The Cat in Cultures and Religions Worldwide
The cult of cat worship in Ancient Egypt was the
most powerful of its kind that the world has ever known, and lasted well
over two thousand years. Thanks to the feline's predatory habits, the
Egyptians could raise crops and store grain without fear of being
over-run by rats, the classic Egyptian plague. Acknowledging the
practical role that the earthly cat, which they called mau, played in
their everyday lives, the Ancient Egyptians accorded it god-like status.
Killing a cat became punishable by death, and a man would shave off his
eyebrows as a sign of mourning when his cat died. If a cat died a
violent death in the street, passers-by proved their grief — and
innocence — by crying aloud and shedding copious tears. Cats were also
jealously guarded and their exportation forbidden.
Bast, Bastet or Pasht
In divine form the cat became the goddess Bast.
Representing fertility and femininity, Bast had the body of a woman and,
originally, the head of a lion — perhaps indicating a male element to
her nature. Later, Bast featured the head of a domestic cat and carried
a sistrum or metal rattle.
Around Bast was created the city of Bubastis, an area referred to in the
Bible in Ezekiel XXX: 17, as Pi-beseth. Her priests were the first
people to predict rain when cats passed their paws over their ears —- a
superstition which still holds good today.
In the fifth century ÂÑÅ, the Greek writer and historian Herodotus
enthused about Bubastis. He wrote that the city contained Egypt's most
beautiful temple and. approached by a wide road, had the appearance of
an island, as it was surrounded by broad canals flowing from the Nile. A
central shrine made from blocks of granite and containing the figure of
Bast was set amidst a grove of trees.
He explained that holidays and an annual festival were held in honour of
Bast, when her image was transported down the Nile on an ornate barge
towards her sacred city. Devotees came from far and wide to participate
in the festivi-ties and there was much dancing, singing and drinking
until Bubastis was reached, whereupon sacrifices were made.
Bast, the daughter of the Sun god Ra and of Isis the Great Mother, was
one of the nine gods in the ancient City of Heliopolis, centre of
worship» of the Sun god Ra. Her rule began well before 1780 ÂÑÅ and
lasted until about 392 CE, when, in a context of political and religious
change, all forms of 'paganism' were outlawed.
Bast was seen as a Moon goddess and her colours were purple and silver.
Her demeanour was gentle and she was worshipped for her nurturing and
cherishing attributes, her love and tender care for her children,
evoking much that the domestic cat stands for in modern times.
Considered the alter-ego of her sister Bast,
Sekhmet was the mighty lion-headed goddess. Her name meant
'all-powerful', and on the battlefield she embodied the strength and
bravery of the lion. While Bast represented the warming, beneficial
aspect of fire, Sekhmet, daughter of Ra and wife of Ptah. Creator God of
Memphis, embodied the consuming power of the scorching Sun. Her colours
were scarlet and gold and her followers invoked her for victory in
Sekhmet, goddess of warriors, could be terrible in her wrath. She was
said to represent the cruel aspects of the cat.
Egyptian cat, 332 BC
Cats in Egyptian society
Bast and Sekhmet played an important role in
Egyptian culture, and subsequently cats themselves were accorded a very
special place in the hearts of the people. In 525 ÂÑÅ the Egyptian port
of Pelusia came under siege by Cambyses, the King of Persia. He ordered
his six hundred soldiers to strap live cats to their shields before
storming the walls of the city. Predictably, when the Egyptians saw the
cats they stopped fighting and surrendered, refusing to risk harming the
The Ancient Egyptians' strong religious convictions included a belief in
life after death which also extended to cats. The remains of a deceased
cat were embalmed, wrapped in the finest linen and bedecked with
precious jewels and, in some cases artificial ears, then laid out in
splendidly ornate mummy cases which were placed in cat tombs. To
accompany the cat on its journey to the afterworld, and to provide
nourishment on the way, mice were also embalmed and placed in the tomb.
Thus in their mortal existence cats were treated with the utmost care
and affection, sharing meals at the same table as their human family and
generally accorded every respect. After death they enjoyed lavish
treatment and their wellbeing was superbly provided for on the journey
to the hereafter.
However, the Egyptian Empire gradually disintegrated, beginning around
945 ÂÑÅ and eventually collapsing with the death of Cleopatra and its
annexation by Rome in 30 ÂÑÅ. The glorious Cult of the Cat faltered and
finally died when Christianity triumphed some three or four hundred
years later. The cat no longer enjoyed its former importance as a
religious symbol and quietly became a 'domestic pet'.
Mafdet, the snake-killing cat goddess
Understandably, the old Nile-dwellers were obsessed
with the dangers of snakes, and an earthly protectress would, under
these circumstances, swiftly ascend to divine status. Mafdet is
represented as a snake-killing cat goddess, and was supposedly the
protectress of the Pharaoh in the royal palace.
The ichneumon, a mongoose-like slayer of snakes and destroyer of
crocodile eggs, was valued by these people much as the weasel and ferret
are for hunting rats and rabbits today. As a god, the ichneumon was
called Shet or Shcshet.The Egyptians called it khatru, a word which is
preserved in the Coptic Khatoul and can be found in some Aramaic
dialects. Modern Arabs call it Kutt Far un or Pharaoh's Cat.
From magical rites to religious cult
In the tomb of Khnemuheptep II at Beni Hassan, an
attractive painting of a marshland scene created in the XII Dynasty clearly
shows the difference between the cat, the genet and the ichneumon. A cruciform
tomb at Abydos in Middle Egypt, inhabited since two to three thousand years BCE
and connected with Osiris, god of the underworld, contained seventeen skeletons
of cats. In the offering recess was a row of roughly made little offering pots
which had presumably held libations of milk. This find was undoubted evidence of
a cult, while the discovery of small cat figures, mainly carved from hard stone,
suggested that they were used as amulets for protection against evil.
