Of felt hats, feathers, macaroni, and weasels

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In my work on the Bronze Age mummies of Eastern Central Asia (ECA), one of the attributes that has struck me perhaps more powerfully than any other is their stupendous felt hats.  Here's a photograph of some of them:

For this part of the world, the Bronze Age means roughly the second millennium and first half of the first millennium BC.

When I first started noticing these hats more than two decades ago, but especially since around the year  2005, when many magnificent specimens were unearthed from Small River Cemetery No. 5 in the northeastern corner of the Tarim Basin near Lop Nor and Loulan ( || Uyghur Krorän < Prakrit Kroraina) and from the Northern Cemetery approximately 600 km to the west, I could not help but think of Alpine hats such as those worn in the Tyrol.  Both the Bronze Age hats from ECA and the Tyrolean Alpine hats:

  • are peaked
  • have cords wrapped around them
  • have feathers stuck in the side
  • are made of felt

Now, felt is a product of pastoral and nomadic herding peoples.  The first archeologically attested felt was found in Beyce-Sultan in Anatolia, coming in off the steppes at around 2600 BC.

I also had in mind Norman Rockwell's fantastic "Yankee Doodle" mural from the 1930s in the Nassau Inn, at Princeton.  With the image of Yankee Doodle Dandy clearly in mind, then the song would fill my head:

Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni.

When I was a little boy, I thought that Yankee Doodle was being silly calling the feather in his hat "macaroni".  I know better now and interpret the "it" as referring to the foppish 18th-century English style (apparently inspired by European fashions of the time) that he was affecting.

I don't know if Alpine hats ever have anything analogous to another feature of the ECA Bronze Age hats, one that few people notice, but which intrigues me mightily, viz., a weasel mummy wrapped around the base of the crown.  Somewhat in the vein of "Yankee Doodle", when I contemplated the weasels on the Bronze Age hats from ECA, I couldn't help but think, "Pop! goes the weasel!"  Again, when I was a wee lad and sang our local Ohio version of that mid-19th century nursery rhyme, I was oblivious to all of the scholarship on the meaning of "pop", and just took it to be a sound (onomatopoeia) expressing the quick movement of the little weasel jumping out at the monkey that was chasing it.

Now, faced with the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin ornamenting their fancy hats with weasel pelts, it occasioned much deeper reflection on the symbolism of the weasel.

Back a few years ago when we were having the big Silk Road exhibition at the Penn Museum, I wrote an article for Orientations (see Bibliography below; pdf available on request) about the amazing felt hats worn by many of the Bronze Age Tarim Basin mummies.  Clearly, this sleek, little animal had great symbolic significance for the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin.  In my own mind, I assumed that it had something to do with the great hunting skills and the almost magical slithering, slinking abilities of the weasel.  We all know what it means to call a person a weasel.  We don't exactly admire them, but we are impressed with their great, powerful skills, despite their diminutive size.  If we can capture one of these slinky, slippery, sneaky fellows and put it on our hat as a decoration, that shows we are pretty capable too, and the presence of the weasel on our hat might impart to us some of its awesome potency.

I didn't write much about the meaning of the weasel back then, but I definitely had those thoughts in the back of my mind.  Now we have even more of those spectacular hats, and, as I prepare a lecture for the opening of a major mummy exhibition on the West Coast next week, I want to devote a special section to the weasels on the peaked felt hats.  I feel compelled to dig deeper into the comparative folklore of the least weasel.  Already I have found some fascinating materials, which I here share with you in a preliminary way.  Be sure to read the last quoted paragraph, from the Wikipedia entry for "least weasel".

