almost always been thrilled by anything – from comics to film – that even made reference to Sun Wukung the Monkey King; the tales’ titular hero. That being said it should come as no surprise to anyone that I was naturally quite excited when a friend of mine showed me a graphic novel he had recently picked up which featured the Monkey King as a prominent character.

The graphic novel in question was Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning, critically acclaimed American Born Chinese (2006) which tells the tale of Jin Wang, a teenager living in San Francisco who is ethnically Chinese but was born and raised in America, just like the book’s author. American Born Chinese is primarily a story about the struggle that every teenager goes through in trying to find out who they are. In Jin’s case, coming to terms with what he sees as a conflict between his ethnicity and nationality. It is also a story about racism and a good portion of the book deals with a character called Chin-Kee; the living embodiment of every negative Asian stereotype one can possibly imagine and the novel’s most controversial character. However, in addition to the exploits of both Jin and Chin-Kee, American Born Chinese also stars the Monkey King as the book’s third protagonist and it was this aspect which originally drew my attention to the novel itself and kept it there.

American Born Chinese
actually opens with a retelling of the Monkey King’s origins – ‘born from a stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit’ – before spinning off into the modern-day tales of Jin and Chin-Kee. Periodically, the book’s narrative would return to the Monkey King’s tale explaining how he was the greatest warrior in all the land and master of numerous mystical martial arts from cloud surfing to shape-shifting. Eventually, the Monkey King grows so powerful that he becomes uncontrollable and begins to run amok terrorizing the other gods, goddesses, demons and spirits of China.

What is supposed to happen at this point in the story is that the goddess Guan-Yin calls upon the help of the Buddha. The Buddha appears and challenges the Monkey King to a bet, saying that he can not jump across the entire breath of heaven. Sun Wukung arrogantly accepts the bet and takes a mighty leap, landing at what he believes to be the far end of heaven where nothing exists except for five mighty pillars. To prove that he has actually been to the edge of heaven the Monkey King takes a leak on the pillars and then leaps back to the feet of the Buddha who then shocks him by revealing that not only did he fail to leap across heaven, he never even left the Buddha’s palm. The five pillars that the Monkey King saw (and soiled) were actually the Buddha’s own fingers.

Now, I say that this is what is supposed to happen because on page 67 of American Born Chinese something rather different begins to happen instead, as can be seen below:

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this sudden abrupt deviation from the original legend. Perhaps I was looking at an alternate version of the tale that I had not heard before but with which the author was more familiar. However, as I stared at the page and the four “emissaries of Tza-Yo-Tzuh” something weird occurred to me. I knew these four creatures from somewhere else, from a different mythological system. The lion, eagle, ox and man (here a woman) were classical symbols of the Judeo-Christian god. They appeared in both the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel (1:10) and the New Testament Book of Revelation (4:7). They were also representative of the four gospels, each one personifying a different aspect of Jesus Christ’s nature: the man his humanity, the eagle his divinity, the lion his regality and the ox his servitude. In fact, to make matters weirder, the same week I was in Charleston to watch Monkey I had toured one of the city’s historical churches and seen these same four creatures carved into the frame of the church’s front door.

Then there was this mysterious Tza-Yo-Tzuh character whose name the page’s footnote told me meant “He Who Is” in Chinese. It was a name that I not only didn’t recognize from the traditional Chinese pantheon of deities, but one which sounded hauntingly similar to the infamous “I Am Who I Am” declaration made by the Jewish god Yahweh in the Bible’s Book of Exodus (3:14).

The next page then introduced me to Tza-Yo-Tzuh who with his flowing red robe, long white beard and shepard’s staff looked like a Chinese version of Moses. I continued to read as Tza-Yo-Tzuh confronted the Monkey King and challenged him to same bet that the Buddha does in the original legend. Like the original the bet plays out the same way; Sun Wukung attempts to leap to the end of the universe, finds the pillars, pees on them and then returns to the feet of Tza-Yo-Tzuh only to discover that he never even left the opposing deities’ hand.