And so it was in the XII Dynasty that early magical rites eventually merged into
a pagan cult religion. Artefacts discovered around this period included a number
of knife holders and 'snake-destroyers' recalling the cat goddess Mafdet.
The Great Cat of the Persea Tree
A belief of the ancient sect known as the
Gnostics, who combined Christian and occult ideas, holds that the cat
originally sat in the Garden of Eden. With its infinite knowledge of
good and evil, though not specifically representing either, it guarded a
particular tree with its life. This tree may be equated with the Hebraic
Tree of Life, though in Egyptian mythology it was named the Persea Tree.
Cat and serpent
The Egyptian Book of the Dead includes the
Papyrus of Hunefer, which shows a cat holding a knife in one paw and in
the other the head of a python, which it: is in the act of killing. This
is the god Ra or Mau, and the great serpent representing the powers of
darkness is Apep. In another papyrus, Ra the Sun god himself proclaims:
'I am the Great Cat which fought hard by the Persea Tree'
Symbolically and according to legend, cat and snake fight the eternal
battle between the powers of light and darkness — possibly during a
solar eclipse, a significant time in the astrological calendar and an
event guaranteed to strike fear into men's hearts. To the Egyptians, the
fear was that their divine Sun god Ra, upon whom their lives depended,
was at risk, and so the battle was indeed of a critical nature.
Yet while being mortal enemies, cat and snake have much in common. In a
mythological sense, both have been equated with evil; both are guardians
of sacred places; both have a reputation as healers and signify rebirth.
On a physical level, both cat and snake hiss and spit and kill rodents.
In Ancient hgvpt, cat and serpent also worked in harmony in the
execution of the vengeance of Ra. Symbolically, together they represent
the divine whole — good and evil; light and dark; the conscious and the
subconscious; the physical and the spiritual, bach is a necessary
accompaniment to the other, and the secret is always to maintain balance
and integration between the two forces, thereby bringing about a state
In Ancient Egypt, as in certain esoteric beliefs today, both cat and
snake were seen as symbols of eternity. The cat curls up to sleep with
its head tucked into its tail, and the snake is often seen in symbolic
imagery in the form of a circle, swallowing its own tail. The occult
term for this symbol is the uroboros, representing the axiom All is
One', with no beginning and no end.
The cat's place in the home
In the average household in Ancient Egypt the
cat was both an object of worship and an adored pet, frequently adorned
with jewelled necklaces and gold earrings. Evidence that these cats held
positions of high favour is seen in wall paintings which show them
sitting under their master's chair eating fish, killing birds, gnawing
bones or simply meditating (much the same as today!). In one instance, a
red-coated cat is seen tied by a crimson ribbon to a chair leg.
The religion of the Jews is based on the Old
Testament and the 'Talmud, which is a compilation of ancient Jewish law
and tradition and has as its central point a belief in one God. The
Hebrew Kabbalah, meaning 'secret knowledge', was the oral law of the
Jews passed down from father to son by word of mouth. The accepted
belief is that in the beginning God passed down the word to Moses, and
from Moses it went to his brother Aaron and so on down the ages.
The Kabbalah houses a rich treasury of exotic lore and wisdom from which
spring the roots of! almost all arcane truths. Its basic tenets are said
to have given rise to the Tarot, a powerful form of divination devised
by gypsies in their wanderings through eastern Europe and the
Mediterranean region in the early Middle Ages. The word itself is
probably derived from Torah, the sacred writings of the Jews.
Irrevocably bound up with and emerging from the symbolic mysticism of
the Kabbalah is occult lore, 'occult' meaning secret or esoteric. The
Talmud reveals that it credits the cat with clairvoyance, and that this
'sight' may be wrested from the animal by black magic. In pursuit of
'seeing demons', it is said that a person should take from the first
litter of a black cat the birth sac of the first kitten; if he burns the
sac in fire, beats the ashes to a powder and puts a little of it in his
eyes he will at once perceive demons.
In the late nineteenth century occultists including Aleister Crowley,
Paul foster Case and Papus formed the Order of the Golden Dawn. Through
Papus, who was a member of the Kabbalistte Order of the Rose-Gross, the
Order of the Golden Dawn based its beliefs on the Kabbalah. Crowley,
among others, subtly mutated the masculine principle of one God by
metaphorically breathing life into the foetid lungs of the Prince of
Darkness himself. Thus demonism, with its attendant cat-linked rituals,
became linked with the sacred and ancient roots of the Hebrew faith
which, centuries earlier, had given rise to Christianity.
The cat and the Bible
Domestic cats arc not mentioned in the Bible,
which arguably may be due to the Hebrews' hatred of the Egyptians, who
were their rulers and taskmasters. However, a remarkable document named
the Gospel of the Holy Iwelve by the Rev. G. J. Ouseley, who claimed
this to be a translation of an early Christian document 'preserved in a
Buddhist monastery in Thibet, where it was hidden by some of the Essene
community for safety from the hands of corruptcrs', includes the
following account of the birth of Jesus Christ:
And there were in the same cave an ox, a horse and an ass, and a sheep,
and beneath the manger was a cat with her little ones, and there were
doves also, overhead, and each had its mate after its own kind, the male
and the female. Thus it came to pass that he was born in the midst of
animals which, through the redemption of man from ignorance and
selfishness, he came to redeem from their sufferings, by the
manifestation of the sons and daughters of God.
Christ and the cat
From the same Gospel of the Holy Twelve comes a
legend demonstrating Christ's compassion for the cat. Passing through a
small village, he saw a crowd of idle ill-doers tormenting a cat. Jesus
commanded them to desist and reasoned with them, but they refused to
acknowledge his words. He then made a whip of knotted cord and drove
them away, saying: 'This earth, which my Father-Mother made for joy and
gladness, ye have made into the lowest hell with your deeds of violence;
and cruelty . . .' The perpetrators fled before his wrath.
