‘Perez the Mouse’ and Other Strange Stories about Teeth

Explore the weird and wonderful world of your teeth. Find out about some of the wackiest dental myths, legends, and traditions from all around the world.

Strange stories about teeth

Image by Michael Bentley on Flickr.

Our teeth are one of the most important physical attributes that we have. Yet, we rarely give them much thought unless they need special treatment from the dentist. We use them to break down all manner of tough foods. We cover them in corrosive liquids like coffee, lemonade, and chocolate milkshake. We take them for granted when we need to speak, sing, or shout. All in all, our teeth are pretty amazing things.

It should come as no surprise then to find that teeth have been the subject of myths and legends for many thousands of years. We only need to look to our own well known toothy tale to find an example of this. The ‘tooth fairy’ is very much a cultural phenomenon in America. The story may be a silly one, but it encourages children to take an interest in their teeth at a time when they need a lot of attention to grow big and strong.

There are many different versions of the tooth fairy throughout the world. In fact, almost every culture seems to have one. While not all of these stories involve a fairy, they all speak of a tiny creature who visits at night to collect the baby teeth of children. The creature swaps the tooth for a small reward (usually money). For parents then, the covert switching of baby teeth for coins has become a deeply ingrained tradition.

Understanding Why the Tooth Fairy Visits

There are many different benefits. For one, it allows parents to keep a close eye on the dental health of their children. This is a unique time for infants; their baby teeth are gradually pushed out of their mouths and entirely replaced with a set of permanent adult teeth. The tooth fairy story gives children a reason to inform their parents whenever teeth become loose or fall out. This makes it easy to keep an eye on the development of adult teeth.

It also teaches children that their teeth are special. In western societies, poor diets (lots of sugary drinks and candy) can lead to serious dental problems. To alleviate the impact of sugary foods and acidic drinks and give teeth the chance to grow up strong, children must be taught to care for their mouths. The link between money and teeth is a useful way to explain that they are valuable things and should be appreciated.

And, of course, it represents a celebration of life and overall development. For parents, it marks the end of infanthood and the start of childhood; a time when children really begin to grow fast and become unique personalities. For this reason, teaching little ones about the legend of the tooth fairy can be a bittersweet process. It means that a child is growing up. It is common for parents to keep the teeth as a memento of this time.

Taking a Closer Look at the Legend

The story of the tooth fairy – a creature who secretly swaps teeth for money – can be dated all the way back to the middle ages. And, it wasn’t always the pleasant story that it is now. Like many myths and legends, the tooth fairy is deeply rooted in Norse mythology and superstition. In medieval Europe, the teeth were very closely linked with notions of identity and strength. As such, people went to great pains to make sure that their teeth were not stolen.

It was thought that if a witch stole a tooth, she could use it to put a curse on you. This is why infant teeth were often burned or buried. Interestingly, in Norse and Viking cultures, warriors paid children for their teeth. They hung them on strings around their neck, because they were thought to bring good luck. This is the earliest evidence that we have of children being paid for teeth, so it makes sense to think that the modern tooth fairy legend began here.

Over the years, psychologists and behavioural experts have studied the impact of the legend on child development. The vast majority have found that, as long as children can emotionally handle the inevitable revelation that the tooth fairy is not real, believing in the lie does not cause them any harm. It has been suggested, in recent years, that parents can actually promote good dental health by leaving money and a note thanking children for providing a ‘strong and healthy baby tooth.’

Introducing the Tale of Perez the Mouse

As aforementioned, the tooth fairy legend takes many different forms, all across the world. One of the most famous (and most adorable) is the story of Perez the mouse. In Hispanic countries, a mouse usually replaces a fairy in this tale. And it all began in 1894, with the son of a Spanish king. The king, wanting to commemorate the loss of that first baby tooth, paid a priest to write a story for his son about the event.

The priest returned with the tale of ‘Ratoncito Perez’ (or ‘Perez the mouse’). The story became hugely successful throughout Spain and eventually went on to spawn a centuries old tradition. Once again, the legend does vary from country to country. In Argentina, children do not put their teeth under a pillow as most others do. Instead, they place it in a glass of water. This is because the little mouse is very thirsty when he arrives and needs a big drink.  

In other Hispanic cultures, children are taught that if they give the mouse (sometimes a friendly rat) their baby teeth, their grown up ones will grow just as big and strong as the rodent’s teeth. And if you think that all of these kooky tooth fairy stories are strange, it is time to take a closer look at some other weird and wonderful dental tales. Read on to find out more about our strange fascination with teeth.

