The Cat Came Back: A More Than Mythical History – Part I
Cats have been on the human scene for 9,000 years. We came out of the caves, and they were there with us. Ever since, cats have been immortalized in art. They have been painted in fresco, sculpted in stone, carved in wood, cast in silver, and plated in gold and warped in words.
Felines have been mummified, petrified, and in modern times, transmogrified into cells of film, newsprint, and popular literature. Cats have been morphed into stuffed toys and have strutted the world’s stage mewing of their magnificence. Our love of all things feline seems to have grown over the centuries; so much so that we’ve given cats innumerable names— Katt, Kit, Mau, Maow, Pusa, Pascht, Puss, just to name a few.
Cat's Head, 30 BC to third century AD. Bronze, gold. (Brooklyn Museum/Public Domain)
One might ask, why do cats have such grand cultural coverage? After all, we’re talking about a small, unobtrusive animal with four legs and a slender tail. A little pet who got aboard the Ark by being an itch in a lion’s nose…but that’s another story.
Feline Mythology Around the World
Basically, it just doesn’t seem possible that so much mythos could be packed into so modest an animal. Yet such is the large truth of the small, domestic cat. Its mythology has increased its natural size to unnatural proportions. Let’s find out why.
In Egypt, some 5,000 years ago, the cat was a creature of duality. Lion-headed and moon-eyed, it was already a dualistic deity, already an animal whose aspect corresponded to lunar cycles of order and disorder, harmony and imbalance. Here was a graceful animal whose eye was a miniature moon, whose sense of balance was godlike and supreme.
The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat, 1886. (Public Domain)
Iroquois myths from North America tell of Old Woman Moon and her companion, Bobcat. While she weaves a head strap, symbolic of the moon’s shape, Bobcat sits patiently beside her. Then, when she gets up to stir a pot of hominy on the fire, Bobcat pounces on Old Woman Moon’s head strap, and unravels it. So, storytellers say, the cat undoes the moon, forcing it to change from full to famished, once every month. The moon cycle and the human female cycle are closely related in this myth.
The bobcat features in Native American mythology and the folklore of European settlers. (CC BY 2.0)
In Incan cosmology of South America, there is an inner earth called the Moon House. Inside lives a great puma or cougar. Early Andean people viewed this creature as a sun lord who nibbled at the moon, causing it to go from full to crescent. It is interesting that the word puma in Quechua comes originally from Incan culture. The word cougar comes from the English adaptation of the Guarani word guacuara. Some Amerindian tribes believed that the great cat sits at the top of the heavens. Is this the same Leo that we see on a bright winter's night?
The American Indian revered the big cat of the woods by calling it “Soft-Foot Brother.” As such the cat was celebrated in art, beadwork, weaving and song. The tribal huntsman saw in the secretive cat an artful tracker, a clever seeker of prey.
In European culture cats were also important in the early lore of earth-centered, tribal societies. Long before the Spanish Inquisition of the 14th century, cat cults thrived in France, Germany and the British Isles. A thousand years after the death of Cleopatra, women of the Rhine met in secret groves and prayed to cats for fertility, love, and luck.
In Scandinavia and Germany, Freya was the cat goddess from whom we inherited the word Friday. A team of whiskered cats drew Freya's chariot across the heavens. As goddess Freya spread the gospel of love in Italy and France and when twilight finally settled on the gods of old, Freya attended the funeral of Baldur, the cat god of youth. After the rites of deathly passage, Freya carried Baldur into Valhalla.
Freyja and her Cat-Drawn Chariot. (CC BY NC 2.0)
In Scotland cats have always been sacred. Fergus, the first king of Scotland, had Egyptian blood. The legend states that his family carried Egyptian cats to the Scottish Highlands. Fergus’ cat-bearing ancestor, Scota, conferred her name to that country. In addition, Scotland’s motto and crest still contain a cat. The cat, in Scotland, was both animal and warrior. Men went into battle wearing cat masks and the crests of Clan Cattan. Even the wails of the bagpipe, legend says, came from fighting cats.
When the Romans first came to the Netherlands, they found a tribe of "Cat People" living at the mouth of the Rhine. Their town Cat Vicense is on old maps, and in the 1950s was still called Katwyk or Cattown.
Masters of the Weather
In various parts of the world, from Great Britain to the Pacific Rim, in ancient and modern times, cats were believed to control the weather. In the 19th century maritime insurance companies would not insure cargo without a cat-in-residence.
Romanesque relief head of cat at Sigolshein, France. (CC BY 2.0)
In 17th century England, superstitious sailors put a tortoiseshell cat in an iron pot. There the cat was confined until the thunder stopped. The tale of the ship’s cat that saves the day is common. A very old legend indeed. World vocabulary is rife with sea coast cat magic.
For example, remember the catboat? The catamaran that rights itself in a stormy sea is founded on the feline ability to land upright. In Italian, the term gatta marina refers to a boat that rights itself in rough surf. There is also the tackle, or pulleys, used to suspend the anchor to the so-called “cat’s head” of the ship.
Gerald & Loretta Hausman have authored many books about animals in mythology including The Metaphysical Cat.