UPDATE! Cat Bombs More Prevalent Than Previously Thought


A deeper global history of the animal-borne incendiary bomb


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": 


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:


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. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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