M. Oldfield Harvey in The Cat in Magic reasons that, since Christ spent
part of his childhood in Egypt, he may have had much sympathy with the
cat. He would have been shocked to see his present countrymen
ill-treating the animal he was used to seeing regarded with the greatest
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
A curious conception
In ancient times there was a belief that the cat
was impregnated via its ear. This may well have related to the 'Stable
Cat' theme and the Virgin Mary's 'immaculate conception' of the infant
There arc two versions of this legend, the first being thai Mary
conceived Jesus through her ear, as she 'heard' the words of the Angel
Gabriel telling her that she would be blessed with a boy child. The
second version, familiar through paintings, has a dove, a symbol of the
Holy Spirit, placing its beak into Mary's ear and presumably causing her
Lion of Judah
Seen by many as a Sun god, Jesus Christ was also
referred to as 'the Lion of the tribe of Judah' and the 'Sun of
Righteousness'. However, the two lion-heads seen on the celestial throne
of Mary in later Christian symbolism, and generally assumed to be
associated with the Lion of Judah, represented the eyes of the Sun god
Horns whose orbs depicted the solar luminaries. The left eye
representing the Moon looked to the past, while the right eye
symbolising the Sun looked to the future.
Adam's first wife
Hebrew folklore has it that Adam had a wife
before he knew Eve. Lilith was a wayward woman who refused to submit to
her husband and so was expelled from Paradise. From that time she
continued to haunt the night. In Spain, fews traditionally believe
Lilith to be a vampire whose favourite victims are young babies. It is
said that, in the form of a huge black cat called El Broosha, Lilith
will suck the blood of the new-born.
In Russian-Jewish lore, boys were not allowed to stroke a cat in case
they should lose their memories. Indeed, in a number of cultures cats
are associated with forgetfulness, even though generally they are
thought to have excellent memories. But in Russian-Jewish tradition it
is specifically held that, since cats eat mice, considered to be the
cause of forgetfulness, to touch a cat would bring about loss of memory.
Wisdom of the cat
A Hebrew legend tells of the time God
apportioned the means of living to all animals. When he asked the cat:
'From where do you wish to receive your daily bread; the shopkeeper, the
peasant or the pedlar?' the cat replied: 'Give me my daily bread from an
absent-minded woman who leaves her kitchen door open!'
The cat among the demons
Although often linking the cat with the Devil,
Jewish lore sometimes presents a beneficent side to the feline nature,
as the following story shows.
One day, a midwife saw a cat quietly enter her home. The cat was about
to give birth and the midwife immediately offered her assistance and
helped to deliver the litter. That night a loud knock at the door
revealed a dark stranger, who pleaded with the midwife to go with him as
his wife was about to give birth. 1 he midwife agreed and followed the
stranger far into the hills where they entered a remote cave. To her
surprise, she saw the cat whose kittens she had helped to deliver
earlier that day. The cat implored the midwife not to cat any food which
the man might offer, as this would cause her to turn into a demon.
Looking around the cave, the woman was alarmed to see that it was full
of demons and that the dark stranger appeared to be their leader.
The woman whom the midwife had come to help soon gave birth to a healthy
boy child whereupon the father, being well-pleased, said he would give
her anything she desired. Wishing to be gone from that dreadful place,
the midwife hastily said she would like some garlic. The next morning
she discovered that all the garlic had turned to gold and that she was
now a very rich woman! liven though she never again saw the kindly cat,
the midwife remained eternally grateful for its good advice.
The earliest major civilisation of Ancient Greece was the Minoan
culture, centred on the island of Crete, which flourished around
2000—1450 ÂÑÅ. Following this came the Mycenean civilisation on the
Greek mainland, from approximately 1500 to 1200 ÂÑÅ.
Religion, as the Ancient Greeks knew it, consisted of the worship of a
pantheon of gods. From this worship grew a rich treasury of myth and
legend containing elements that were at once sacred, factual,
supernatural and divine. While cats arc pictured on wall tiles dating
from the first Minoan period (1600 ÂÑÅ), the domestic cat does not
figure largely in the mythology of Ancient Greece, whereas big cats such
as the lion and cheetah do.
In their efforts to control the destructive rodent population Greek
farmers had from early times, used such predatory animals as the weasel,
stone marten and polecat. However, these animals preferred to roam wild
and did not by nature stay close to the granaries — as did the domestic
cat used by the Egyptians for this purpose. The Egyptians, however, were
reluctant to sell their sacred cat to the Greeks, who in turn resorted
to stealing these useful animals.
The Greek historian Diodorus wrote in 100 ÂÑÅ that in Numidia
(approximately where Algiers lies today) 'there is a mountain inhabited
by a Commonwealth of cats'. It is possible that his countrymen
eventually acquired their domestic cats from this source.
The symbol of the Greek goddess Hecate was the black cat, and she was
thought to be an omen of death. Associated with magic and the dead,
Hecate, like Osiris, was a guardian of the gate of death and as such was
seen as the goddess of the underworld. It is said that her worshippers
placed her image at crossroads, guarded by black cats, where they left
offerings of food and gifts on the eve of a full Moon.
The Greeks had great faith in Hecate's powers, believing that she could
bestow both success and good fortune. However, she could also present a
daunting figure, as she often appeared entwined with snakes as the
keeper of the keys to the underworld.
Later in Greek mythology Hecale became known as a Moon goddess, and it
was in this role that she was seen as a deity with three heads, that of
a lion, horse and dog. Hecate was said to practise black magic with her
enchantress daughter Circe, who was also the companion of the Greek Moon
One of the original reasons why cats are thought to be the favourite
companions of witches is said to be an old Greek legend concerning the
giant Typhon, from whom our word 'typhoon' originates. A fearsome
creature with fiery breath, he caused great destruction when, as was his
custom, he roared over land and sea, raising storms which destroyed
everything in their path. The tyrant's ambition was to gain sovereignty
over not only all men, but the gods as well. So nearly did he succeed in
achieving his ambition that, for a time, most of the gods and goddesses
hid themselves from him in the form of animals.
