The ubiquitous myth of the Tooth Mouse

So some weeks ago I was putting into writing all the mouse/rat related folklore of my country that I knew about. My friend, M, who lives several countries to the west of mine, asked me something very specific about the tolerance of temple mice in India but with my usual flare for getting distracted by my own pontifications I managed to recount almost every rodent related myth, legend and rituals I could think of without ever quite answering the question she asked.

However, this post is about a specific lore. When I was a child my granddad and mom (the two primary sources of almost all the myths and stories that occupied my imagination since I developed one) told me to take my fallen baby tooth and throw it down the mouse hole under the tree behind the house. They assured me that this was the only way I would acquire a replacement tooth and that neglecting this duty would result in night-time visits by the dwellers of that hole who would then nibble away all the teeth I had left in my mouth. Sufficient to say, I was very conscientious about following the exact steps they taught me.

It went like this: You take it to the hole early in the morning, throw it so that it goes exactly inside and not just partway in. Then you fold your hands in prayer and earnestly recite a short Bengali verse that goes:

Idur Mama, Idur Mama/ Amar daat ti niye now/ Tomar daat ti amay dao 

Which in English goes like:

Uncle Mouse, Uncle Mouse/ Take this tooth of mine/ Give me yours in return

The Bengali one rhymes so much better. Anyway, then you leave. Now, while I have no doubt that the two storytellers of my family dissimulated to make the most of my easily scared six year old mind; this is a custom that most kids of my generation are familiar with.

Now what I didn’t know is if this lore of the tooth eating mouse was limited to the Bengalis or if kids in the other states of my country were similarly duped.

Two weeks after sending my email to M, I came across a post on The Regency Redingote, the best blog on Regency era trivia that you’re likely to come across. The title of the post was: The Tooth Mouse — Regency Tooth Fairy.

You can imagine my glee. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

It might be buried in the garden of the house, but more often, it was buried near the church, or in the churchyard, usually near the grave of a grandparent or other deceased family member who could be trusted to protect it from the predations of evil.

In other regions, typically those with homes or other buildings having thatched roofing, the cast milk tooth was thrown up onto the roof by the child who had lost it. This was done because it was known that mice, and sometimes rats, nested in the thatch of the roof. The intent of this action was to offer the tooth to the resident rodents, for a very specific reason. Most people were well aware that mice and rats could gnaw through almost anything, so their teeth were admired for their strength and longevity. When the child threw their lost tooth up onto the roof, they would implore the mouse to ” … take my tooth of bone and give me one of your iron teeth in return.”

Do you see? Do you see?!!

And now I wonder who took the custom from whom. Did our ancestors actually adopt English superstitions during the British occupation of India? Or did the British take up one of ours? Either theory delights me.

Of course maybe they developed independent of each other and only influenced the rhymes that the children of each country prayed with.

In response to my speculations, M sent me a link to this book – Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions from Around the World. It doesn’t answer my questions but it does tell the readers that mice and baby teeth are connected by myths all over the world.

One of the reviewers of the book on amazon, made the following observation:

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Greek custom of throwing the milk tooth onto the roof ( a custom I was interested to learn is also practised in Korea and Taiwan). In fact, in Greece the throwing of the tooth onto the roof is accompanied by the reciting of a little rhyme which can be loosely translated as follows: ‘Take sow my tooth and give me an iron one so that I can chew rusks’. In some regions of Greece, it is a mouse not a sow which is invoked. Therefore I was interested to see how the mouse also features in several parallel traditions throughout the world. For instance, we learn that Spanish children believe that the mouse Ratoncito Perez will substitute the tooth under the pillow for money or sweets(candies) as will his French counterpart La Petite Souris.

Ah, so maybe that rhyme goes further back for us? To our Aryan, early Mediterranean ancestors? It’s just that the words are so similar. Take my tooth and give me your stronger, better ones. It’s hard to imagine that they are products of isolated and independent development.

Wikipedia gives us this:

In some Asian countries, such as IndiaChinaJapanKorea and Vietnam, when a child loses a tooth, it is customary for him or her to throw it onto the roof if it came from the lower jaw, or into the space beneath the floor if it came from the upper jaw. While doing this, the child shouts a request for the tooth to be replaced with the tooth of a mouse. This tradition is based on the fact that the teeth of mice grow for their entire lives, a characteristic of all rodents.

I’ve never heard of the throwing teeth on to the roof myth in my country, so I think they just generalized. Although who knew there was such solidarity in feeding baby teeth to mice all over the world? My eyes are a little misty here.

As a final thought I would like to mention that although Tooth Fairy has usurped the place of the Mouse in many western countries now, it should be noted that she is less than a century old and doesn’t have the illustrious history of superstition that our beloved Tooth Mouse does. All hail!

credit: Liesle van der Hoven

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