The Ancient Macedonians believed that to see a least weasel was a good omen. In some districts of Macedon, women who suffered from headaches after having washed their heads in water drawn overnight would assume that a weasel had previously used the water as a mirror, but they would refrain from mentioning the animal's name for fear that it would destroy their clothes. Similarly, a popular superstition in southern Greece had it that the least weasel had previously been a bride, who was transformed into a bitter animal which would destroy the wedding dresses of other brides out of jealousy.[38] According to Pliny the Elder, the least weasel is the only animal capable of killing the basilisk;

To this dreadful monster the effluvium of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.[39]

The Chippewa believed that the least weasel could kill the dreaded wendigo giant by rushing up its anus.[40] In Inuit mythology, the least weasel is credited with both great wisdom and courage, and whenever a mythical Inuit hero wished to accomplish a valorous task, he would generally change himself into a least weasel.[41] According to Matthew Hopkins, a witch hunter general during the English Civil War, least weasels were the familiars of witches.[42]

I'm really curious to know what it is about the weasel that would generate those notions that they would destroy women's clothing, especially their wedding dresses.

Correspondent TKM writes:

There don't seem to be so many weasels around nowadays. Perhaps there were more in pre-dense-urban times, and they may have scratched women or eaten human stores, much like how the later plague of rats did in mid-2nd millennium.

BTW, the Chinese name of the weasel — yòushǔ 鼬鼠 — classifies it as a kind of "rat" (shǔ 鼠, i.e., rodent), but it actually belongs to the mammalian genus Mustela (rodents are also mammals, but belong to a separate order).  Fortunately, the Chinese name for the least weasel (língyòu 伶鼬) omits the designation (shǔ 鼠, i.e., rodent).

Ermine, of course, is one of the most luxurious furs of historical times, and the pure white color of ermine is simply the winter coat of the stoat, or short-tailed weasel, which is distinguished from the least weasel by its larger size.  Perhaps the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin were similarly fascinated by the fine fur of the least weasel.

Fashion is not just for beauty.  It also comes with deep meaning and immense power.  Remember the indomitable "Miss Lin" in this viral video and our intense discussion on Christian Dior's "Quiproquo" cocktail dress?


Mair, Victor H.  “The Rediscovery and Complete Excavation of Ördek’s Necropolis.”  The Journal of Indo-European Studies, 34.3-4 (Fall / Winter, 2006), 273-318.

_____.  “Stylish Hats and Sumptuous Garments from Bronze Age and Iron Age Eastern Central Asia,” Orientations, 41.4 (May, 2010), 69-72.

_____, ed.  Secrets of the Silk Road.  Santa Ana, California:  Bowers Museum, 2010.

_____ and Jane Hickman, ed.  Reconfiguring the Silk Road:  New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (published by the University of Pennsylvania Press), 2014.

Williams, Amelia.  "Ancient Felt Hats of the Eurasian Steppe".  In Victor H. Mair, ed., "The 'Silk Roads' in Time and Space: Migrations, Motifs, and Materials".  Sino-Platonic Papers, 228 (July 2012), 66-93.

[Thanks to E. J. W. Barber, Heather Pringle, Adam Smith, Fangyi Cheng, John Hill, Julie Wei, and Thomas K. Mair]


  1. AntC said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 2:17 am

    Thank you VIctor for another broad-ranging post.

    @TKM There don't seem to be so many weasels around nowadays. Sadly not true in New Zealand, where the Europeans imported them and they have no natural predators. (Same story as with possums, stoats, rats, mice.)

    They eat the eggs and chicks of native birds. They're an absolute blight and pestilence. The NZ Department of Conservation spends a fortune trying to control them so that tourists can experience 'clean, green' rainforest. You're more than welcome to take away as many as you like to adorn hats, coat collars, whatever.

  2. richardelguru said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 8:13 am

    Then there was Alison:
    Fair was this yonge wyf, and therwithal
    As any wezele hir body gent and smal.