Hecate, whom the gods identified with the powers of darkness,
associating with ghosts and demons, was an expert at magic. Adopting the
shape of a cat, she enchanted Typhon until Zeus could destroy the giant
with a thunderbolt.
In his book of myths, Metamorphoses, the Latin poet Ovid (43 ÂÑÅ-18
ÑÅ) wrote further about the Greek deities and shape-changing:
A cat was enamoured of a handsome youth and begged Aphrodite to change
her into a woman. The goddess, pitying the cat's sad state, transformed
her into a beautiful girl, and when the young man saw her he immediately
fell in love with her and took her home to be his wife. While they were
resting in their bedchamber, Aphrodite, who was curious to know if the
cat's instincts had changed along with her appearance, let a mouse loose
in front of her. The cat at once forgot where she was, leapt up from her
bed and ran after the mouse to eat it. The goddess felt so betrayed that
she restored the cat to her original form saying sadly: 'Nothing can
change one's real nature.
The Greek virgin-goddess of hunting and the chase, Artemis is
generally regarded as being the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and
the Titaness Leto. She was also the sister of Apollo.
Associated with the Moon, in this respect Artemis is linked with the
Egyptian cat goddess Bast and was sometimes referred to as the Madonna
of the Silver Bow. This was an allusion to the new Moon and her shining
arrows, which were the moonbeams lighting up the darkness.
The Ancient Greeks believed that, at the beginning of the world, the Sun
and Moon created all animals. The Sun created the lion but it was the
Moon which brought forth the cat. So it was that Apollo created the lion
as his solar creature and his sister Artemis the Moon goddess, created
the smaller version which was the cat. It was possibly this legend that
led to later associations of evil for Moon goddesses suffered a grim
fate in Christian times and were merged with Hecate, the goddess of
Artemis presides over childbirth and protects the young: again, there is
an association with Bast. There is, however, an angry, destructive side
to Artemis' nature when she is likened to her symbol, the Moon, in that
she can either bathe her subjects in a gentle, beneficent light or
plunge them into terrifying darkness.
Symbolism of the lion
Lions, known to the Greeks from Africa and Asia Minor, occupied an
established place in Greek mythology as creatures of ferocity, strength
and, later, bravery. These attributes provided a link with the similar
endeavours of great leaders and often royalty.
Symbolising their bravery, a marble lion marks the final resting place
of the Theban Sacred Band, who fell in battle against Philip of Macedon
and his son Alexander the Great at Chaeronea in 338 BCE.
The lion was also associated with water, fertility and the realms of the
dead. It has been suggested that lionskin-wearing priests who performed
agricultural rites were practising a lion cult which worshipped lions
standing guard over springs and fountains.
The myth of Heracles
The first of the hero Heracles' great labours was to kill the Nemean
lion sent by Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods, to terrorise the
ancient citv of Argos. Heracles, finding his weapons failed to pierce
the creature's tough hide, wrestled with it and finally squeezed it to
death. After skinning the lion with its own great claws, Heracles
thereafter wore its pelt as a symbol of his prowess.
To commemorate his epic victory Heracles built a memorial at Thebes, in
front of the temple to Artemis the dominion over all wild beasts
including the lion and the leopard.
The leopard was sacred to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Dionysus,
known to the Romans as Bacchus and renowned for the Bacchanalian feasts
devoted to him in March and September, was believed to have worn a
leopard's skin during his sojourn in Asia. In a pebble mosaic from the
Macedonian capital of Pella, the god was shown riding on the back of a
The Roman Empire
Objects such as an Etruscan vase depicting a cat
with a bird, show that the cat had reached northern Italy by 500 ÂÑÅ,
but the Romans were slow to embrace it into their symbolism and
mythology. At this time they still used ferrets and weasels for pest
control. But contact with other cultures gradually led to the
introduction of the cat and its mythology into Roman life.
Sicily, the large island at the toe of the Italian peninsula, was once a
Greek colony favoured by writers and philosophers. Iòîò these notables
the Romans were introduced to a more fascinating and esoteric mythology
than that surrounding their own gods and goddesses, for the Romans,
whose deities generally personified natural forces rather than being
seen in terms of the human form, Greek myth was an enlightening
The Roman historian Diodorus Siculus recalled a 'diplomatic incident'
which occurred during a visit to Egypt in the early days of that
country's uneasy alliance with Rome. He told of a Roman soldier who had
'accidentally' killed a cat and, despite the determined intervention of
Egyptian officials, had been murdered by the crowd.
By the fourth century CE, however, word of the cat's usefulness as a
rodent deterrent had spread throughout the Roman Empire, and writings of
the day advise that cats 'be kept in gardens as a protection against
rats and mice'. As a result of the Roman army's military exploits and
subsequent occupation of much of Europe and parts of North Africa and
the Middle East, Roman homes began to play host to the domestic cat.
So, despite the cat's somewhat diffident entry into Roman culture, an
adapted, lesser version of the ancient cult of Isis the Great Mother
ultimately made its wav to Rome.
As Egyptian gods and goddesses were adopted,
adapted and given new symbolism by the Greeks and Romans, so Bast became
the Greek Artemis who in turn became Diana, the Roman feline huntress of
the night. As goddess of the Moon, Diana was also the symbol of darkness
and forests; and, although she was a virginal deity, she represented
fertility and was the protectress of women in childbirth.
