Totem Talk

Working With The Animal Totems

Feline Folklore

by Terri Windling
"Puss in Boots" by Adrienne Segúr, © 1958
"Puss in Boots"
by Adrienne Segúr, © 1958

A friend of mine once dreamed that she was in the throes of giving birth — not an unusual dream for a woman to have, but in this case instead of a human child, she gave birth to a litter of kittens. "Were you frightened?" I asked. "Not at all," she replied. "In fact, strange as it sounds, it was quite a lovely experience." I thought of my friend when I read Laurie Kutchin's poem "Birthdream," published in The New Yorker: "This time I had given birth to a child with a remarkable tail. Part animal, part girl. . . . I held her briefly in my arms, stroked her tail before we parted, her eyes nursing the dark moons. . . ."

Startling as such dreams may be, they are rooted deep in mythology — for cats (both the wild Felis sylvestris and the domesticated Felis catus) have long been associated with childbirth, fertility, creativity, and magic. In many early cultures cats were animals sacred to the Great Goddess, revered for their beauty, intelligence, and independent ways. By medieval times, when the Goddess and women's magic were seen in a sinister light, cats were believed to be witches' familiars, shape-changers and servants of Satan. Today, cats are still connected with "magic" and creative fertility in the stereotype of the cat-owning writer . . . particularly women writers, and particularly those in the field of mythic arts. (Just take a quick survey of any random dozen women writers and you'll see what I mean.)

Pondering the association between writers and these elegant beasts, Joyce Carol Oates has noted: "We are mesmerized by the beautiful wild creatures who long ago chose to domesticate us, and who condescend to live with us, so wonderfully to their advantage; and, of course, to ours. My theory is that the writer senses a deep and profound kinship with the cat: Felis sylvestris in the well groomed furry cloak of Felis catus. The wildcat is the 'real' cat, the soul of the domestic cat; unknowable to human beings, he yet exists inside our household pets, who have long ago seduced us with their civilized ways. (Yes, and with their beauty, grace, and independence, willfulness — the model of what human beings should be.) The writer, like any artist, is inhabited by an unknowable and unpredictable core of being which, by custom, we designate the 'imagination' or 'the unconscious' (as if naming were equivalent to knowing, let alone controlling), and so in the accessibility of Felis catus we sense the secret, demonic, wholly inaccessible presence of Felis sylvestris. For like calls out to like, across even the abyss of species."

According to an old legend, cats were the only creatures on earth who were not made by God at the time of Creation. When God covered the world with water, and Noah set his ark afloat, the ark became infested with rats eating up the stores of food. Noah prayed for a miracle, and a pair of cats sprang to life from the mouths of the lion and lioness. They set to work, and quickly dispatched all the rats — but for the original two. As their reward, when the boat reached dry land the cats walked at the head of the great procession of Noah's animals. Which is why, the legend concludes, all cats are proud, to this very day.

In the earliest feline images found on cave walls and carved out of stone, wildcats are companions and guardians to the Great Goddess — often flanking a mother goddess figure in the act of giving birth. Such imagery has been found in ancient sites across Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East. In China the lion, Shih, is one of the four principal animal protectors — associated with rain, guardian of the dead and their living descendants. In the New World, evidence of wildcat cults is found across Central and South America, where the jaguar was the familiar of shamans and a powerful totemic animal. Ai apaec of the Mochica people of Peru was a much-revered feline god, pictured in the shape of a wrinkle-faced old man with long fangs and cat whiskers. A hauntingly beautiful wood carving of a kneeling figure with the head of a cat was found just off the Florida coast — remarkably well preserved, the image dates back over three thousand years.