Following this on page 80, Tza-Yo-Tzuh then inform the Monkey King that he is the creator of the universe, of all life, of all things – even Sun Wukung. It was at this point that I knew for certain who this guy was; he was the god of Judeo-Christianity reimagined as a Chinese deity. What confirmed it for me wasn’t simply his declaration of being the maker and shaper of the universe but the fact that he did it by essentially quoting Psalm 139 straight out of the Bible. You can take a look for yourself below:

As I finished the chapter, which ended with Tza-Yo-Tzuh trapping the Monkey King beneath a mountain in the same way the Buddha had in the original myth I decided to flip to the back of the book and take a look at the author’s bio which was printed on the inside flap of the back cover. There I learned that author Gene Yang was not only an independent comic book writer and artist, but also a computer science teacher, a resident of San Francisco, a husband, a father and a Roman Catholic. My suspicions confirmed I immediately returned to reading wanting to see where this decidedly Christian variation on the story of the Monkey King was heading next. In the original myth, the Monkey King is freed from the mountain by the goddess Guan-Yin who enlists him as the bodyguard of the monk Tripitaka who has been sent on a ‘journey to the west’ to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China. In American Born Chinese, however, it is the monk who frees the Monkey King after having been tapped by the four emissaries of Tza-Yo-Tzuh and told he has been chosen for a sacred mission of an undisclosed nature. No surprises this time, the entire thing was laced with Christian ideas and phraseology and it had become apparent that the author had decided to almost completely break away from the original Monkey King myth.

Nevertheless, surprises or not, as I kept reading I began to find myself growing more and more irritated with the author’s rewriting of the Journey to the West. Soon irritation turned into anger and I began to find myself upset that Gene Yang would dare to bastardize what was arguably the most important story in the history of China. Wasn’t this book, American Born Chinese, supposed to be about coming to terms with your ethnicity and embracing your native culture? If so, why was Yang rewriting the legend of the Monkey King turning it into something decidedly non-traditional, non-Buddhist, non-Eastern? By this point I was so angry, I was seriously considering not finishing the book at all. I told my friend who had given me the book about the problems I was having with it and he told me to calm down and finish it, that it would all make sense in the end.

Well, he was right.

I’m not going to tell you exactly how American Born Chinese ends because I think everyone should go out and read it for themselves. I will tell you that, in the end, all three characters – Jin, Chin-Kee, and the Monkey King – do end up meeting in a spectacular closing scene. I’ll also tell you that the author makes no apologies regarding his Christian take on Journey to the West. The story remains unabashedly Christian to the end, going so far as to even change the goal of the heroes’ journey altogether:

However, the book is never preachy and at no point – even when I was upset with it – did I feel like Gene Yang was trying to force his faith on me. You see, what I realized in the end was that American Born Chinese is not just about Jin trying to reconcile his Chinese ethnicity with his American nationality, it also about the author trying to reconcile his own ethnicity and nationality with his religious faith, and the way he manages to do so is devilishly clever.

After reading and re-reading American Born Chinese as well as several interviews with the author – including one where he humbly and cleverly defends his right to write a Christian version of Journey to the West – I have come to really love this book and have already recommended it to several people. It is a book that will challenge you on many levels and hopefully lead you to think about some of the bigger and harder questions in life regarding not only the role of faith and myth, but also about racism, ethnicity and nationality and how all these things effect our lives and our cultures.

Also check out Gene Yang's essay on American Born Chinese and his Monkey King fan-site.

All comic pages posted above are taken from American Born Chinese (2006), by Gene Luen Yang, all rights reserved.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Mr. Sandman

When I was a little kid my mom used to make up lullabies to help me fall asleep. One of these lullabies was a rift on the 1954 song “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes. It wasn’t until I was older that I eventually realized just how creepy the prospect of some guy coming into your room and throwing sand in your eyes to make you go to sleep really is.

A fixture of Western folklore, the sandman’s origins can be traced back to ancient Greco-Rome and the god of sleep; Hypnos. Hypnos was the twin-brother of Thanatos, the god of death, and the husband of Nyx; the goddess of night. Together Hypnos and Nyx gave birth to Morpheus; the god of dreams. As a family Hypnos, Thanatos, Nyx and Morpheus demonstrated the very real relationship held between nighttime, sleep and dreams, as well as the symbolic relationship held between sleep and death. Today these gods are remembered via words drawn from their names; Hypnos being the source of both ‘hypnotic’ and ‘hypnotism,’ Morpheus the root of the drug ‘morphine,’ while Thanatos in Latin becomes Mors the root of such words as ‘morbid.’

With the advent of Christianity in Europe the gods of the old pantheons were forced to take on less threatening forms in order to survive. Thus they became the saints, demons, fairies and nursery bogies of European folklore and legend. One of these nursery bogies was the sandman who put children to sleep by sprinkling sand in their eyes. Scandinavian folklorist Hans Christian Anderson’s (1805-1875) Danish folktale Ole Lukøje (“eye-closer”) is one of the earliest recorded tales to deal with the sandman. In Ole Lukøje, the sandman visits a boy called Hjalmar every night for a whole week and tells him stories. At the end of the tale (Sunday) the sandman reveals himself to, in fact, be the Greek god Morpheus, the brother of Ole-Luk-Oie (Death). Anderson’s tale shows that even in the 19th-Century the memory of the old gods still lingered with the common people, though they had confused Morpheus with his father Hypnos.