Diana was worshipped at her temple in Ephesus in Asia Minor and at a
sacred grove in Aricia, said to be the original centre of her cult. But
wherever the ancient rites of the Moon goddess were celebrated, its
fervour reached epic proportions when her devotees gathered four times a
year to glorify the mysteries of her sacred self These occasions, the
principal focus of her followers' existence, were known as Sabbats or
Sabbaths. Much later, Diana was aligned with Hecate as a leader of
Diana, in her role as Moon goddess, was by now intimately linked with
the cat and also with the number nine. These two symbols in the Dianic
cult are implied in a line from the seventeenth-century English writer
Francis Quarlcs' Litany, which characterises witches as: 'Two-legged
cats with thrice nine lives. 1 he association with the number nine came
about because Diana was an addition to the original eight deities in the
Roman pantheon. Nine, a trinity of trinities or the sum of three
trilogies, is a mystical number and can frequently be seen in various
mythologies. It followed that Diana, long associated with the cat
should endow the animal with its proverbial nine lives.
A symbol of liberty
By 200 ÂÑÅ, in the Roman world the cat was seen to represent liberty.
A temple to the goddess of liberty built by Tiberius Gracchus between
168 and 33 ÂÑÅ features a carving showing the goddess holding a sceptre
and a cup with the cat, as a symbol of liberty, under her feet.
Given the cat's natural urge to wander freely, owing allegiance to no
man and expecting none in return, the Romans' choice when selecting a
symbol for liberty was most appropriate.
Ceres and Venus
The Romans aligned Egyptian Bast/Greek Artemis with their own
huntress of the night, Diana, but do not appear to have selected for
themselves a version of Sekhmet/Hecate. Instead they deemed the Greek
Demeter, virgin mother, goddess of fertility, spirit of the corn from
whom, like Isis, all things sprang, to be the source of their own
fertility totem. The Roman counterpart, daughter of Saturn and goddess
of grain, agriculture and the harvest, was called Ceres.
Cat, everlasting symbol of femininity, fertility and promiscuity, was
the perfect representation of Venus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek
Aphrodite, goddess of physical love, luxury and beauty. In classical
paintings of Venus, the cat, generally black, is often seen at the feet
of, or near, the goddess of love.
The source of all things
In Roman culture it was said that in the beginning there was only
Diana. She was the spirit of darkness and the potential source of all
things. She divided herself into male and female and her male aspect she
named Lucifer, meaning light-bearer. It is said that she looked upon
Lucifer and desired him.
But, despite Diana's amorous attentions, Lucifer remained blind to her
charms. One day, Diana saw a fairy cat resting upon Lucifer's bed and
persuaded it to change shapes with her. From the ensuing consummation
with Lucifer was born a daughter, Aradia, who in the name of her mother
Diana taught magic and wisdom to all mankind.
Celtic and Christian Europe
The Celts were a prehistoric people whose numerous tribes occupied
much of Europe between 2000 and 100 ÂÑÅ. They lived in small settlements
and their social structure was divided into a warrior nobility and a
(arming class. Their priests or druids were recruited from the nobility.
Since the Celts mainly relied on the spoken rather than the written word
to perpetuate their religious beliefs, a clear definition of their
pantheon has been difficult to ascertain. Celtic myth and legend was
passed down by the invading Romans who spent a gruelling ten years
conquering the Celtic tribes in Gaul, an area now covered by France and
parts of Belgium, Germany', Switzerland and the Netherlands. Julius
Caesar characterised the Celts as 'primitive — and superstitious . . .'
Legend has it that the European cat came directly from an Egyptian army
commander who survived the mass drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red
Sea after Moses parted the waters, then closed them and led the Children
of Israel to freedom. The Egyptian escaped to Spain with his wife, the
Pharaoh's daughter, and her cats.
However, it is generally accepted that it was the Romans who introduced
the domestic cat to Celtic Britain. Paw marks and cat bones found on the
excavated sites of Roman villas in Britain offer supporting evidence.
The larger wild cat, already indigenous to Britain, was much hunted, but
the comparatively rare domestic cat was, as ever, highly prized for its
pest-controlling skills in the granaries.
According to laws laid down by the Welsh King Hywel Dda around 948
CE, it was said that: 'The price of a cat is four pence. Her qualities
arc to sec, to hear, to kill mice, to have her claws whole and to nurse
and not devour her kittens. If she be deficient in any of these
qualities, one third of her price must be returned.'
Another section of this edict stated that a kitten cost a penny before
its eyes were opened but that after it had caught a mouse it was worth
two pence. Anyone stealing or killing an adult cat from the king's
granary would be fined a sheep or a lamb, or as much wheat as would
cover the dead animal when held up by its tail with the nose touching
Crocks of gold guarded by cats and other supernatural entities are
legion in Ireland and may be linked with treasure reputedly buried at
crossroads as an offering to Hecate, goddess of the underworld, and the
belief that cats were assigned to guard that treasure. Another Celtic
myth tells that the cat, Hecate's companion, became her consort and
subsequently a King of Cats'. This title did the cat no favours when
later, with the arrival of Christianity, little time was lost in
identifying the cat with the Devil.
Cat-Kings in Ireland were considered to be faerie beings, and rituals of
the Cat-King cult took place in burial mounds and caves. Traditionally,
caves were thought to be entrances to the underworld, and burial mounds
antechambers to that forbidding place. The burial mounds were said to
have been built by the Danaans, 'the people of the goddess Dana', whose
power is believed to have been broken when the ancestors of the modern
Irish arrived around 1000 BCE. The Danaans were thought to have become
reduced in size and then, with their goddesses, retired underground to
inhabit the mounds as 'faerie folk'.
In Irish legend the folk hero Finn mac Cumhail was held captive by
Cormac mac Art, the King of Erin, who promised to free his prisoner only
if a male and female of every species of animal were brought to him in
the ancient city of Tara. The list included a pair of cats from the cave
In France the cat had a dark and often satanic image, reflecting the
English attitude to cats during the witchcraft purges of the Middle
Ages. Cats were used in rituals by the heretical Albigenses, Waldensians
and Cathars, the last of whom, wrote Pope Gregory, 'kiss Lucifer in the
form of a black cat', such cats being 'the colour of evil and shame'.
