Cats have always been objects of folklore and superstition throughout the ages. Whether it be tales of good or bad luck; stealing a baby's breath or someone's soul; or simply about being a witch's familiar, cat myths abound in practically every land. Here is just a sampling of a few cat folktales from around the globe!
Cat Folklore & Legends From Around the World
Cats & Fertility
While cats have often been connected to fertility (just look how fast they multiply!) they've also been associated with the harvest and growing a good crop. Frevia, the Scandinavian goddess of fertility rode a chariot drawn by cats, and farmers placed offerings outside for her cats so she'd grant them a good harvest. Ai Apaec, the Peruvian fertility god and provider of food, water and military triumphs, was often depicted with an anamorphic face with feline fangs. Scary!
Cats Oversee The World
Li Shou was a Chinese goddess depicted in cat form. Offerings and sacrifices were made to her for pest control and fertility. The importance of cats in the world was demonstrated by this goddess, and the ancient Chinese myth relates that cats, in the beginning of the creation, were appointed by the gods to oversee everything, making certain all was run properly. Cats had even been given the ability of speech! But the felines were more interested in sleeping beneath cherry trees and playing with falling blossoms instead of looking after a boring human world. Three times the gods visited the cats and as many times caught them at play, neglecting their duties. On the third time the gods visited the cats, the cats proclaimed they had no interest in running the world. The gods nominated humans for the position and granted them power of speech, which was taken from the cats. Humans, unfortunately weren't able to understand the words of the gods so cats were entrusted with the task of keeping time and thus maintaining order. To this very day it's believed in China that one could tell the time of day by looking into a cat's eyes. This is also why cats wear their supercilious expressions when they see us rushing frantically about!
Egyptian Cat Worship
The Egyptian goddess, Bastet was sometimes depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a cat but more often Bastet was shown with the beautiful head and body of a black cat. Known as the Goddess of cats, Bastet provided protection, independence and stealth to all worshipping her and bestowed gifts of joy, sexual pleasure, beauty and grace. The evil counterpart of Bastet was Sekmet who represented the cat goddesses destructive force. Cats were so revered in ancient Egypt that if a person killed a cat, even by accident, that person would be put to death!
Celtic Cat Lore & The Bard of Avon
Celtic lore speaks of a grey cat named Grimalkin who had magical powers. Grimalkin had many works of art dedicated to him and even Shakespeare spoke of Grimalkin in Macbeth. The first witch in act one of Macbeth says, "I come, Graymalkin," when her feline familiar calls. Celtic folklore refers to their magical cats as cait sidhe, pronounced "caught shee". This translates into English as "fairy cat." The cait sidhe aren't everyday cats but are witches, fairies or spirit-type creatures taking on the cat form. They're described as being unusually large and fearsome, all black, save a spot of white fur upon their chest.
The Pussy Willow Polish Cat Myth
When a mother cat was sitting on a river bank, crying because her kittens fell into the river and would surely die because she couldn't get to them, the long reeds on the shore felt sorrow for her. The reeds bent over into the water so the kittens could climb upon their leaves and save themselves, thus giving the babies safely back to their mother. Ever since that rescue, the reeds have grown velvety blooms atop their stalks, serving as both reward and reminder of that fateful day. Those blooms would forever be known as Pussy Willows!
Cats in Early Christianity
If a cat was seen sitting on a grave, the early Christians believed the soul of the person in the grave was held in the devil's power. If two cats were fighting near a person dying or on the grave during the funeral, they really were an Angel and Devil fighting for the possession of that person's soul!
The Middle Ages painted a darker picture of cats, associating them with witches -- especially black cats. Cats were supernatural entities who roamed the night and were in league with the devil. If a single young woman owned a cat during those dark times, she was considered to be a witch and the cat was the witch's familiar!
The Story of The Beckoning Cat
The Beckoning Cat or manekineko stood in the doorway of the Gotokuji Temple in Japan. One day the cat raised its paw (a traditional Japanese beckoning gesture) to a feudal lord passing by and the feudal lord followed the cat into the temple. Unexpectedly, a lightning bolt struck where the feudal lord had been standing moments before, and the cat was credited for saving his life. The beckoning cat is still revered in Japan today as it is a symbol of success, personal happiness and harmony; and when given as a gift, it is thought to bring good luck.
Throughout many cultures cats are considered to be mystical creatures whose eyes are windows peering in from other worlds. The Norwegian Forest Cat is said to be fairies or goblins in disguise and if you stare deeply into their eyes you can see visions of those worlds which are spying on us through those beautiful cat eyes!
Bad or Good Luck?
In England the black cat is considered lucky while the white cat is unluckily. Across the pond in America the opposite is observed and the black cat is considered to be a witches cat and bad luck, making it a target for abuse. But if a black cat crosses your path from the left it will bring you ill luck and if it crosses your path from the right it will bring you good fortune.
If you're a cat owner, look deep into your cats eyes. I can guarantee you one sure thing - you may not see fairies or gnomes or witches or a witch's familiar, but you will see your cat's love for you and maybe, just maybe, you'll believe that cats are magical creatures after all!
By Tom Matteo
About the Author
Tom Matteo has been a freelance writer since 1992. He specializes in hardware and software reviews for computers and gaming systems, and occasionally writes about such topics as animal behavior and care. Tom resides in Bethlehem, PA with his wife Tina and his beloved cockapoo, Angel.