  1. The Ancient Dentistry of the Mayans

These days, when you hear the word ‘Mayan,’ you probably think about all of those odd end of the world theories. However, we are now learning that this culture was far more advanced than we ever thought. Not only did the Mayans have a sophisticated understanding of astrology, they were also rather nifty dentists.

Around 2,500 years ago, these people were performing complex dental procedures. It was the fashion, back then, to fit gemstones and precious jewels into the teeth for decoration. We know this because skeletons have been found with these bejewelled teeth still in place. The reason why anthropologists are so impressed is because most of this glitzy dental work has been done without causing damage to the teeth.

This is no mean feat and the Mayans must have had an impressive understanding of teeth to be able to achieve it. They likely used a primitive dental drill to create tiny holes in the teeth. These were then filled with precious stones. It just goes to show that some people will do anything for a killer smile.

  1. Tooth Extractions on the Street

If you are a little squeamish about your teeth as it is, this tale will likely send a shiver down your spine. Before the development of an actual dental science, there were no qualified dentists and no clean, sterile dentist surgeries. Instead, if you had a toothache or needed a tooth pulling, you headed out to a local blacksmith or barber.

This explains why, historically, barber shops were represented by red and white poles. The local barber would be responsible not just for close shaves, but also for tooth extractions and even minor surgery. So, it is absolutely true that the red in the pole symbolised the often gruesome nature of a visit to the ‘salon.’

It was not uncommon for dentistry to be carried out on the street, from a rudimentary cart. Due to the lack of hygiene, knowledge, and skill, these procedures couldn’t always be called a success. They were bloody, painful, and very dangerous. As a result, people during the 1800s tried their best not to visit a dentist unless they were in severe pain or needed urgent attention.

  1. Fake Teeth from a Surprising Source

The ability to grow synthetic teeth from stem cells would completely revolutionise the dental industry. It would, for the first time, allow missing or broken teeth to be replaced with organic material. It would also dramatically accelerate the rate at which replacement teeth can be designed and manufactured. So, unsurprisingly, researchers are keen to make it happen.

Unfortunately, they have had to look to an unappealing place for inspiration – human urine. This is one of the few places which scientists can safely (and ethically) extract stem cells. However, (for obvious reasons), they are restricted to testing their methods on mice. While some progress has been made, the results have been less spectacular than hoped.

There are still all kinds of challenges relating to making the host mouth accept the new teeth. And, the involvement of urine has prevented the research from being taken seriously in some quarters. It is pretty gross, but until there is a more efficient way to collect stem cells, these researchers are making the best of limited options.

  1. Dealing with a Pain in the Tooth

You do not need to have the support of modern dentistry to understand how important it is to look after your teeth. All it takes is a bit of bad toothache. There are few things as uniquely painful and frustrating as a poorly tooth, so there are just as many weird and wonderful cures for toothache as there are teeth in your mouth.

Many of these so called ‘cures’ will make you glad that you are alive now, during a time when teeth are studied and understood. Before the development of modern dentistry, pain relief strategies were often thoroughly weird or pretty disgusting. In some areas, it was believed that toothache was caused by little worms crawling around in the enamel. To remove them, you had to recite a magic mantra and kiss a frog (no really).

In one very old medical text, the author recommends sawing at the painful tooth with a nail. Once it is good and bloody, you should then jam the nail into a wooden beam and leave it there. According to this doctor, the method is absolutely guaranteed to cure a toothache. Are you starting to appreciate your friendly local dentist a little more yet?

  1. A Toothbrush Full of Nasty Stuff

You have probably heard a cautionary tale or two about just how dirty toothbrushes can get. In recent years, it has been suggested that keeping toothbrushes on a sink too close to the toilet will end up covering them in rather nasty germs. There is some truth in this, so it is always useful to shut the toilet lid while flushing.

However, the amount of germs which can make it onto your toothbrush, from the toilet, is very small. The real issue is moisture. The bacteria from your mouth thrive in warm and wet conditions, so if you really want to keep your toothbrush pristine, store it in a bathroom cupboard or medicine cabinet. This should keep the bacteria levels at a safe volume and ensure that you do not catch anything nasty.

Always remember to change your toothbrush once every six months. This is the best way to maintain hygiene and keep your mouth as clean as possible. Never allow your toothbrush to sit in standing water, as it may develop mould and grime will accumulate on the bristles. If you need to take your toothbrush away with you, place it in a small cotton bag.