And according to Guillaume d'Auvergne, Bishop of Pans, in 1233: 'Lucifer
is permitted [by God] to appear to his worshippers and adorers in the
form of a black cat or toad and to demand kisses from them; whether as a
cat, abominably under the tail, or as a toad, horribly on the mouth.'
In the manner of many people who dislike and mistrust that which they
cannot understand, at the start of the fourteenth century Philip IV of
France jealously accused those mercenaries of the Christian Church, the
Knights Templar, of dabbling in 'pagan practices' during their lengthy
sojourn in North Africa and other Mediterranean regions. Through their
dealings with wealthy potentates and the subsequent seizure of their
treasures, the Knights had accrued considerable power and fortune which
threatened that of the king — hence Philip's appeal to Rome to discredit
them. The Knights Templar were certainly responsible for the spread of
Middle Eastern mysticism into Europe, and it is believed that the Tarot
divination system was one of these pagan practices'.
In medieval France cats were ritually sacrificed to ensure a successful
harvest, following which their flesh was also eaten. In earlier times,
rites performed at the ancient pagan festivals had involved the
sacrifice of humans too, but eventually this gave way to the use of
animals, largely cats.
In the late seventeenth century at the Place de Greve in Paris, Louis
XIV attended and personally lit a ritual bonfire in which a basket of
twenty-four cats was hung from a pole over the fire. This ceremony was
performed to 'purge the city from evil influences', and the ensuing cat
remains were collected from the dying embers by the crowd to be saved as
good luck charms.
It is said that in Brittany a chat d'argent, a silver or money cat, can
serve nine masters and make them all rich.' An extension of this useful
cat is the matagot or magician cat who brings wealth to a home where it
is well fed. According to French legend a matagot should be lured by a
plump chicken, then put into a sack and carried home without once
looking backwards. At each meal the matagot must be given the first
mouthful of food, and in return it will give its owner a gold coin each
In Provence there is an old belief that it is unwise for a traveller to
answer any greeting after sunset. It may come from a mischievous matagot
'too good for Hell but not good enough for Heaven'.
Spain and Portugal
The legend of how cats came to Europe was touched upon earlier, but
here it is in full. The cats were brought by General Galsthelos, an
Egyptian commander and his royal wife Scota to the most westerly point
of Spain, just north of Portugal. There, the travellers established a
small kingdom called Brigantium which was situated in an area now known
as Santiago de Compostella. Scota and her husband ruled happily with
their cats and centuries later Fergus 1, one of their descendants, took
cats with him when he became king of a region much further north. He
named this country Scotland, in memory of his ancestress.
Like its neighbour Spain, Portugal does not boast a wealth of feline
lore and legend. Their domestic animal of choice had always been the
dog. However, as a sea-going nation situated at the far west of Europe
Portugal has collected cats around its harbours and fishing ports from
time immemorial. The saying: 'He whom the cat follows should mind his
catch' means that if you arc followed by a cat you should beware of
deceivers or false friends. In the universal language of dreams, a cat
represents a false friend.
Germany and Eastern Europe
The cat in Germanic and Eastern European lore reflects its links with
darkness and the Devil in much the same way as its image was perceived
throughout Europe during the witch-obsessed Middle Ages. Records of
witchcraft trials at that time were legion and undoubtedly influenced
people's perception of the humble domestic cat.
However the nineteenth-century collectors of folklore, the Brothers
Grimm, did much to soften the satanic image of the cat, bringing a touch
of fantasy and fable to the feline persona, not to mention allusions to
its less demonic symbolism. Grimms talcs were gathered from friends and
acquaintances in and around the town of Kassel between 1807 and 1814.
Among them is 'Catskin', a German version of the well-loved classic
As in many other lands and religions, the fertility link with the cat is
seen widely in European agricultural lore. In Kiel in northern Germany,
children were warned not to go near 'the cornfield, as the cat sits
In what: was known as Bohemia, in western Czechoslovakia, a cat was
buried in a field of grain at sowing time to guarantee a good harvest.
Here and in Transylvania (now part of Romania) black cats were buried in
the fields to deter evil spirits from harming the crop. In Silesia, the
reaper who cut the last of the corn was called the Tom Cat and decorated
with rye stalks, green twigs and a long plaited tail attached to his
back. Occasionally another person played the part of a female cat and,
recalling the days of human sacrifice to ensure a successful harvest,
chased the villagers and beat them with sticks.
One Slavonic myth holds that cats became possessed by demons during a
thunderstorm. The noise of the thunder carried away the prayers of
angels who were mocked by the possessed cats, so the angels aimed
lightning bolts at the cats to cast out the demons. As a consequence,
during thunderstorms people would chase cats away from their homes to
prevent them from being struck by lightning.
Scandinavia and Northern Europe
The Norse mythological system was based on Teutonic deities and has
its roots in the Prose Edda, compiled by an Icelander, Snorri Sturlson,
in the 1200s CE. Epic talcs of hardship, courage and death in battle set
in a world of gods, heroes, giants and monsters play a major role in the
Among them are tales of the goddess Freya, a flamboyant and erotic
figure in whose cult cats performed an important part. Indeed, Freya's
behaviour can be likened to that of the cat as she roamed the night,
seeking to satisfy her physical lust in a wanton manner and having love
affairs with many of the gods.
A major role in the Norse Sagas was played by Midgard, known as the
World Serpent, a great and fearsome creature who sometimes appeared in
the guise of a cat — reflecting the antagonism between cat and snake
that featured in Ancient Egyptian mythology. The Christian Church
maintained that the convulsions of Midgard marked the end of 'paganism',
and carvings in their churches of creatures with short, rounded,
cat-like heads and long tails covered in viper-like scales again recall
the eternal cat—snake conflict.
