The Animal Prop: Animals as Play Objects in Dutch Folkloristic Games1

By Dijkstra, Marjolein Efting | Western Folklore, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Animal Prop: Animals as Play Objects in Dutch Folkloristic Games1


Dijkstra, Marjolein Efting, Western Folklore


In 1871, the Dutch cultural historian Jan ter Gouw published his book The Folk Pastimes, which remains to this day the most cited survey of Dutch celebrations and recreations. Diverse festivities and leisure activities, from Christmas, Saint Nicolas and April Fool's to ice skating, village fairs and parades are discussed in this text. One chapter of his 709 page book is on "animal baiting games," in Ter Gouw's own terminology. Here we can already sense the ethical considerations involved in the study of "animal folklore" in times when public acceptance of the use of animal props is diminishing. Weighing the acquisition of scholarly and societally interesting knowledge regarding human-animal relations against the personal and group interests of cultural practitioners, Ter Gouw tipped the scales in the direction of the latter. He had received information that the controversial game of cat clubbing, in which a cat was put in a barrel and clubs thrown at it, was still played with live cats. While hoping-out of sympathy for animals-that the information was incorrect, he reckoned it to be true and refused to name the specific villages, as he found it inhumane to reveal the cat clubbers (Ter Gouw 1871: 350).

Since Ter Gouw, a scholarly silence has hung in the air above the arena of Dutch animal folklore, broken only by incidental, primarily retrospective remarks in surveys of either sporting history (Van Buuren 2000) or the Dutch history of human-animal relations (Davids 1989). The first discipline in which we could expect a renewed interest in contemporary Dutch animal folklore is folklore studies or "ethnology," as we prefer to call it in the Netherlands. The prolonged lack of ethnological attention to the subject might be due to the fact that Dutch folklorists have for long tended to focus on the more aesthetic and ethically undisputed and thus "safe" sides of folklore (Rooijakkers 2000: 228). Yet, as others have said before me, folklorists should not exclude cultural phenomena that seem unpleasant, unaesthetic or inhuman to some (Dundes 1994: ix; Rooijakkers 2000: 228). On the contrary, those phenomena deserve scholarly attention as they point to attitudinal differences in society. There might, however, be another reason for the long absence of ethnological inquiry into the subject, comparable with Ter Gouw's hesitations. The study of contested folklore and its subsequent publication might affect-in ways that are not fully predictable-specific instances of contested folklore and the people who are involved. It requires more ethical deliberation and reflection than the study of undisputed or less debated folklore. The easiest way out would be to ignore phenomena such as animal folklore all together, while we nowadays do have articulate ethical codes at our disposal that warrant the rights and the dignity of all parties involved.2 It is important to realize that animals have been employed in games all over the world for centuries, while during the last 150 years the use of animal props has come under critical scrutiny in different countries, such as the Netherlands. This critical stance, first taken by animal rights activists and later by increasing portions of the population, has decisively influenced these games through time, resulting, in a number of cases, in the replacement of animals by representations of them. Now that international scholarly interest in human-animal relations is gradually increasing in disciplines like sociology and in the new field of anthrozoology, the time is ripe for an ethnological exploration of Dutch folkloristic games with animal props.

The aim of the present paper is to review-from a historical perspective-contemporary Dutch folkloristic games in which animals are used as props. With "game" I loosely mean a competitive activity that people engage in for diversion or amusement, while the adjective "folkloristic" is meant to designate an emically expressed sense of tradition and regionality. …

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