When I was a child I knew that every time I lost a tooth, the little clump of ivory would be carefully wrapped in a piece of tissue and placed in a slipper under my bed. Come morning, I would be the proud owner of the princely sum of one South African rand. The tandemuis had my tooth, and was, presumably, using it to build an extension on his castle. He was a mouse; they have large families. As far as I was concerned this made complete sense as there are millions of mice around the world, and everyone had their own tooth mouse who would come swap baby teeth for cold hard cash.
As I grew older, I noticed that the programmes and books from the UK and USA would only ever talk about the tooth fairy—a creature I have never been fully able to accept.
So where did this initial idea of the tooth mouse come from? In my case, I’m South African, and suffer from a hearty mix of mongrel European traditions; any one of which could have wormed their way into my cultural mish-mash of childhood myths. In an informal poll I conducted, most of the people who responded that they had a tooth mouse during childhood were from Afrikaans backgrounds, which has a strong French Huguenot and Dutch influence. While I don’t remember any specific folk tales around the tooth mouse, I have dim memories of listening to children’s songs played off a crackling record about a mouse who would build a house out of all the children’s teeth.
While in other countries traditionally the tooth was put under the child’s pillow, in South Africa it was more usual for the tooth to be placed in a stokie (a slipper) and left under the bed. Presumably because mice run around on the floor, but cynical adult me suspects because it is easier to remove the tooth without waking the child when one doesn’t have to fiddle about under a pillow looking for a tiny milk tooth. Other families would have tiny little pillows with a pocket for the tooth, or a small wooden box with the mouse carved on top. Some even had a mouse with strong opinions on oral hygiene, which only paid half-price for teeth with cavities in them. And not all the teeth went toward building materials; some parents taught their children that the mouse uses the teeth to build mouse-sized pianos. Children’s book in Afrikaans and English told the story of the tooth mouse, and tooth-related paraphernalia included little mouse dolls and tiny figurines. These days my own children leave the tooth mouse a note along with the tooth, and expect not only money, but a letter in return. My husband painstakingly writes out minute letters detailing the tooth mouse’s adventures before reaching the tooth, and these postage-stamp missives are proudly shown to us in the morning, along with a shiny coin.
I suspect that each family simply took the underlying basic myth and reconstructed it for themselves. Thanks to the inherent “rootlessness” of many of the colonial families in southern Africa, a certain amount of folkloric cross-over is inevitable. Originally a glorified refreshment station held by the Dutch East India Company, South Africa was also later a French colony, and there was a strong influx of British influence with the 1820 English settlers. A colony that passed from hand to hand, it was a mingling of cultures, and each of them brought their regional variations on the tooth mouse and fairy traditions.
For example, in the late Victorian-era in Britain, milk teeth were left out for a mouse or squirrel to take, but that practice was later supplanted by the more familiar fairy. These old protective traditions are often the most interesting – in many cultural concepts of witchcraft, body parts like teeth and nails were considered powerful, and could be used to control or harm the person to whom they belonged. Other times, the baby teeth were swapped out for adult teeth, either by throwing them on the roof or burying them—in a mouse hole, in the case of Russian milk teeth.
While the UK and several other North European countries keep a tooth fairy myth alive and well, it was most likely the French Huguenots who brought the tooth mouse to South Africa.
Both Spanish and French-speaking countries have a tradition of a mouse that collects children’s teeth. In the French tradition the mouse is actually a transformed fairy and she is known as “la petite souris”. A possible origin tale dates from a fairy tale penned by Madame D’Aulnoy in 1697, in which a fairy disguises herself as mouse to steal all the teeth from a wicked king. The story, in the fine tradition of fairy tales, is somewhat gruesome, and the mouse spends some time biting at the evil king’s ears and cheeks and tongue, eventually killing him. The connection between the tradition of a tooth fairy and a tooth mouse makes more sense here, where the concept includes both.
However there is no fairy lore attached to the story of Ratón Pérez, written by Luis Coloma. In this story, the mouse who comes to collect the King’s milk tooth is magical, and transforms the king into a mouse himself in order to show him the world. The tale is something of a modern morality tale and originated in Madrid in 1894, where the little mouse has even been used in toothpaste advertising. Perhaps Ratón Pérez also pays half price for cavity-riddled ivory….
Ratón Pérez is not confined to mainland Spain, and several Spanish-speaking countries such as Venezuela and Peru also follow the tooth mouse tradition, which suggests that the original myth upon which Ratón Pérez is based must have older roots.
The Lowlands Scots apparently also have a white fairy rat who collects teeth, but all the sources for this story lead me down the same mouse hole, and I have not been able to verify this. It is of course possible that the ties between France and Scotland have made this fairy mouse folk tale take hold in some pockets of Scotland. I’ve spoken to several Scottish friends, but not one has any recollection of a tooth mouse, and I can find no further supporting evidence. I’d be interested to hear if any Scottish readers have grown up with the tradition of the tooth mouse rather than the tooth fairy, or if there are any folk tales that suggest it may have once been common.
The strongest sources for the modern tooth mouse seems to come from the French fairy tale of “la petite souris” and the Victorian lore around milk teeth. It is clear that the tooth fairy is not as universal a tooth-gatherer as some people might assume but even so, the prevalence of American culture in media these days means that the tooth mouse tradition battles against the tide of the tooth fairy. My family will continue to pen tiny notes in exchange for tiny teeth left in slippers, and the mouse will live on in her ever-expanding ivory palace.
National Tooth Fairy Day is usually celebrated on February 28th or August 22, but don’t forget False Teeth Day on the 9th of March too!
Recommended Books from #FolkloreThursday
References & Further Reading
Perez the Mouse by Luis Coloma http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29447
The Fairy Tales of Madame D’Aulnoy https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fairy-Tales-Madame-DAulnoy/dp/1410208311
Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions from Around the World https://www.amazon.co.uk/Throw-Your-Tooth-Roof-Traditions/dp/0618152385