The Norwegian Forest Cat, a natural breed of cat, features prominently
in Scandinavian folklore. It is said that long, long ago this large,
imposing cat of the northern forests was taken by the Vikings to guard
their homes and to live alongside their families as vermin-hunters and
household pets. It is also said that these longhaired cats were carried
into battle on the shoulders of the Vikings, to attack and claw the
faces of their enemies. Many old Scandinavian folk tales featured these
felines, who were much respected by the Norsemen for their strength and
That the marauding Vikings took these cats on their extensive voyages is
also held to be true. The Norwegian Forest Cat's close resemblance to
the Maine Coon, a natural breed seen in North America, could perhaps
indicate the extent of the Vikings' seagoing forays.
It is the Norwegian Forest Cat, or Norsk Skaukatt, that is probably the
main character in the Scandinavian version of Puss in Boots, in which
the ogre is a troll — a creature said to die in the sunlight. To help
its master the resourceful puss kept the troll talking through the
night, thus letting the early morning sunshine destroy him.
In Norse mythology the chariot of Freya, goddess of beauty, love and
fertility, is drawn by two large, longhaired cats — a living symbolism
of Freya's feminine attributes! Also connected with Freya is Utgard-Loki,
King of the Giants, whose constant companion was one of these great
In the beginning, Freya was the great Earth goddess who both gave and
took life. As lover, mother and destroyer she symbolised love, marriage,
disease and death, and her followers were mainly female seers, shamans
and soothsayers. Cats would assist in their rituals and were said to
help the acolytes achieve the trance-like state necessary for their
supernatural journeys. In Greenland, it is said that these female cult
members wore gloves of white catskin, worn with the fur inside.
In another Norse legend the mighty Thor, god of thunder, went with his
friend Loki to visit the Land of the Giants. When asked to compete in a
trial of strength Thor agreed but failed to meet the challenge,
whereupon the gods mocked and laughed at his efforts. They enquired if
he would care to try picking up the Old Grey Cat.
Enraged, Thor quickly grasped the cat around the middle but found to his
dismay that he could only raise one paw from the ground. The gods
informed him that the cat was the World Serpent, Midgard, who lay deep
under the sea, encircling the Earth. Indeed, they were all greatly
impressed that Thor had managed to raise the 'cat' even slightly from
its lair at the bottom of the sea.
According to Finnish myth, the souls of men were led by a cat through
Hell to Paradise. This belief is echoed in many cultures and recalls the
cat goddess Isis, who led souls to her brother and husband Osiris, the
King of the Dead. An extension of this myth appears in a Finnish epic
poem of the nineteenth century, which tells of a witch who entered a
house and chanted an incantation. The occupants were at once magically
thrown on to a sleigh drawn by a large cat and carried off.
In another legend Ragnar, the great shaggy Snow Cat of the northern
forests, lived contented and happy with his mate Kali. But one day in
late summer Kali went forth in search of food for their young and did
not return to their cave.
Ragnar searched far and wide, growing forlorn and weary in his grief
when he did not find her. Climbing a tall tree in the depth of the dark
forest, he entreated the gods saying: 'Please tell me where Kali can be
found. Without her I will surely die.' One by one his children perished,
and as they did so Ragnar longed to join them. I he gods took pity on
this once proud wild cat and allowed him to enter their azure domain,
far above the tall dark trees in the vast terrain of peerless skies and
Ragnar thanked the gods and entered their icebound kingdom, where he
renewed his search for his faithful mate. He searched the skies
endlessly, and it is said that the gods smiled upon the Great White Snow
Cat and guided him to where Kali had strayed.
At the Autumn Equinox, when heavy white clouds herald the onset of
winter, farmers sigh and herd their animals into warm, dry barns,
knowing that Ragnar still searches for his lost mate. And at the Spring
Equinox, when small swift clouds race across the blue skies,
Earth-dwellers of the Norselands smile and say: 'Ragnar's children are
playing. Hark! The iresh winds echo their purrs!' and they arc
well-pleased, knowing that the long days of summer are near and that
during the darkness of the northern winter the Great White Snow Cat had
found his beloved Kali.
A Danish folktale tells of a cat who asked a young serving maid for a
saucerful of milk. Regardless of having been beaten for giving milk to
the cat twice before, the girl again kindly complied with the request.
As it drank, the cat grew out of its skin and swiftly pushed it aside to
reveal himself as a handsome Prince. He and the humble serving maid were
soon married and, of course, lived happily ever after.
The religion and philosophy known as Buddhism originated in India
during the sixth century BCE. Its teachings arc based on the
interpretation of the writings of Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha
or Enlightened One. The original monastic order of men and, later, women
gave up their worldly goods and devoted their lives to the practice and
preaching of the philosophy of enlightenment. To this end, missionaries
were sent throughout the Far East and into the Mediterranean region.
The religion was based on a lone personal path of enlightenment
ultimately to bring about the state known as Nirvana — that being beyond
intellect, words or form. This aspect of the Buddhist religion perhaps
relates to the lone cat: devotees see the feline as an embodiment of
their own 'aloneness'.
Throughout South-East Asia, down the ages cats have played an important
part in the Buddhist religious and cultural heritage. To the Buddhists
all cats were considered lucky — the dark ones were thought to bring
gold and the light ones to bring silver.
Well-known felines from this part of the world are the Sacred Cat of
Burma, now known as the Birman; that 'unnatural nightmare of a cat', the
dark-pointed and sapphire-eyed Siamese from Thailand; and its equally
fabled compatriot, the Korat. All feature in exotic fashion in
South-East Asian mythology.
The Sacred Cat of Burma
Long before the teachings of Buddha enlightened the peoples of Asia,
a temple was built high on the slopes of Mount Lugh by the Khmer tribe
who lived in western Burma. The temple was called Lao-Tsun and it was
here that the Kittah priests worshipped the golden, blue-eyed goddess
Tsun-Kyan-Kse, to whose care the transmigration of souls was entrusted.
