Mythical Cats Around the World
Cats have long played a significant role in superstition and folklore around the world. At times they have been said to be bad luck, in collusion with witches, and even (mistakenly) believed to have been worshipped as gods. While Ancient Egyptians did not actually worship cats as gods, they were considered sacred due to their connection to the gods, in particular the goddess Bastet. Compared to some of humanities other domesticated companions, such as dogs or horses, cats were only domesticated within the last 10,000 years (dogs, for comparison, being domesticated approximately 23,000 years ago), but despite their relatively recent addition to our households, cats have still gained a firm place in both our homes, and our myths.
While the black cat is not, strictly speaking, mythological, superstition and folklore has seen this ordinary animal settled firmly into myths of magic and witchcraft. Across much of Europe, the black cat is considered bad luck – particularly if it crosses your path. At times, black cats have been said to be a servant of the devil, a witch’s familiar, or even the witch itself, transformed into animal form.
Though black cats are most famous for bringing bad luck, this has not always been the case, and there are a number of superstitions which actually cite the opposite – showing the black cat as a symbol of good fortune instead. This was particularly the case in much of the UK. In England it was originally good fortune to gift a couple a black cat on their wedding day, while in Scotland a black cat appearing on your doorstep was sure sign of good luck. In Ireland there is even a legend of one particular black cat – the Black Bog Cat, living on the shores of Lough Neagh – which brought wealth, happiness, and luck to those that crossed its path.
The Scottish cat-sìth (also appearing in Irish myth as cat sí) is a fairy creature said to appear in the guise of a large black cat with a white spot over its chest. The cat-sìth was considered to be an inherently untrustworthy creature in Scottish legend because of its penchant for preying on the dead. If a cat-sìth encountered a corpse before burial, the cat would be able to steal the soul of the deceased. In order to prevent this, people would keep watch over the body of their loved one to ensure that the cat-sìth did not come near.
There were ways to get the cat-sìth on your good side, however. On Samhain the cat-sìth was said to be out and about. The houses that left a saucer of milk out for the cat to drink would be blessed with good fortune. This was not all good news, though, any house which forgot or neglected to leave milk for the cat-sìth would find themselves cursed.
Predominantly found in the mythology of the Anishinaabeg people of North America, the Underwater Panther, or Mishibijiw, is a powerful creature which, as the name suggests, lives at the bottom of deep water. The panther has many different attributes, depending on the version of the myth. It is usually described as feline in nature, but may also have feathers, antlers or scales. One common feature is their exceptionally long tail. In one myth when a woman managed to cut off the tail of an underwater panther which attacked her and her sister-in-law, she discovered that the tail was made of copper. Returning home, the woman gifted the copper tail to her father.
The natural enemy of the underwater panther is said to be the thunderbird. Where the underwater panther is associated with water, the thunderbird is associated with the sky – though interestingly both creatures as said to be able to create storms.
Its name meaning split or forked tailed cat, the nekomata is a Japanese yokai, described as a cat with two tails. Any cat can become a nekomata by living for a certain number of years. Once they reach the correct age, their tail splits in two, they become capable of walking on their hind legs like a man, and may even grow in size. In some tales a nekomata is nothing more than a mischievous trickster, but in others they are deadly, with some legends of them devouring humans.
The Nekomata is often conflated with another Japanese cat yokai – the bakeneko. Like the nekomata, the bakeneko is the result of a cat living to a certain age which becomes mischievous or even deadly. Unlike the nekomata, the bakeneko has only one tail, though it may have a penchant for shapeshifting, and even the ability to possess its owner.
Appearing in folklore across America, the wampus cat is described in many different ways – sometimes as a part human, part feline creature, sometimes as having six legs, and sometimes as being part dog and part cat. A common theme among these variations of the myth is that the creature hunts at night, attacking people and livestock.
There are two legends commonly associated with the creation of the wampus cat, both originating from Native American mythology. In one, a woman disguised herself using an animal pelt to spy on a ritual that only men were allowed to see. She was discovered and in punishment the skin she was wearing became permanent and she transformed into a part human, part feline creature. In the second legend, a women goes into the forest wearing a feline mask to challenge an evil spirit which had attacked her people and drove her husband insane. The woman managed to sneak up on the spirit which was so scared of her mask that it turned its powers on itself and was defeated. The soul of this woman is thought to now inhabit the wampus cat, continuing to protect her people.
With its impenetrable fur and sharp claws, the Nemean lion appears in Greek legend. Killing the Nemean lion was the first of Hercules’ twelve labours, a seemingly impossible task as the creature’s fur was impossible to cut with any mortal weapon. Undeterred, Hercules fought the beast, sealing one of the entrances to its cave to prevent it escaping and eventually managing to strangle the lion with his bare hands.
Though Hercules tried to skin the lion, the creature’s invulnerability held true even in death and his knife was unable to cut the lion’s pelt. Taking pity on the hero, Athena instructed him to use one of the lion’s own claws to skin it. From then, Hercules wore the pelt, which protected him from harm.