  1. Time to Celebrate Love Your Teeth Day

In China, the 20th September is now ‘Love Your Teeth Day’. This national event is designed to promote dental health, hygiene, and the importance of regular check-ups. Across the country, dentists offer one off rates and throw special events to teach people how to care for their teeth. This is essential because, like millions of people throughout the world, many Chinese citizens feel very anxious about visiting the dentist.

The best way to alleviate this fear is with information, advice, and support. If a dentist takes the time to properly explain procedures to patients, they are much less likely to be frightened of them. They begin to understand that dental treatments are routine, efficient, and almost always pain free (depending on the procedure).

Love Your Teeth Day has been running in China for decades now and, according to the government, the event has significantly increased general engagement with dentists. As oral health is a big part of overall health, leaving cavities and other problems to deteriorate is simply not practical or sensible. Why not show your teeth the love that they deserve and keep up with regular dentist appointments and check-ups?

  1. The Messy Mountain Dew Mouth

In a very different part of the world, an altogether more serious issue is being addressed. While China is diligently promoting good oral health, the Appalachian regions of America are watching it degrade. As this area of the world is quite geographically isolated, the population has limited options when it comes to beverages.

This is why the vast majority of people drink Mountain Dew, a carbonated soft drink filled with sugar and caffeine. It is cheap, tasty, and provides a boost of energy. In fact, it is so popular in the Appalachian regions that lots of people now drink it in place of water. As a result, there is now a serious dental crisis occurring in the region.

The situation is so widespread that it has been dubbed ‘Mountain Dew Mouth’ and local health authorities are trying to think up ways to deal with it. There are some councillors who believe that banning people from buying Mountain Dew could help, but others point out the drink has become a kind of addiction for most. If direct access to the drink is cut off, people will likely search for other ways to get their hands on it.

  1. The Earliest Dental Accessories

You might have a fancy electric toothbrush sat in your bathroom. Or, you might prefer to keep things simple and opt for a solid head of bristles and a sturdy handle. Either way, you get to take advantage of all the modern tools and accessories designed for oral health. However, these tools are fairly modern inventions. In ancient times, people had to improvise if they wanted to keep their teeth clean.

For example, it is believed that the ancient Egyptians fashioned primitive toothbrushes from twigs and branches. In China, the closest thing to a modern toothbrush was made out of bamboo and boar bristles. According to archaeologists and anthropologists, it is reasonable to assume that these devices worked rather well.

And if you think brushing your teeth with boar bristles is strange, listen to some of the concoctions people put together to form primitive toothpaste varieties. Some of the most popular ingredients included ash, burnt eggshells, crushed animal bones, and all sorts of other weird and unusual choices.

  1. Cleaning in the Right Way

As dentistry evolves and develops, we learn new things about our teeth all the time. For instance, for a long while, it was assumed that brushing right after eating is the best way to tackle plaque and decay. However, we know now that this is when the mouth contains the highest volume of acid. So, in reality, you can actually end up wearing your teeth away faster than if you wait a while to brush.

The general rule of thumb is to wait at least thirty minutes after eating a meal to brush your teeth. Plus, if you rinse your mouth out with water immediately after eating, it will help to eradicate some of this acid build up. This is a quick and easy way to rebalance the PH levels in your mouth, so keep a glass of water close by for after your lunch or dinner. For fans of sugary fruit juices, it is always best to restrict these to mealtimes.  

Finally, if you are not flossing regularly, you really should start. According to the majority of dental experts, we should all be flossing, every day, if we want brushing to have a noticeable impact. With careful flossing, it is possible to capture and remove bits of food which get stuck between the teeth. If you have let your flossing routine slide in recent years, it is time to head out to the pharmacy and pick it back up again.

Learn How to Be Your Own Tooth Hero

There will always come a time when children have to grow up. Fortunately, their teeth grow up right along with them. And, just because the legend of the tooth fairy cannot last forever, it does not mean that an appreciation for their teeth cannot remain. If your little one is approaching the right age for wobbly teeth and coins under the pillow, take some time out to talk to them about the importance of oral health.

It is a lesson that will stay with them long after stories about the tooth fairy or Perez the mouse have become redundant. By teaching your children to brush properly, eat healthily, and take pride in their teeth, it is possible to avoid many nasty toothaches and bothersome trips to the dentist later. It is time for us all to become our very own tooth heroes, so pick up your brush and give your mouth some love. 

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