  3. R. Fenwick said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    Eurasian euphemistic cryptonyms seem to show that the "southern Greek" superstition is far more culturally widespread:

    Abzhywa Abkhaz a-pʂʣá (= "beautiful (one)")
    Basque andereder (contraction of andere eder "beautiful woman")
    Danish brud (= "bride")
    French belette (diminutive of bel, beau "beautiful")
    German dialectic Schöntierlein (diminutive of schön Tier "pretty beast")
    Hungarian menyét (derivation of meny "daughter-in-law")
    Portuguese doninha (diminutive of dona "lady")
    Romanian nevăstuică (derivation of nevastă "bride")
    Russian ласка (= "caress, endearment")
    Turkish gelincik (diminutive of gelin "bride, daughter-in-law")
    Ubykh anə́ɕʷaʃʷ (diminutive of anə́ɕʷa "beautiful")
    Exactly what this means for prehistory I'm not sure, and I have no idea what broader mythology underlies the weasel more generally. But this semantic pattern spreads into at least five language families (IE, Uralic, Turkic, Basque, and North-West Caucasian), so it seems to have some fair importance. I'm still fishing through other languages of western Eurasia to see where other examples show up.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    I just want to say that it is such an honor and a pleasure to write for Language Log. The first three comments to this post demonstrate once again how I can always count on learning something new and valuable from our vast pool of erudite and generous readers. A hearty xièxiè 谢谢 ("thank you") — and let that stand for the same sentiment in hundreds of other languages — to all of you!

  5. Gene Anderson said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 10:57 am

    Lots of fun. The felt hats would be the ideal warm hat for the climate in winter. As to weasels, they certainly would not eat stores; they are purely carnivorous. They would kill mice but they also kill chickens. Here in urbanized California, the formerly common long-tailed weasel is pretty much gone, a casualty of habitat destruction by cities. Their speed, sinuousness, and terrific hunting ability are always remarked by humans.

  6. Chappers said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    Humans have quite a complicated relationship with weasels; they don't get as negative a publicity as rats (calling someone a "rat" seems to suggest no redeeming features whatsoever). (On the other hand, it's not nearly as weird as the human relationship with pigs.) There's also the verb "to weasel": as Homer Simpson put it,

    Weaselling out of things is important to learn! It's what separates us from the animals… except the weasel.

    But your comments about tearing clothes reminds me of the Japanese legends about the weasel youkai called a kamaitachi:

    They appear riding on dust devils, and they cut people using the nails on both their hands that are like sickles. One would receive a sharp wound from it, but there is no pain.

    One wonders if there is some common folk idea that's fallen out of our culture.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

    From Elizabeth J. W. Barber:

    For the history of "feather in the cap" and "macaroni", see in my book THE DANCING GODDESSES, pp. 258-9. It all actually goes back via Italians and Romans to the ancient Oscans.

  8. languagehat said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 4:26 pm

    I was going to say that Russian ласка was of different origin than the 'caress' word, but on investigating I find that Trubachev does indeed connect them, and given the range of semantically similar forms in the list I guess that makes sense.

  9. Chris C. said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    I have nothing insightful to add, just that the book on the subject of the fabric found with the Tarim Basin mummies by Elizabeth Barber, The Mummies of Ürümchi — including a discussion of the felt — and the linguistic connections she touched on, were part of what sparked my amateur interest in language to begin with.

    My copy was unfortunately "borrowed" many years ago and never returned.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    From Carmen Lee:

    Here's a photo that illustrates the kind of creature weasels are:


    VHM: The accompanying article includes a lot of valuable information describing the nature and behavior of weasels.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:19 am

    Ulf Jäger recommends that we look for words like `Wiesel´, `Hut´, `Tirolerhut´, etc. in:

    Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, 8 vols (?)
    Verlag de Gruyter, Berlin 1927, Reprint de Gruyter Berlin 1987

    He would be happy to do so himself, but at the moment does not have access to a copy of this important work.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:24 am

    From Martin Schwartz, under the heading: FEATHERED WEASELS WEARING HATS, NOT, BUT

    Check Maurizio Bettini, Woman and Weasels (non legi).

