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The Cat in Mythology

Updated on March 28, 2015

From the domestic cat to the lion and the tiger, cats have always prominently in the various mythologies and folklores around the world. Many of these stories can be based around the physical features of the cat or on their behaviour, while others are little harder to find the root. Here is a glimpse of the cat from mythology around the world.

The Ancient World

Ancient Egypt was well known for its love of the domestic cat and there were a number of goddesses who were shown in the form of a cat. The most famous of these was Bastet, also known as Bast. She was at first a goddess of war from the Lower Egypt Nile area and was a protector of the Pharaoh. Her cult centre was at Bubastis and a festival was held each year in her honour.

The Manticore is a creature from the mythology of ancient Persian that was similar to the Egyptian Sphinx – it had the body of a red lion, a human head with three rows of sharp teeth and sometimes wings like those of a bat. It has either the tail of a dragon or a scorpion and venomous spines that it uses to paralyse victims. It devoured its prey entirely, leaving nothing behind.

Europe

Celtic mythology

The Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe was a creature from Celtic mythology that looked like a large black cat and had a single white spot on its breast. It was distrusted because it was thought to steal a person’s soul before it was claimed by the gods by crossing over the body before it was buried. It was said to haunt the Highlands of Scotland and also was sometimes mentioned in the stories from Ireland. Other stories said it wasn’t a Sidhe, or a fairy, but actually a witch who could transform into a cat but only on nine occasions.

France

The matagot is a spirit creature from the south of France that most frequently appeared as a black cat. They were normally thought to be evil but some were helpful to those who fed it well. It could be lured with a fresh, plump chicken and once accepting the food, could be carried home to serve the person. It did this by producing a solid gold coin each morning. But it cannot be kept for life, as it will bring on an agonising death if not released.

Iceland

The Yule Cat or Jolakotturinn is a huge, vicious cat that lived in the snow countryside and appeared at Christmastime to eat people who had not received new clothes to wear on Christmas Eve. The threat of the cat was used by farmers as incentive for their workers to finish processing the wool from autumn before Christmas as the reward for this would be new clothes and the removal of the threat.

Dawon and Durga

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Bakeneko

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Asia

India

In Hindu myths, Dawon was a sacred tiger who served the goddess Durga as a mount and helped her fend off her enemies, though as she had ten arms each with a weapon, the tiger probably didn’t need to do too much. Dawon was adapted from a Tibetan legend and was sometimes shown as a lion.

Japan

In Japan, cats were often seen as yokai, supernatural creatures, for a number of reasons. These included the ability of the shape of their irises to change depending on light, the way their fur often generates static, how they walk without a sound and their essentially untameable nature, unlike dogs. Their physical traits such as speed, sharp claws and teeth and nocturnal habits all added to the mystique of the cat.

The Bakeneko is a cat that has become a yokai, usually later in its life. It was particularly featured in the stories of the Saga Prefecture and was said to be able to shapeshift into a human, even being able to speak when in this form.

Kasha was a cat yokai that stole corpses of those who had died as a result of doing too many evil deeds. People would put rocks in the coffins in the place of the corpse to stop the Kasha from stealing it.

The Nekomata are the most commonly known supernatural cats in Japan and come in two types – those that live in the mountains and those who live with humans, only become yokai in later life. It was also the darkest of the cat yokai, being associated with necromancy and the power to raise the dead, making them perform ritual dances. The worse a cat was treated during life, the more evil Nekomata it became when it got old.

Tibet

The Snow Lion is one of the Four Dignities, a celestial animal of Tibet. It symbolises fearlessness, the earth, the east and also unconditional cheerfulness. It lives in the mountains and is commonly shown as being white with a turquoise mane.

North America

The ball-tailed cat was described as being like a mountain lion but having a long tail with a solid, bulbous mass at the end that the cat used to attack its prey. There were many tales of these cats among woodsmen in the early 20th century with variations including the digmaul and the silvercat, the latter had spikes on its side to further injury victims.

The Cactus Cat is described as being of the size of a Bobcat but covered with hair-like thorns and having long spines that extend from its legs. It also has an armoured tail and uses it to slash cactuses at night to get the juice from the plant.

The Wampus Cat is similar to the cougar and often likened to the Ewah of Cherokee mythology. She was a woman who disguised herself as a cougar to spy on the men of her tribe at the campfire when they were with their wolf brothers, telling stories of hunting trips. When she was discovered, she was transformed by the medicine man into a half-woman, half-cat who still lives in the forests of East Tennessee. She is now the spirit of the earth and of death and when the cry of the Wampus Cat is heard, someone will die.

Possible Wampus Cat footage

Were-jaguar

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Central & South America

Central America

The Olmecs believed in a supernatural entity that we now know as the were-jaguar. It had almond shaped eyes, a downturned mouth and a cleft head in all the images now known and was a common motif around Olmec cities. It is not totally clear what the were-jaguar was believed to symbolise but it is thought to have been a rain god.

South America

The Hombre Gato, or Catman, is a creature that combines with feline and human features and is particularly associated with rural parts of Argentina when population is sparse. It comes out at night to prey on animals and people and some people have reported actual encounters with the creature.

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The Zodiac

The cat is the 4th animal of the Vietnamese zodiac, taking the place of the rabbit in comparison to the Chinese system, and is in conflict with the Rat. The cat isn’t a part of the Chinese zodiac because the rat tricked it into missing the banquet with the Jade Emperor so he didn’t include the cat in the zodiac. It is also thought that when the zodiac first came into use, the domestic cat wasn’t common in China and this is the reason behind its omission.

The Tiger is one of the animals used in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac and is associated with the earth branch. The most recent Tiger year was 2011. The White Tiger is one of the four symbols of the Chinese constellations and is known as Bai Hu in Chinese. It represents the west and the season of autumn.

Leo is the 5th sign of the western zodiac and is represented by the lion, particularly the Nemean Lion from the legend of Hercules.

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    • Brian Langston profile image

      Brian Langston 22 months ago from Languedoc Roussillon

      Great hub Angela..will keep an eye out for the Matagot on my travels! Voted up.

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