Cat Mythology, Myths and Legends

Most of us are familiar with some cat mythology, and many cat tales are found all around the world from ancient times to the present day.

Cats always fascinated us.  They are a symbol of grace and poise. Many of the myths and legends surrounding cats have a kernel of truth at their foundation. From the Egyptians came the legend that a cat has nine lives.

The Egyptians worshiped the cat and gifted it with nine lives, most likely for its nimbleness and ability to land on its feet without being harmed.

Egyptian Cat

In Ancient Egypt cats were known as Mau. About 4000 to 5000 years ago cats were domesticated and accepted members of the households of Egypt. Many of the breeds we now know have evolved from these ancient cats.

The Egyptians were the first to keep and use cats to hunt fish and birds as well as to destroy the rodents that infested the grain stocks along the Nile.

Cats were considered so valuable that the Ancient Egyptians protected it by law (which they imposed the death penalty for killing cats - deliberately or not), they were revered as hunters and worshiped as gods.

Cat Mythology Fact #1: While there were many other feline goddesses worshiped by the Ancient Egyptians, Bast, also known as Basted, was the only one represented as a domestic cat. Cats were believed to be a manifestation of the goddess Bast.

Bast had many roles, including the goddess of protection, fertility, the moon, and also the protector of all cats.

Cat Mythology Fact #2: This sacred animal was so important to the Egyptian society and religion, that after the cat's death, its body was mummified and buried in a special cemetery.

Also, the Egyptians had strict laws prohibiting the export of cats. However, because cats were valued in other parts of the world for their rat-catching prowess, Phoenician traders often smuggled them out and sold them to the Mediterranean countries. Domestic cats were also found in India, China, and Japan where they were prized as pets as well as rodent catchers.

Other cultures had different views of cats. Some embraced them, others detested them. Over the subsequent centuries, the domesticated cat proliferated throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. Though no longer worshiped as deities, cats were still honored and appreciated for their mousing abilities no matter where they turned up.

Cat Mythology Fact #3: By the 11th Century, about the time the Crusades began, cats were in huge demand since the rats were beginning to overrun the cities. Domesticated cats could now be found as far as Scotland.

Cat in Celtic Lore

Cats, domestic and wild, were also sacred to the goddess in Celtic mythology, and they were considered a potent totem animal of several clans.

They believed that cats were guardians of the gates to the Otherworld, guardians of their treasures and also bring to the people the wholeness, as a spiritual link between humans and the universe.

Cats are magical creatures, mysterious and sensual. However, black cats in Celtic lore were considered evil, and were sacrificed.

Norse Legend

Cats are sacred to Freya, the goddess of love and beauty, one of the original fertility goddesses of the region. Freya is viewed as the protector of the weak, healer, granter of magic and source of love and peace.

The chariot of Freya is drawn by two large cats.  Other cats were also associated with this kind and loving goddess.

All cats were sacred to Freya, and farmers would leave out precious milk for them, to ensure that she blessed their harvest. When a bride had good weather on her wedding day, people would remark, 'She has fed the cat well', meaning that she had kept the goddess of love on her side. And, if a cat appears at the wedding it was a sign of a very happy marriage. 

Black Cats - Cat Mythology

During the Middle Ages, the Christians, however, hated cats and attempted to kill them off. They associated cats with witchcraft and Satan, much like the feared black cat of Halloween, often seen riding with a witch on her broomstick.

They were trying to establish Christianity as the only religion, and felt compelled to destroy all remnants of other cultures. The Church began what turned out to be a 1000 year killing spree of cats.

When the cat population was depleted, diseased rats took over, and spread the plague. Since many people were sick and dying, the killing of cats stopped, and they were able to hunt the mice causing the plague.

Cat Mythology Fact #4: Shortly after the cats helped obliterate the plague, the Catholic Church placed blame on the cats, and once again persecuted them.

Cat Mythology - Japanese Cats

Maneki Neko is Japanese for "beckoning cat," Maneki Neko are revered throughout Japan for drawing good fortune and awarding of evil spirits. The beckoning cat originated during Japan's Edo period and its function derives from centuries old talismanic practices.

Although Maneki Neko was created during the 19th and 20th centuries, where the Maneki Neko are traditionally represented by a bobtail-type cat seated upright with one paw raised to the side of its head.

Pussy Willows

According to an old Polish legend, a mother cat was crying at the bank of the river in which her kittens were drowning.

