Cat's Cradle Girds the Globe

What's a game that can tie you up in knots? Cat's cradle! (Well, maybe jump-rope, too.) Weaving string figures between your hands is one of the most widely played games in the world. In Japan, it's "aya-ito-tori" (woof-pattern-string-taking). It is "hei" (net) to native Hawaiian Islanders. And in Indonesia, they call it just what it looks like: "toeka-toeka" (ladder-ladder). Cat's cradle may be one of the oldest of humanity's games.

In the Canadian Arctic, among certain Inuit tribes, string figures are made only by girls. It's believed that the young men may risk entangling their hands in harpoon lines if they become too deft-fingered. The figures made by the "ayahaak" (play string) are images of caribou, bears, and sleds.

In the southwestern United States, the Navajo and Apache tribes make stars, storms, tepees, coyotes, rabbits, and more. In New Guinea, in the South Pacific, you'll find string figures of canoes, fish, crabs, drums, and spears.

Each culture names its own figures, but anthropologists (scientists who study people) have found that some cultures make the same figures, even though the cultures live far away from each other.

For example, the Fishnet is one of the most popular string figures in the world. In some places it's called Jacob's Ladder. In Africa, it's a Calabash Net. (A calabash is a large gourd, and sometimes nets are used to carry them.) But in French-speaking Quebec, it's the Pont de Quebec, the Quebec Bridge. The figure may have traveled from place to place, but it's more likely that different cultures came up with the same designs on their own.

All people at one time or another used string for fishing, hunting, or weaving, says string artist and author Camilla Gryski. Often, storytellers sang special songs while making string figures to illustrate the story told in the song.

"Making string figures was a pastime and an art," Ms. Gryski says. Nowadays, anthropologists collect these string patterns. Sometimes they fasten the completed figures to paper to preserve them.

A master of cat's cradle can shift a simple figure to another, more complicated one. Some people might use teeth and toes as well as hands to make a figure. Sometimes the string must be passed from person to person to create the figure.

One of the most difficult string figures to make is a zigzag pattern from the American Southwest called Navajo Lightning. And Inuit tribes have created some of the most beautiful and complicated figures ever recorded.

Some word experts say that cat's cradle has nothing to do with cats. It comes from the French word "crche," which means hayrack or manger. Look again at the Cat's Cradle string figure. [See Figure 3.] It looks like a cradle. But turn your hands upside down, and it's a manger. In some parts of the world, cat's cradle is associated with the Christmas season and the baby Jesus sleeping in a manger.

STRING figures are named for what they look like: Wood Carrier, Breastbone With Rib Cage, Apache Door, and Howling Monkey, for instance. But the same figure can be different things to different people. What we call the Cup and Saucer [see instructions on these pages] came from New Caledonia in the South Pacific. There, it represents the side view of a canoe with one outrigger. In Japan, it's a house with a flat roof or a sake cup.

Historians say the game probably traveled from Asia to Europe with the tea trade in the 1600s. We know it was played in England as early as 1782. A writer of the time, Charles Lamb, wrote about weaving "cat-cradles" with his friends at school.

All you need to play cat's cradle is about three feet of string or thin cord. Tie the string into a loop with a square knot, and you're ready to play. Slippery nylon string works well, but any yarn or string will do. Thicker string shows off your figures better.

For the most complicated figures, you may need a softer or more rigid string, depending on the design. Older cultures used hibiscus-tree fiber for the string, or even braided human hair. The Inuit used sinew or thin strips of leather.

The simplest string figure is the Cat's Cradle. It is the basis for many of the string figures made by Inuits, native Americans, and Island tribes all over the world. Start with easy figures. When you get comfortable with those, try some harder ones. At first it may be difficult to remember all the steps. But as you practice, it will seem that your fingers "remember" the design by themselves.

How do anthropologists record the way designs are made? Two enterprising scientists came up with a "language of loops." They shared their method with other anthropologists, and now everyone records string figures the same way. Here's how:

Loops are identified by the fingers that the string loops around: right-thumb loop, left-index-finger loop, and so on. Each loop has two parts: a "near" string and a "far" one. The "near" string is the one closest to your body, and the "far" one is the one farther away. Strings that cross your palm are "palmar" strings.

You can play cat's cradle alone or with a partner. In New Zealand, two players choose a string pattern, then sit back to back to make it. Afterward, they compare their figures!



By Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson,

Morrow Jr. Books, 1997



By Camilla Gryski,

William Morrow, 1984


By Jack Botermans,

Facts on File, 1989





By Jack Maguire, Prentice Hall, 1990

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