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The Strength and Compassion of Cats in Myth and Lore

Mythology brings to life the ancient stories of gods, heroic figures, and evil. Anthropomorphism was used to give the mythological gods human traits that should and should not be emulated but not all gods retained human form. In our readings we discussed gods that changed into animal forms to accomplish tasks or to conquer guardian beasts or evil beings. Zoomorphisms occurred when gods, created in human form, transformed into animals such as serpents, lions, bears, winged-creatures, dogs, or hybrids of animals and humans. The gods slew, sliced, diced, eviscerated, or parceled out evil creatures and evil humans to become other types of creatures, earthly terrain, or heavenly bodies. With a few cultural exceptions, many gods and goddesses adopted the form of the feline to accomplish these tasks or had them as part of their entourage or worship. The feline occasionally had to be slain but more often was depicted as the achiever of good deeds or the personification of strength and goodness, even obtaining a high status of worship in some cultures. Comparison of feline lore about the domesticated cat, lion, leopard, panther, or jaguar in different cultures provides an interesting view on reasons why gods would choose the cat for their zoomorphism and for deification of the cat.

Particular aspects of the feline species may have appealed to cultures looking for creatures that fit into their creation, hero, or fertility myths. Cultures may have conferred godlike status and supernatural ability on felines because the animal’s eyes appear to glow in low light. This may have been construed as giving them the ability to assist a soul into the darkness of the underworld. Their mothering skills, habits of cleanliness, and docile appearance would have been far more appealing than dogs or similar animals in fertility myths. Their rodent and snake (serpent) destroying skills would have appealed to farmers, hunters, and fishermen in heroic mythology.

A feline myth of the Malay from the Federation of Malyasia possibly dates back thirty- to forty-thousand years ago to the Semang or Negrito race. The Malay culture was basically African ancestry that blended with the subsequent invading cultures of the Chinese and Indians (Baker 20). The Malay religious practice included magic (shamans) and a strong belief in godlike creatures (Semang). Brief articles recount the belief that the cat assisted humans in the journey from Hell to Paradise and the killing of a cat carried stout punishment. “Anyone who killed a cat was required to carry and stack as many coconut tree trunks as the cat had hair” (Wuzzle). This certainly gave the cat a practical purpose that kept cats well-cared for and popular. I found little documentation on the origin of this Malay myth but myths from other cultures relate similar ideology.

In Egyptian mythology the cat, Miu or Mau, is recorded as early as 2,000 B.C. with representation in tomb paintings and mummified remains (Evans). The goddess Bastet morphed into a lion or a cat and was known as Bast. She is often depicted as having the head of a feline and the body of a human. Cats were sacrificed and mummified in her honor. Bastet was the daughter of the sun god Ra (Re) and the goddess of fire and cats. She was associated with the home and pregnant women and her likeness was worn as a symbol of fertility. Like the lion and the domesticated cat she had two personalities, one aggressive and the other docile. An entire cultural center in Buibastis was dedicated to cats in her honor with many pet cemeteries or tombs just for cats. Bast may have transitioned from fearsome (the lion) into a goddess of domesticate type cats since they were more plentiful and easier to breed for the sole purpose of sacrifice to the goddess. Many mummies at Buibastis and other temple sites were found to contain new kittens that had broken necks, killed for the sacrifice.

Bastet’s father Ra, the sun god, made his journey into the dark underworld at night where he encountered the evil serpent, Apep. Ra was depicted as a lion when he destroyed Apep (McDevitt). Other beneficent Egyptian felines listed at Wuzzle.org are Dedun, the Egyptian god of wealth and incense (therefore associated with the passage of the dead) who was depicted as a lion in his temple; Mafdet, a goddess in panther form that destroyed snakes and scorpions; and Sakhmet (Sekhmet) an Egyptian lion-headed Goddess of war (Wuzzle).

Another myth that attributed cats with the ability to travel into the afterlife is found in Nordic mythology. The beliefs associated with cats begin in the mythology which was rooted in magic, very similar to shamanism. Norse beliefs later evolved into a type of witchcraft. The goddess Freyja is recorded as a beautiful demi-goddess for whom Friday is named. She rode about in a chariot pulled by two large cats. According to an article at Valkyrietower.com, Freyja selected the noble and heroic dead and carried them to the Realm of the Gods. Freyja was a goddess of fertility and became a patron of the home and rewarded good housewives. She was also considered a great warrior, much like Bastet of Egyptian mythology. Late in Norse culture Freyja became associated with the black cat and other symbolism of witchcraft lore (Freyja).

Narasimha is the fourth incarnation of Vishnu in Far Eastern mythology. Vishnu manifested a portion of himself anytime he was needed to fight evil and to protect dharma (moral and religious law) (Narasimha). Hiranyakasipu, a materialistic human demon, was destroyed by Vishnu who morphed into a man-lion that had the abilities needed to destroy him.

In Greek mythology the Nemean lion was slain by Heracles as one of his heroic deeds. Wearing of the skin of the lion was seen as a trophy and as conferring the moral strength and pride of the male lion on Heracles (World Mythology 101). The Greek god Dionysus/Bacchus had leopards or panthers that pulled his chariot. As a god of wine and spirits Dionysus helped to transport the human spirit to a better place much like paradise (Dionysus).

Cybele, Phrygian deification of the Earth Mother, has a chariot pulled by two lions and she kept lions at the side of her throne. The worshipers of Cybele moved from Phrygia to Greece about 6th to 4th century B.C. Cybele is identified with the Greek earth and mother goddess Rhea. Cybele had a docile persona as a nature deity but also had wild, half-demonic beings as her attendants and was associated with castrated male rituals (Great).

Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec warrior god, is often depicted as a jaguar. According to Encyclopedia Britannica online, “Tezcatlipoca’s nagual, or animal disguise, was the jaguar, the spotted skin of which was compared to the starry sky. A creator god, Tezcatlipoca ruled over Ocelotonatiuh (“Jaguar-Sun”), the first of the four worlds that were created and destroyed before the present universe” (Tezcatlipoca).

The Mayan culture of Middle America has worshiped the jaguar as godlike and powerful. Evidence of sacrifices to a jaguar god has been found over many years encompassing many different cultures. Communities were mainly agricultural with a dependence on hunters and gatherers. The ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, with strong beliefs in ceremonial type rituals with deification of animals, viewed the jaguar’s strength and power as mystical. The Olmecs, between 1200 B.C. and 400 B.C., believed in “were-jaguars”, powerful shape-shifters that could be human or cat. The Maya, between 4 A.D. and 8 A.D., thought that jaguars crossed from our world to the afterlife. The Aztec, as recent as the 12th and 16th century, believed the jaguar was royal and worshipped jaguar-form gods.

Cats were honorable in their earthly domesticated form and were highly regarded in their deified forms. The cat god or goddess was a model of manners and decorum and a protector in many cultures. As symbols of virtue and strength, as guardians of gods and goddesses, as zoomorphic incarnations of god and goddess that conquered humans and evil or symbolized fertility, the cat attained a highly revered status in many cultures.

Works Cited

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Evans, Elaine A. Research Notes, McClung Museum Number 20-May 2001. “Cat Mummies.” 3 Dec. 2009. .

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McDevitt, April. “Ancient Egypt: the Mythology – Bastet.” 3 Dec. 2009. .

” Narasimha .” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2009. Web. 7 Dec. 2009 .

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Wuzzle.org. Catbits. “Tidbits of Cat Mythology and Folklore from Various Cultures.” 19 Nov. 2009. .