La ratapignata

Author: fraise

Tuesday 24 July 2012, in Nice

Siás pinhata, siás pirata,
Ratapinhata, vòla lèu.
Jànluc Sauvaigo, ‘Gigi Pantai’

In French: Tu es pignate, tu es pirate, vole vite ratapignata. To the difference of the original Nissart word order, this rhymes when spoken with a southern French accent, where a final ‘e’ is usually pronounced much like the vowel ‘a’ in the same accent.

In English: You’re a pinnate, you’re a pirate, fly, fly, ratapignata. I preferred to repeat the ‘fly’ since in English it already carries the sense of going quickly; fleeing. You may also have noticed a similarity with the Spanish piñata, and indeed, pignata/pinhata is prounounced the same, however, the Latin roots are different. The Nissart (Niçois language) “pignata” has the same root as our English “pinnate“, which is the Latin pinna, “feather”. Piñata, however, comes from the Latin root pinea, “pinecone”.

If you’ve guessed “feathered rat”, you’re very close (it is the literal translation) – the ratapignata is the “flying rat”, the bat, chauve-souris in French.

The ratapignata of Nice is not well-known outside of the city, and even articles on it in French tend to diminish its importance, due largely to its status as a symbol of imperial resistance. Nice’s history is also unfamiliar to non-Niçois, though I’ve mentioned it before on my blog: Nice was once part of the Duché de Savoie, which was not French. It only became part of France just over 150 years ago, and under rather suspicious circumstances – the ballot was stuffed, with people long dead mysteriously voting to become part of France, and votes against the rattachement oddly being lost. Even before that, however, Nice’s place in Savoy was the result of conquest; the Comté de Nice had been a semi-autonomous member of the Comté de Provence starting in the 12th century, after the fall of Rome.

While most French articles about the ratapignata start with the Carnaval of 1875, the black bat has been a counterweight to the royal eagle for much longer than that. Indeed, as this excellent article in French by Niçois Eric Fontan notes, it symbolizes the power of the people, being the eagle turned upside down. With its wings open wide, to the difference of the more restrained eagle, it is also said to represent the desire of Niçois to take an active part in their city’s affairs.


Fontan’s further remarks on the symbolism are interesting: “On the one hand, there is the red eagle, representing light, day, the sky, the masculine principle, courage faced with the sun, elevated spirituality. On the other hand, there is the black bat, representing resistance, shadows, night, earth, the feminine principle, perspicacity in darkness, and the strengths of the occult. Taking a wider view by comparing these to life principles found in early religions, the eagle represents all that is grand and the bat all that is small; one could also say yang and yin. These two figures are indispensable for harmony in Nice’s society. They complement one another.”

For these reasons, as well as my childhood familiarity with bats in Oregon, I was happy to be able to help this little one out of danger from Susu on my patio this morning. Once the cats and I were inside, la petite ratapignata climbed up onto the wood rafters, where she’s now resting. There are plenty of insects to keep her fed, and she showed she was alert by flicking her ears when I took her photo asleep, so hopefully she’ll be fine.

Ratapignata in safety

An update as it passes 10pm here: Miss Ella the Ratapignata is waking up now and chirping contentedly, quite different from her panicked shouts this morning. Susu didn’t pick her up by the mouth, so hopefully there’s no risk of infection, and the small injury on her wing should heal since the membranes do grow back – the UK Bat Conservation Trust website has been very informative. I’ve also checked with our local environmental organization to ask about bat houses, so that I can put one up for Ella. Bats return to the same roost, so it’s important for her and any others in the future to be protected from my cats. In the meantime I won’t let the cats out while Ella roosts unless I’m able to be there to keep an eye on things. The kitties have plenty to do inside!

One response to “La ratapignata”

  1. Mim Says:

    Thank you for the language info, I really do like word origins. We have lots of bats living near where we have a small association pool. (salt water, nice) The swoop down at night to glean dinner by the pool. It’s so amazing to see how fast they fly. They’re wonderful and keep the insect population in check. yay. I hope Mlle Ella continues to do well under your watchful eyes.

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