The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is a favoruite childhood book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter which was inspired by her own pet hedgehog. Mrs. Tiggy-winkle is a hedgehog washerwoman who lives in a tiny cottage in the fells of the Lake District. A child named Lucie happens upon the cottage and stays for tea. The two deliver freshly laundered clothing to the animals and birds in the neighbourhood. Potter thought the book would be best enjoyed by girls, and, like most girls’ books of the period, it is set indoors with a focus on housework.
The hedgehog is a type of mammal that can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Unlike many creatures such as squirrels, dogs, cats, sheep, butterflies, caterpillars and birds, the hedgehog does not feature prominently in samplers of the 17th, 18th of 19th centuries.
Now why is that?
Some cultures have viewed this animal positively, whilst others perceive them in a negative light. In most European countries, hedgehogs are believed to be a hard-working no-nonsense animal – perfect for a motif on a sampler !
In the Irish language the hedgehog is known also as “Gráinneog”, which translates as ‘little ugly thing’. In England during medieval times, it was believed by farmers that hedgehogs were thieves who stole milk from their cows by sucking on them at night. In addition to milk, hedgehogs were thought to steal eggs as well. There is some basis of truth in this accusation, though the eggs that were eaten by hedgehogs were often either cracked or damaged already. Hedgehogs do not have the physical strength to crack eggshells. It was the thought that hedgehogs were witches in disguise and in 1566 the English Parliament placed a three pence bounty on the head of each hedgehog that was caught and killed. The church too offered its own bounties for the slaughter of hedgehogs.
The American holiday Groundhog Day originated in Ancient Rome as Hedgehog Day, but as there are no native hedgehogs in the United States the early settlers chose the groundhog as a substitute. Hedgehogs remain largely unseen in modern-day American culture, on a number of occasions British educational programs have been revoiced to refer to hedgehogs as porcupines, fo example “Bob the Builder”.
In ancient Egyptian society, the hedgehog had a favorable reputation, many amulets shaped as hedgehogs have been discovered and images of hedgehogs feature in the art of some Old Kingdom tombs. In such scenes, the hedgehog is often represented as an offering or appears in hunting scenes. In some tombs there are representations of “hedgehog ships” with images of a hedgehog’s face on their hulls to guard the departed through the difficult afterlife journey.
Journeys of the living were often made by boat. Small hedgehog statues sometimes graced the bows of Egyptian vessels for protection against dangerous water and other calamities. Strangely, the hedgehog statues faced backwards instead of forwards as might be supposed. It’s unknown why this was so.
It is thought that the hedgehog was a symbol of rebirth for the Eygptians, like the scarab beetle. Hedgehogs are known to retreat into their underground dens when food is scarce and reappear when food is available, thus appearing to rise from the dead. The ancient Egyptians also believed that hedgehog amulets could protect them from poisonous snakes.
The hollow body of this hedgehog figure contains tiny pellets that rattle when it was shaken. The rattles were used to ward off harmful forces such as snakes, scorpions, or malevolent spirits. When attacked, a hedgehog rolls into a ball, presenting a mass of pointed spines to the predator. To the Egyptians, this behavior—imitated in this figure—made the hedgehog an ideal protective symbol.
The ancient Egyptians’ admiration for the hedgehog is, however, not shared by other cultures. It seems that in some cultures, the hedgehog is traditionally regarded as a symbol of ill-fortune. In Mongolia, for example, it is traditionally believed that it is bad luck for a hedgehog to enter a person’s home. The reason for this is that hedgehogs usually walk with their heads down, thus concealing their faces. This is taken by the Mongolians to mean that the hedgehog is not an open and honest creature.
The hedgehog’s sly and crafty nature is also seen in a Mongolian folktale known as The Clever Little Hedgehog. This tale involves three friends – a wolf, a fox, and a hedgehog, who compete for the right to eat a plum that fell off from a sack of a passing caravan. In the story, the hedgehog outsmarts his friends twice and wins the plum for himself. Although the hedgehog is perceived negatively, the Mongolians also believed that this creature could be used to ward off “bad things”, and therefore placed their skins over the doorway. Although what these “bad things” are is not specified, it may refer to snakes, as these are preyed upon by hedgehogs.
The early Romanians, considered hedgehogs wise and they have a folk tale about how the hedgehog saved the earth and all the fish>
The story goes that God, in his enthusiasm for creating earth, found he had no room for water. Knowing the hedgehog was the wisest of all creatures, God sent the bee to ask hedgehog what to do regarding this most difficult of dilemmas. Finding hedgehog ambling about, the bee said, “Oh, wise and worthy hedgehog. The earth is in a pathetic state and God is baffled. He made so much earth, there is hardly any water. What will the fish do?” Being a humble creature, the hedgehog refused saying, “Go away! God knows everything and please stop bothering me.” Since the bee was not so stupid either, he recalled hedgehog often talked to himself and sagely waited a few moments in the bushes for wise mumbling. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before hedgehog said, “God needs to pick-up earth’s skirts and create mountains and valleys.” The bee flew back to God and this was how hedgehog saved planet Earth and all the fish.
Having grown up with the Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle I find hedgehogs sweet little creatures who are welcomed in my garden. Do you know of any antique samplers with hedgehogs motifs? If you do we would love to hear from you.
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