The temple was guarded by one hundred longhaired white cats with yellow
eyes. Into their bodies, according to legend, passed the souls of dead
priests. One such cat, whose name was Sinh, was the personal favourite
of the High Priest Mun-ha.
One day, as Mun-ha knelt to pray before the statue of the golden
goddess, he was killed by invaders. Sinh leapt upon the body of his
master and looked up into the sapphire eyes of the goddess. At that
moment the soul of the priest entered the body of the cat, whose fur
immediately took on the golden glow of the goddess and whose eyes became
a brilliant blue to match her own. Sinh's nose, ears and tail darkened,
taking on the colour of the earth, while his feet, resting on the
silvery head of his master, remained white as a symbol of purity.
The other priests huddled together, alarmed at the death of their High
Priest and in mortal fear of the barbarians. But Sinh looked at them so
commandingly that they acknowledged the mystical power of the goddess,
took heart and repelled the invaders. Only then did they discover that
each of the remaining ninety-nine temple cats had undergone the same
transformation as the faithful Sinh.
So the Kittah priests assembled before their goddess to select a new
master. As they stood, the temple cats entered the chamber, silently
acknowledging the golden goddess before them. Then, as if by some divine
edict, the cats formed a circle around Ligoa, the youngest priest. So it
was ordained that Ligoa was chosen to be the High Priest of all the
Kittahs, and thus the legend of the Birman or Sacred Cat of Burma came
When the priests of the Lao-Tsun temple passed away their souls were
retained in the earthly bodies of the sacred cats, to be transported to
the mysterious paradise of Song-Íio when the cats themselves died.
Should anyone kill or do harm to one of these strange and beautiful
creatures, the soul of the transgressor would wander in torment
Esewhere in Asia, an ancient belief of Khmer tribes from the mountainous
regions of Indo-China holds that the first tortoiseshell cat was created
in a magic ritual performed by a Wise One. The creature sprang from the
menstrual blood of a young goddess born of a lotus blossom — a highly
significant flower linked with Indo-Chinese Mother goddesses.
A Thai legend maintains that Mara, Prince of Demons, sent a plague of
rats to devour the Holy Buddhist scriptures. At that moment, Buddha
created the first cat in the world and called her Phaka Waum. She chased
away the rats and saved the scriptures, and since that day the followers
of Buddha have considered it a sin to harm a cat.
The Siaamede cat
Just as the souls of
the priests of Lao-Tsun were retained in the earthly bodies of their
sacred cats, so legend has it that the Siamese cats were kept to serve
as repositories in which to keep the transmigrating souls of Siamese
royalty. They resided only in the Royal Palace in Bangkok — hence the
earlier name of Royal Palace Cats — and it is said that they were the
product of a union between an albino domestic cat belonging to the king
and an Eigyptian or, some say, a black temple cat. The resulting
'Siamese' were then appointed as guardians of the temple and closely
confined to keep the breed pure.
Most early Siamese displayed one, two or even three kinks in their
tails. One myth regarding the origin of the kinks is that, while
bathing, a Siamese princess of long ago placed her rings for safe
keeping on the tail of her favourite cat — who obligingly kinked it for
that purpose. The squint — another inherent Siamese feature — is said to
have originated when the priests of ancient Siam set the temple cats to
guard a valuable vase. The cats carried out this duty for so long and
with so much concentration that their eyes became permanently crossed.
Another 'twist' to the legend of the Siamese cat's kinked tail tells of
a young cat who took his wife into the jungle to search for a golden
goblet which was missing from the royal temple. On finding the treasure,
it was decided that the wife would remain to guard the goblet while her
husband returned to inform the priests of their discovery.
The young female patiently took up her position among the leaves and
foliage, her tail twisted around the stem of the precious goblet to
ensure its safety. Four nights later, the male cat returned to find that
he was the father of five little Siamese kittens. And so conscientiously
had the young mother guarded the goblet that a permanent kink had formed
at the tip of her tail. It was soon discovered that each of her five
kittens also had a similar kink!
It is accepted that the Siamese is the most vocal of all cat breeds, and
that in Europe during the Middle Ages cats were tortured in many ways
because of the
belief that they were creatures of the Devil. Since Siamese cats did not
arrive anywhere in Europe until the end of the nineteenth century, and
before this had been treated with great reverence and respect in Siam,
they never had reason to fear the human race and so had no reason to
A distinguishing feature said to be found on some highly bred Siamese
temple cats consisted of two distinct markings low on the back of the
neck. These shadowy markings are claimed to be the handprint of Buddha,
who once picked up one of these sacred cats.
Provoking a great deal of interest on their arrival, the first recorded
pair of Siamese cats brought to Britain were at that time, in 1884,
graphically described as being 'an unnatural nightmare kind of cat —
soft, fawn-coloured creatures with jet-black legs . . .'
Si-Sawat — meaning good
fortune — is the name given to the Korat in its native Thailand. Much
prized for their grace and beauty, these sweet-tempered cats were
poetically described in ancient Thai manuscripts. Created by artists and
writers of the Ayudha period
(1350—1767 CE), these descriptions
tell of a blue cat having smooth hairs
with roots 'like clouds and tips like
silver' and 'eyes that shine like
devvdrops on a lotus leaf. The clear,
luminous eyes of the Korat arc part of its mystique and the creature has
described thus: 'These cloud-coloured cats with eyes the colour of young
rice . . .'
Symbols of good luck, Korats were often given to brides to ensure a
happy and prosperous future. Originating hundreds of years ago in the
Korat province of what was then called Siam, the Korat still possesses
the same compact, muscular body, blue, silver-tipped coat and sparkling
green eyes that intrigued and enchanted the Thai people all those years