We find the first evidence of the wildcat's small cousin, Felis catus, in ancient Egypt — where the beasts were so sacred that any man who killed one was condemned to death. When a house cat died, the entire family shaved its eyebrows as a sign of grief; and mummified cats (along with tiny mummified mice) have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus reported the fate of a hapless Roman who'd caused the death of a cat. "The populace crowded to the house of the Roman who had committed the 'murder'; and neither the efforts of the magistrates sent by the King to protect him nor the universal fear inspired by the might of Rome could avail to save the man's life, though what he had done was admitted to be accidental. This is not an incident which I report from hearsay, but something I saw myself during my sojourn in Egypt." Mau was the Egyptian word for cat — both an imitation of its speech, and a mother-syllable. Bast, the Cat-mother, was a goddess whose cult began in the delta city of Bubastis and eventually covered all of Egypt with the rise of the XXII Dynasty. Unlike the fierce lion-headed Sekmet from earlier Egyptian myth, Bast embodied the benevolent aspects of cats: fertility, sexuality, love and life-giving heat. Bronzes from the period show the goddess in her feline form (seated and wearing earrings), as well as in human form with the head of a cat, kittens at her feet. The twice-annual Festivals of Bast (as described by Herodotus) were carnivals of music, dancing, wine-drinking, love-making and religious ecstasy — dedicated to Bast in her aspect as Mistress of love and the sensual pleasures.

The medieval idea that the cat has nine lives (or that witches may turn into cats nine times) probably comes from the Ninefold Goddess, an element of Egyptian myth. Folklorist Katharine Briggs believed that the fearful beliefs surrounding cats throughout the Middle Ages indicates they were sacred animals to people of earlier religions, subsequently demonized by the spread of the Christian church. Cats were certainly sacred to Freyja, a goddess of beauty, fertility and independent sexuality venerated across northern Europe, who traveled the world in a chariot drawn by magical cats. In the British Isles, cats alternated with the hare as the underworld's messenger, sacred to the Pictish and Celtic goddesses of the moon. Numerous superstitions surround the cat — many of them contradictory. In certain areas of Europe and America, a black cat was considered unlucky; while in other areas black cats were believed to bring luck, and the white cat was feared. Welsh sailors believed that a ship-cat's cry portended stormy weather; other sailors believed a cat on board (or even to mention the name of a cat) would stir up the wrath of the sea. Cats born in May were melancholy; a cat in the cradle foretold a safe birth. In eastern Europe, a cat jumping over a coffin created vampires. Some people believed sleeping with a cat brought good luck and the Great Mother's protection; others believed that cats sucked the breath of the sleeper, causing illness or death. In China, the company of a cat warded off evil spirits and ghosts; while in France, cats would bring ghosts indoors if they were let in at night. In Indonesia, bathing a cat was one method of bringing on a rain storm; in the American south, kicking a cat would bring rain — or rheumatism. The belief that cats can see ghosts, spirits, or fairies is found all over the world, and can be traced back at least as far as the Egyptians (who also believed cats stored sunlight in their eyes, using it to see at night). In the British Isles, cats were sometimes believed to be fairies in disguise, or in league with the fairies — watching mankind and reporting back to their masters. Fairies and ghosts can see through the eyes of cats in tales told all over the world — and conversely, to look deeply into the eyes of a cat is to see Fairyland.

Numerous legends tell of human beings who transform into the shape of a cat. Although some male wizards, magicians and shamans were gifted with this power, more commonly the shapeshifter was a woman, and a witch. Cats (along with bats, owls and toads) were believed to be witches' companions who carried messages to the Devil, and aided with spell-casting. During the widespread witch trials of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries (a holocaust in which millions of people, primarily women, were tortured and killed) cats were burned, hung by the neck or drowned alongside their mistresses. A witch, it was said, would shape-shift into cat form whenever the moon was full. Good men were advised to lay consecrated salt on their doorstep at this time, lest witches compel them out into the night to join in their revels. Many tales told of a man who shot a black cat in the paw, only to find the local witch with a bandage on her hand the next morning.

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This is really cool! I was wondering if this topic is just for domestic cats or for all cat species wild and domestic. I want to post stories I have found, but I want to know if I should set them up as separate from this discussion or along with this discussion. Thanks!

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