In stark contrast to Anderson’s sandman is the sandman of German fantasy author E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822). Hoffman’s tale, known as Der Sandmann (1816), tells of a sinister sandman who comes into children’s rooms at night and throws coarse sand into their eyes causing them to fall out of their sockets. The sandman then scoops these eyes up, places them in a bag and takes them back to his home in the crook of the crescent moon where he feeds them to his bird-like progeny. As terrifying as this tale may be it was actually told to European children by their caretakers in the 18th and 19th-Centuries as a warning as to why they should go to bed when they were told.

Today, the sandman is still an important figure in western folklore and pop-culture appearing in films, books, comics, and songs. Some of these depict the sandman as a benevolent being and other as a freighting demon. A noteworthy example of the later is the 1991 animated short The Sandman, directed and animated by Paul Berry (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and based off Hoffman’s tale. In 1992, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

Sources: Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2004) and Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth (2000) by Carol Rose.

At Top: Bust of Hypnos, the Greco-Roman god of sleep, reconstructed from fragments.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Chinese Zodiac

This post is dedicated to Christa, who always felt sorry for the cat.

Anyone who has ever been interested in astrology or gone out for Chinese food is undoubtedly familiar with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. In the West, the Chinese zodiac is largely seen as merely a superstitious novelty, but in China is taken with utter seriousness. Along with a myriad of other astrological signs and symbols the Chinese zodiac can play apart in deciding everything from a person’s job, where they live, and on what day they should have their funeral. Another thing which many Western may not know is that the twelve animals on the zodiac wheel were not simply picked at random but rather earned their place as guides of mankind.

According to Buddhist legend the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac are the twelve creatures that appeared at the Buddha’s funeral to wish the great teacher farewell. As a reward for their piousness the twelve were made into symbols to help guide mankind in the Buddha’s absence. However, while this tale maybe sweet it is undoubtedly a product of a post-Buddhist China in an attempt to synchronize the ancient zodiac of China with the new religion of Buddhism.

An older and more authentic legend, tells a different and more complex story of how the twelve earned their place amongst the zodiac. In this tale the Yellow Emperor of Heaven devised the zodiac as a compass to guide mankind through life. When it came time for the Yellow Emperor to choose twelve animals to represent the twelve months of the year he decided that the only fair way to pick who should be placed amongst the zodiac was to have a great race. The first twelve creatures to cross the finish line would be the winners.

The main competitors for the prize were the; Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig and Cat. Naturally, most people have never heard of the cat before because (if you look above) he is not on the zodiac wheel. The reason for this is because he was tricked out of his place. The night before the race, cat and rat made a deal that when the one awoke in the morning he would rouse the other so that they could start the race together. Later on that same night, ox awoke and knowing that he was the slowest of the thirteen competitors decided to cheat a little and get a head start. As ox was setting off he woke rat who realized that with his short legs he would never be able to keep up with the bigger animals and decided to jump onto ox’s back and hitch a ride, completely forgetting about cat.

When the sun rose, the other animals saw that ox and rat had already gone and quickly began to rush after them. Cat was particularly angry because rat had broken his promise to him, and it is because of this that cats and rats, to this day, do not get along. As the other animals raced along they soon came to a raging river on the other side of which was the finish line.

Ox, with his great size and strength, had to no problem crossing the river but just as he was about to cross the finish line, rat jumped off his back and in front of him, which is why rat is the first of the twelve zodiac signs and ox is second. Following rat and ox was tiger and then hare and dragon. Hare managed to cross the river by jumping from rock to rock, but at one point slipped and fell in. Dragon could have passed hare, but felt sorry for him and helped him out of the river, which is why dragon is fifth and hare is forth.

Next came snake and horse and once again some trickery was involved. Snake, like rat, had decided to hitch a ride on horse without horse realizing it and when horse was just about to cross the finish line snake slipped off the mare given her such a fright that she stopped dead in her tracks allowing snake to place sixth and giving horse seventh. Sheep, monkey and rooster arrived eighth, ninth and tenth because they had helped each other build a raft to make it across the river. Dog placed eleventh because he had stopped to take a bath and pig was twelfth because he had stopped for dinner. Unfortunately, the poor cat did not make it into the zodiac because he was last, due in part to rat not waking him up and on account that cats are poor swimmers.

Source: Year of the Dragon: Legends & Lore (2000), by Nigel Suckling