The willows at the river's edge longed to help her, so they swept their long graceful branches into the waters to rescue the tiny kittens who had fallen into the river while chasing butterflies.

The kittens gripped on tightly to their branches and were safely brought to shore. Each Springtime since, goes the legend, the willow branches sprout tiny fur-like buds at their tips where the tiny kittens once clung.

The Holy Man and Cat Mythology

In the Islamic community, cats were respected and protected at least in part because cats were loved by the Prophet Mohammed.

According to folklore, Mohammed's cat once fell asleep on the sleeve of his robe, and rather than awake the cat, the Prophet cut off the sleeve of his robe.

It is also believed that the "M" marking on the forehead of the tabby cat was created by the Prophet Mohammed when he rested his hand on the brown of his favorite cat.

Cats and the Weather

During atmospheric changes, cats are said to act strangely and may seem uneasy, even tearing at cushions or carpets, it is said during these episodes that a cat is "raising the wind."

The truth of the matter is that a cat has a superior nervous system and by the condition of its fur, it can sense approaching changes in the weather before humans can.

The electricity in the air causes a cat to rub their ears and lick their fur. When a cat washes herself in her usual manner, there will be fair weather, but if she sits with her tail toward the fire or licks herself above the ears, bad weather is on the way. If a cat licks its tail, there is rain in the forecast. 

Politicians & Cat Myths

Theodore Roosevelt had a few cats over the years, one of which was “Slippers,” a gray cat with six toes. Slippers loved White House diplomatic dinners and always managed to put in an appearance at them. On one occasion an impressive array of ambassador, ministers, and other beribboned and bedecked guests had to be directed around an object smack in the center of the carpet. It was Slippers, quite happily rolling around and enjoying himself.

Winston Churchill loved cats. He was given one on his 88th birthday, which he named Jock after the friend who gave him the feline. Jock lived at Chartwell, Churchill’s famous home, and was a popular attraction there after it was opened to the public. Jock passed away in 1975, well after the prime minister’s death in 1964. The curators at Chartwell quickly replaced him with another cat, which they named Jock. Churchill’s will stipulate that a marmalade cat should be kept at Chartwell forever, and he left a sum of money to cover room and board for each of the original Jock’s successors.

How the Cat got its Purr

In the time before stories were written in books, a princess was given an impossible task. She was ordered to spin 10,000 skeins of linen thread in 30 days, or else the prince she loved would be put to death.

The imprisoned princess had only her three cats for company. In desperation, she asked them to help her. The three cats and the princess worked night and day and finished the chore in the allotted time. The cats’ reward was the ability to purr, a sound somewhat like the whirring of the spinning wheel.

- From a European folk tale

A Lucky Guest

Should you book a table for 13 people at London’s famous Savoy Grill, your party will be joined by an uninvited guest: a 3-foot-high wood sculpture of a regal black cat, called Kasper.

The tradition started in 1898 after an unlucky South African guest named Woolf Joel held a dinner party attended by only 13 people. All his guests knew the superstition about a terrible fate befalling the first person to rise from a dinner table of 13, but Woolf Joel took no notice of such silly beliefs and exited first after dinner, unconcerned about his future. On his return to South Africa shortly afterwards, he was tragically shot dead.

Since then, the Savory hasn’t allowed a dinner party of 13 to sit without providing an extra guest to make the number up to 14. At first this was a member of staff, but in the 1920s Kasper was commissioned by the hotel and created by artist Basil Ionides. He has been the fourteenth member of groups ever since.

More Cat Myths & Tales

-- A New Zealand woman identified only as Fiona has a cat who has dragged 60 items of women’s underwear filched from neighbors into the house. “Obviously, my stuff wasn’t good enough,” Fiona remarked. – An item in Newsweek, May 20, 1996

-- Folklore has attached many meanings to touching the cat. Back in the days when humans grooming cats was unthinkable, it was said: if you rub a cat’s fur backwards, you’ll soon get into a fight.

-- A kinked tail is considered a flaw in a Siamese cat. However, legend tells us this flaw had a purpose, which was to serve royalty. Before princesses in Thailand (formerly Siam) bathed, they took off their jewels and put them on the tail of their cat. The cat curved the tip of its tail to keep those gems from falling off.

-- As late as 1910 people still believed that if you should come upon a cat with its tail towards the fire, you could expect bad luck.

-- If the cat washes behind her ear a stranger will appear. This superstition dates back to the 1700s. By the 1920s, it was believed that washing behind the right ear indicated a man, and washing behind the left ear indicated a woman.

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