UPDATE! Cat Bombs More Prevalent Than Previously Thought

A deeper global history of the animal-borne incendiary bomb

codex109cat1.jpg

You may remember this disturbing image from a recent post of mine. It appears to show a bird and cat with bombs strapped to them. The archive title reads, "Illustration, cat and bird with rocket packs." It was originally painted around 1420, though the version I drew on was created in 1584.

This image circulated fairly widely on the Internet for obvious reasons. And that led historian Mitch Fraas at Penn to dig into the global history of the cat bomb image. And you know what he found? MORE CAT BOMBS

First, Fraas attempted to figure out exactly how the cat/bird bombs were used. The book from which the original illustration was drawn did not contain any information about how to deploy them, though he did end up finding another example of the imagery. This one's from 1590's "Book of instruction for a cannon master": 

catbomb2.jpg

Then, following up on a tweet from another scholar, he tracked yet another instance of the bird/cat bomb to a text from a century later, penned by Franz Helm some time around 1530. It has "large new sections on siege warfare and different types of explosive weapons." And this illustration:

catbomb3.jpg

Penn has a printed version of the Helm manuscript, which also contains the catbomb illustration! And finally, here, we can read how Helm recommended deploying these weapons:

In the text accompanying the images is a section entitled "To set fire to a castle or city which you can't get at otherwise" [4]. This section details how to use doves and cats loaded with flammable devices to set fire to enemy positions. On cats the text paints a grisly picture of attaching lit sacks of incendiaries onto the animals to have them return to their homes and set fire to them. In my awkward translation:

"Create a small sack like a fire-arrow ... if you would like to get at a town or     castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited."

Man, that's cold. (And, as if it needs to be stated, I love cats and would never do anything to harm them.)

Even more amazingly, Fraas discovered animal bombs reaching even farther into history than medieval Germany. A mid-20th century Finnish scholar named Pentii Aalto found "examples of incendiary-bearing cats and birds from a 3rd c. BCE Sanskrit text, the Russian Primary Chronicle, early Scandinavian sources, and an early modern history of Genghis Khan." 

Fraas quotes the Russian Primary Chronicle's story of Olga of Kiev thusly: 


"Olga requested three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. Upon their receipt, her men attached rags dipped in sulphur to the feet of each bird. When the birds returned to their nests, they lit the city on fire and the Derevlians perished in their homes.Olga's vengeance was now complete."

I think the moral of the catbomb story is that no matter what thread of history you pull on, you eventually find your way back to Olga of Kiev. 

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In