The Folklore and Mythology of Cats
God bless all here, except the cat
To truly understand the cat's place in mythology and folklore, we must first accept that the cat was despised. From Europe to the Americas, and even in today's lingering superstition, the cat cannot escape our ire. And yet, to understand why it was despised, we need to also remember that for a very long time, it wasn't.
In ancient cultures
Egypt boasts the longest history with cats. Long ago they tamed their wild felines (Numian cats) and cared for them as holy creatures in their homes. To kill a cat in Egypt was blasphemy, and punishable by death, as they represented the great goddess, Bastet. A protector and demon in equal measure. She was originally a lioness, fierce and powerful - but always a sort of protector. When cats kept down the rat population, it became a pet, almost representative of the house, and so the goddess also changed into a cat.
The cat was also associated with the eye of Ra – who was a goddess in the Egyptian pantheon. The daughter of Ra, she fled her home when she had a horrible falling out with her father. She took the form of a raging lioness, and it took many a god to convince her to return and bring back the sun. The cat in Egypt might also represent the moon, with the eye of Ra being the vibrant furious sun – the lioness, and the eye of mut representative of the calmer, softer moon side – the cat.
Ra also takes the form of a Tom Cat when battling the fierce Apep or Apophis, the underworld serpent who tries to devour Ra and stop the sun from rising each day.
Greece has a lesser love for the feline but shows our earliest association with cats and witches. Hecate, sorcerer and associate of the underworld, could often transform into a cat. This association may have leaked over to the Christians in Rome, as many old beliefs (like guardians with wings) were carried over to the Christian religion. Seeing as the cat was associated with the sorceress, it is quite possible that this carried over to modern day witches.
The witch connection became almost synonymous with cats. During the medieval times, and even earlier, cats became associates of the devil.
This could be due to its original symbolism of lesser gods. As Christianity spread across Europe, older beliefs and gods were demonized by the church, and so anything linked to it became evil by association.
The Danes and their Nordic beliefs had Freya and her chariot pulled by cats, and if you were good to cats, Freya would bestow good fortune on you. However, as this was associated with old heathen beliefs, the cat in turn became evil by association, and so
Both of these images depict Bast. On the left as the goddess of the sun and on the right as a simple house cat.
In folklore and legend
Freya and her chariot of cats became a pagan belief for witches. In Scottish folklore, this is very apparent.
An old legend tells the story of a young boy and his father riding in the forest when they are suddenly beset upon by cats. The father tells his boy to tighten his hold and races for home. But the cats leap upon them and tear out chunks of the boy. By the time they reach home, only the boys arms, still wrapped tight around his torso, is all that’s left of him.
The horrifying story bears a striking resembling to the old German folktale the Erlking, who calls to the boy and tells him to come with him. The father tells him to ignore the call and rides for home as swiftly as he can, but the boy is still taken by the king to his kingdom, most likely to be eaten.
These types of ‘evil-cat’ stories are peppered throughout the Scottish folklore and often associated with witches and other evil creatures.
The cats' reputation was tarnished when it became associated with witches.
Auld Bessie Bittem is an old witch from Scotland and was often followed around by a sleek black cat.
Gormsuil from Lochaber is a fiercely dangerous witch in the Scottish folklore, as she sunk a Spanish fleet in the form of a cat.
Many would refuse to go to market should a black cat cross their path.
In the early eighteen century, a mason from Scrabster reported his house infested with cats. When he killed two and wounded others it was noted that some women in the area, who had been suspected of witchcraft had either been wounded or died shortly after he’d killed the cats. Those still alive were arrested and charged with witchcraft.
A huntsman once saw a cat and tried to shoot it, and although the gunpowder went off, the cat was never struck, Realising the cat was evil, he took out a silver bullet upon which the cat turned into a woman.
Irusan was a demon cat who lived in the highlands, the size of an ox and a cold bitterness towards humans.
Cath Pulag was another giant demon cat from the Welsh. It ate its own kind and terrorized the countryside until it was finally slain by Sir Kai in the Arthurian Legends.
Cath Sith is the devil cat from Ireland, believed to be a witch in disguise it can be a king of cats or a terrible creature of bad luck and darkness.
These stories had the unfortunate effect to breed a sort of contempt and hate for the cat.
The old Scottish folktale resembles the legend of the Erlking, only far more gruesome.
As the stories became more and more monstrous and wicked, people began o despite the poor feline, and so began the burnings.
The burning was a period in medieval Europe when people took great pleasure in gathering a group of cats in a net and setting them alight. It was considered to burn out the bad luck of witches and the evil in the village, and a great source of entertainment.
China and Japan
In China and its surroundings, the cat’s better reputation has been kept intact.
Maneki Neko is a well-known kitty found in the windows of businesses. Although its origin is quite ambiguous, its symbol is universal in Japan for good luck and prosperity. The cat, according to tradition, beckons customers inside with its paw. Many a story surrounds the little figurine, from a Samurai saved by a beckoning cat to brothels changing their phallic symbols to a more acceptable symbol for visiting westerners.
Witch's were sometimes burned alongside their cats, but often, cats were burned as entertainment.
Tashiro-jima is a small island close to Japan where hundreds, if not thousands of cats live. In the 1800’s it used to be a popular island for fisherman. They became quite fond of the cats who followed them for scraps of food. One story tells of how a cat was crushed by a stone, the fishermen, feeling quite sad at the tragedy, buried the cat and built a shrine in its honour. Today there are over 10 shrines on the island.
In China, they believe that cats are the keepers of time. Their eyes determine the time of day, and their purring keep the worlds from stopping.
Should all the cats stop purring at once, the sun would halt and the whole universe would freeze in time.
From as early as ancient antiquity the cat has proven itself to be both a blessing and curse on equal footing, but whether either is true is for every cat owner to decide.