    To the Fenwick list add for 'weasel' Mod. Gr. nifítsa (nymph + dim. suff.) 'little bride' = 'weasel', and Arab. ibn al-6irs (6 ='ayn) 'son(!) of the bride' = 'weasel'. Khwarezmian has nk∂yk (-yk pausal form of -k suff.), ~ Skt. nakula- (l > ∂ prob. via Sogd. dialect, cf. Khwar. pyz (consonantal spelling) < Sogd pî∂ < Pers. pîl 'e'ephant'. Vaguely similar words in Uralic, maybe Dravidian too. As for laska, there's Pers. râsû 'weasel', which has a cognate in l- somewhere, maybe Southern Tati. Shall I check? My only contribution to words for 'hat' is Pers. kulâh, Pahl. < kwl'py' < *kula- âfya- 'protecting (= Av. â-fiia-) the head'. The first part I owe to Alexis Manaster Ramer, who'll be interested in swords. Pers. râsû goes back to a stem in -k-, cf. Pahl. < l'swk >.

    I now doubt that I've seen a West Iranian variant with l-, but this should be the cognate of Russ. laska; Iranian r- < l- is of course usual. [VHM: I have had a lot of problems posting this and other notes from Martin with so many special symbols. After much effort, I hope that at least the gist, if not always the complete substance, of his learned remarks comes through.]

  13. R. Fenwick said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 7:06 am

    @Victor Mair: for my part, you're quite welcome!

    FWIW, further exploration has yielded no fruit yet in North-East Caucasian and Kartvelian (indeed, there seems to be no evidence for the presence of an inherited term in Proto-Kartvelian), but Afro-Asiatic yields another positive result: in Egyptian Arabic, عرسة [ʕirsa] "weasel" comes from the same triliteral ʕ-R-S "wedding" that yields عروسة [ʕaruːsa] "bride, bride-to-be" and عريس [ʕariːs] "bridegroom, suitor". Standard Arabic also appears to have ابن عرس "weasel" (literally, "wedding son"). (There's also سمور [sammuːr] in Arabic, which is a borrowing from Hebrew סמור [samur] "polecat", but has nothing to do with weddings. Klein's Hebrew etymological dictionary connects it to the verb סמר [samar] "to stand up, to bristle, to raise one's hackles" with the triliteral S-M-R, also underlying מסמר [masmer] "peg, nail" – an interesting semantic connection with the North-East Caucasian Lak, where ттаркьа "weasel" seems suspiciously similar in its first syllable to ттар "conifer needle(s)".)

    All this has me entirely intrigued. Plus there's a perfect title for an article in it: "Weasel Words." :)

  14. R. Fenwick said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    @Victor Mair: Apologies, your reposting of Martin's material beat me to it.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    From Carmen Lee:

    "Cats, Gods and Weasels in Ancient Greece" (4/13/15)


    Adding ferrets and polecats into the mix. Some of the links here take us into feline territory that complements this recent post:

    "Cat phonetics"


    "Native American Weasel Mythology"


    "Weasels play a variety of roles in Native American folktales from different tribes. In some tribes, such as the Shoshone and Paiute, Weasel is a mischievous trickster spirit. In others, such as the Karuk and Hupa tribes of northern California, Weasel is a noble hero who uses his cleverness and magic powers to defeat monsters and villains."

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    From Jen Wegner:

    Not sure about weasels, but ichneumons were important.

    VHM: Judging from the description, the ichneumon is quite weasel-like in appearance and behavior.

    There is an Egyptian weasel; see the last species named here.

  17. Marika Vicziany said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:08 pm

    Dear Victor – if weasels are noted as ferocious warriors, do we have evidence about the warrior culture of the Tarim mummies? I remember seeing one hunter mummy in full clothing in the basement of the Institute of Archaeology in Urumuqi – but he was not a warrior as such. But then perhaps there was no difference in those days ie hunters could also hunt human enemies? Marika Vicziany, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

  18. Y said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    The there's This beauty with a weasel:

    Leonardo, Lady with an Ermine

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