Written by Suzanne Graham
Happy National Healthy and Happy Cat Month! As I was doing research the other day, I came across the fact that Cats receive a whole month of celebration in September. But not to worry for the canine lovers because National Hug a Hound Day is on September 14th.
So, to celebrate cats, I decided to do more research into myths and folklore surrounding cats across the world. Much of the overall opinion of the feline race differs quite largely depending on which region that you want to look into. Some cultures, such as Egypt, see them on the same level as the royal lineage, and other cultures, such as England, view them as the Devil’s sidekick.
- An Origin of the Nine Lives
In Ancient Egypt, people held their belief in Kemetism which people now consider Egyptian mythology. Their Gods and Goddesses were able to turn into different animals, but the Goddess Bastet was one of a select few that could turn into a cat. Bastet held domain over the home, domesticity, women’s secrets, fertility, and childbirth. Every Egyptian family during this period had a family cat that they believed to have magical abilities and brought good luck onto the family because of the cats’ association with Bastet. These cats would be treated like royalty through the use of adorning them with jewels and gifting them high-quality treats. The ritual of when the family cat passes over was one a form of the highest respect. Cats were mummified and placed in a special cemetery similar to the royal lineage. The family of the cat would also shave off their eyebrows which would be their mourning period until their eyebrows grew back.
The belief in the saying that cats have nine lives possibly dates back to Egyptian beliefs revolving around the god Atum-Ra. In the mythology, Atum-Ra could take the form of a cat, similar to the Goddess Bastet. So when Ra gave birth to his eighth child, the Egyptians associated Ra and his children as nine lives of feline longevity.
- A Cat’s Innate Evil
Some cultures, such as the United States, spread superstitions such as “step on a crack and you will break your mother’s back” or “you’ll receive seven years of bad luck if a black cat crosses your path.” The superstition revolving the cute and innocent black cat dates back to the Middle Ages and the popular beliefs of Christianity across Europe. Cats were also associated with magical abilities, but instead of being revered and celebrated, they were seen as partners of witches and Satan. This belief was meant for all cats, but the Black Cat received the most mistreatment possibly due to the negative connotations revolving around the color black.
The reason as to why cats were considered bad luck is because the Church led people to believe that a cat’s bite was poisonous or that its breath would give someone tuberculosis. Their beliefs of cats associated with the Devil only strengthened after the Bubonic Plague because the Church decided that only the Devil could cause something so deadly. In an attempt to stop the work of the Devil, it seems the Church began to hunt down witches, cats, and all cat owners. There are, however, accounts that Pope Gregory IX issued a no-cats policy years before the Bubonic Plague even began.
In England, this bad luck did not seem to end with the Bubonic Plague. For centuries, the English didn’t allow cats near an infant’s crib because there was a myth that a cat would steal a baby’s death until the baby died. Other myths include: Lilith, Adam’s ex-wife in the Bible, as a woman who liked to eat babies and took the shape of black cats; and the belief that a baby will be marked with a wart or cat-shaped beauty mark if a pregnant woman picks up a cat. Although, regarding moles, I have heard circulating the internet that they mark where your previous lover loved to kiss you the most. So it all depends on what a person wants to believe.
- Blessing from the Lady
People may be most familiar with Norse Mythology thanks to Marvel’s depictions of Loki and Thor. This belief system stretches beyond the fictional work of the MCU and used to be the main religion in North Germanic cultures and Scandinavia. The Goddess that we want to take a particular look at, however, is Freya, the Goddess of the afterlife. Instead of being a dark and gloomy woman which is typically associated with death, she looked towards attributes of love, beauty, and fertility and believed that all cats were sacred. Therefore, people would be kind to all cats whether they were house trained or stray by always making sure they were well-fed and content. In turn, those people would receive good fortune regarding all areas of their life such as marriage or blessed harvests.
- The Legend of the Willow Buds
This particular story is not very long and is quite heart-warming. The Polish have a tale that states, “many springtimes ago a mother cat was crying at the bank of the river in which her kittens were drowning. The willows at the river’s edge longed to help her, so they swept their long graceful branches into the waters to rescue the tiny kittens who had fallen into the river while chasing butterflies. The kittens gripped on tightly to their branches and were safely brought to shore. Each springtime since, goes the legend, the willow branches sprout tiny fur-like buds at their tips where the tiny kittens once clung.” (Source: maplesnmore.com.) During springtime, due to this legend, Polish churches use willow branches during Easter customs as a symbolism of life.
- The Characteristic “M”
If you’re like me, you probably never noticed that tabby cats are known for having an “M” shape on the coat of their forehead. However, there are tales from both Islam and Christianity that help explain how they received this characteristic mark.
In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad was known for having a huge liking for cats and had a favorite named Muezza. One day, Muhammad had to hear an answer to a call of prayer after having sat quietly with Muezza sleeping on his robe. In an attempt to not wake the cat up, he cut off part of the robe and laid a hand on the cat’s forehead softly before leaving for prayer. It is believed that when he laid his hand on the cat, the letter “M” appeared as a way of giving the cat and all future tabbies the mark of Muhammad.
In Christianity, the mark originated shortly after Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. Mary was in need of rest, but Jesus was feeling uncomfortable with the feeling of the rough hay against his tender skin. A stray tabby happened to pass by during this incident and in an effort the help Jesus feel better, settled next to him and they both fell asleep peacefully. Grateful towards the tabby, Mary stroked the cat’s forehead which left the mark of “M” in remembrance of its kindness. The origin of this legend, however, is uncertain since there is no mention of cats in the bible.
- Maneki Neko
“The monk who took care of [Gotokuji temple] had troubles in making ends meet because of his little income. However, the poor monk [had] a cat whom he loved so much. He even shared his food with his pet. One day, he asked his cat to bring good fortune to him. After a short time, a number of samurais arrived in his hut during a rainstorm and said that the cat waved to them from the road.
The monk served tea to the samurais and because of this, they were very delighted. One of the samurais, Naotaka Li, introduced himself as the lord of Hikone, in the Koshu prefecture. The lord then donated rice fields and crop lands to the temple, therefore making it the great landmark that it is today. Years later, when the cat passed away, it was enshrined as an incarnation of a god named Shobyo Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and a statue was built on the area for the cat.” (Source: travelerstoday.com)
This tale of the beckoning cat has many variations and was recently retold in the form of a children book written by Susan Lendroth and illustrated by Kathryn Otoshi. The reason why it is known as the beckoning cat is that, as we can see above, the samurais claimed the cat was encouraging them to come into the temple. Moments later, lightning had struck the area where the samurais had been standing. The Japanese hold the belief that cats bring good financial fortune to families and are considered symbols of success, happiness, and harmony. This is one of the reasons why you might have spotted a cat relic with a raised paw in Asian shops.
- The Royal Cat
Siamese cats are probably my favorite breed of cat to exist. I have wanted a cat especially after reading how Haruki Murakami portrayed their intellectuality in Kafka on the Shore. They originate from Thailand and like the other tales above, there are many myths revolving around them. However, it cannot be denied that they have always been associated with aristocracy.
One popular tale is that Siamese cats received the deceased soul of a recently passed member of the royal family. When this happens, the cat spends the rest of its life in the form of pure luxury in a monastery. The reason why Siamese cats were chosen compared to any other breed was due to people’s fascination with their distinctive, unusual, and beautiful appearances.
Probably considered one of the most magical animals across the world, cats have been revered for generations. In this post, I have merely stated a few stories, but there are still so many myths and legends left to explore. If you have any stories surrounding cats you would like to share, feel free to comment below! Now, I encourage you to go give a cat some love because they deserve it. <3