Feline Folklore

by Terri Windling

"Puss in Boots" by Adrienne Segúr, © 1958
"Puss in Boots"
by Adrienne Segúr, © 1958

     A friend of mine once dreamed that she was in the throes of giving birth — not an unusual dream for a woman to have, but in this case instead of a human child, she gave birth to a litter of kittens. "Were you frightened?" I asked. "Not at all," she replied. "In fact, strange as it sounds, it was quite a lovely experience." I thought of my friend when I read Laurie Kutchin's poem "Birthdream," published in The New Yorker: "This time I had given birth to a child with a remarkable tail. Part animal, part girl. . . .  I held her briefly in my arms, stroked her tail before we parted, her eyes nursing the dark moons. . . ."

     Startling as such dreams may be, they are rooted deep in mythology — for cats (both the wild Felis sylvestris and the domesticated Felis catus) have long been associated with childbirth, fertility, creativity, and magic. In many early cultures cats were animals sacred to the Great Goddess, revered for their beauty, intelligence, and independent ways. By medieval times, when the Goddess and women's magic were seen in a sinister light, cats were believed to be witches' familiars, shape-changers and servants of Satan. Today, cats are still connected with "magic" and creative fertility in the stereotype of the cat-owning writer . . . particularly women writers, and particularly those in the field of mythic arts. (Just take a quick survey of any random dozen women writers and you'll see what I mean.)

     Pondering the association between writers and these elegant beasts, Joyce Carol Oates has noted: "We are mesmerized by the beautiful wild creatures who long ago chose to domesticate us, and who condescend to live with us, so wonderfully to their advantage; and, of course, to ours. My theory is that the writer senses a deep and profound kinship with the cat: Felis sylvestris in the well groomed furry cloak of Felis catus. The wildcat is the 'real' cat, the soul of the domestic cat; unknowable to human beings, he yet exists inside our household pets, who have long ago seduced us with their civilized ways. (Yes, and with their beauty, grace, and independence, willfulness — the model of what human beings should be.) The writer, like any artist, is inhabited by an unknowable and unpredictable core of being which, by custom, we designate the 'imagination' or 'the unconscious' (as if naming were equivalent to knowing, let alone controlling), and so in the accessibility of Felis catus we sense the secret, demonic, wholly inaccessible presence of Felis sylvestris. For like calls out to like, across even the abyss of species."

     According to an old legend, cats were the only creatures on earth who were not made by God at the time of Creation. When God covered the world with water, and Noah set his ark afloat, the ark became infested with rats eating up the stores of food. Noah prayed for a miracle, and a pair of cats sprang to life from the mouths of the lion and lioness. They set to work, and quickly dispatched all the rats — but for the original two. As their reward, when the boat reached dry land the cats walked at the head of the great procession of Noah's animals. Which is why, the legend concludes, all cats are proud, to this very day.

     In the earliest feline images found on cave walls and carved out of stone, wildcats are companions and guardians to the Great Goddess — often flanking a mother goddess figure in the act of giving birth. Such imagery has been found in ancient sites across Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East. In China the lion, Shih, is one of the four principal animal protectors — associated with rain, guardian of the dead and their living descendants. In the New World, evidence of wildcat cults is found across Central and South America, where the jaguar was the familiar of shamans and a powerful totemic animal. Ai apaec of the Mochica people of Peru was a much-revered feline god, pictured in the shape of a wrinkle-faced old man with long fangs and cat whiskers. A hauntingly beautiful wood carving of a kneeling figure with the head of a cat was found just off the Florida coast — remarkably well preserved, the image dates back over three thousand years.

     We find the first evidence of the wildcat's small cousin, Felis catus, in ancient Egypt — where the beasts were so sacred that any man who killed one was condemned to death. When a house cat died, the entire family shaved its eyebrows as a sign of grief; and mummified cats (along with tiny mummified mice) have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus reported the fate of a hapless Roman who'd caused the death of a cat. "The populace crowded to the house of the Roman who had committed the 'murder'; and neither the efforts of the magistrates sent by the King to protect him nor the universal fear inspired by the might of Rome could avail to save the man's life, though what he had done was admitted to be accidental. This is not an incident which I report from hearsay, but something I saw myself during my sojourn in Egypt." Mau was the Egyptian word for cat — both an imitation of its speech, and a mother-syllable. Bast, the Cat-mother, was a goddess whose cult began in the delta city of Bubastis and eventually covered all of Egypt with the rise of the XXII Dynasty. Unlike the fierce lion-headed Sekmet from earlier Egyptian myth, Bast embodied the benevolent aspects of cats: fertility, sexuality, love and life-giving heat. Bronzes from the period show the goddess in her feline form (seated and wearing earrings), as well as in human form with the head of a cat, kittens at her feet. The twice-annual Festivals of Bast (as described by Herodotus) were carnivals of music, dancing, wine-drinking, love-making and religious ecstasy — dedicated to Bast in her aspect as Mistress of love and the sensual pleasures.

     The medieval idea that the cat has nine lives (or that witches may turn into cats nine times) probably comes from the Ninefold Goddess, an element of Egyptian myth. Folklorist Katharine Briggs believed that the fearful beliefs surrounding cats throughout the Middle Ages indicates they were sacred animals to people of earlier religions, subsequently demonized by the spread of the Christian church. Cats were certainly sacred to Freyja, a goddess of beauty, fertility and independent sexuality venerated across northern Europe, who traveled the world in a chariot drawn by magical cats. In the British Isles, cats alternated with the hare as the underworld's messenger, sacred to the Pictish and Celtic goddesses of the moon. Numerous superstitions surround the cat — many of them contradictory. In certain areas of Europe and America, a black cat was considered unlucky; while in other areas black cats were believed to bring luck, and the white cat was feared. Welsh sailors believed that a ship-cat's cry portended stormy weather; other sailors believed a cat on board (or even to mention the name of a cat) would stir up the wrath of the sea. Cats born in May were melancholy; a cat in the cradle foretold a safe birth. In eastern Europe, a cat jumping over a coffin created vampires. Some people believed sleeping with a cat brought good luck and the Great Mother's protection; others believed that cats sucked the breath of the sleeper, causing illness or death. In China, the company of a cat warded off evil spirits and ghosts; while in France, cats would bring ghosts indoors if they were let in at night. In Indonesia, bathing a cat was one method of bringing on a rain storm; in the American south, kicking a cat would bring rain — or rheumatism. The belief that cats can see ghosts, spirits, or fairies is found all over the world, and can be traced back at least as far as the Egyptians (who also believed cats stored sunlight in their eyes, using it to see at night). In the British Isles, cats were sometimes believed to be fairies in disguise, or in league with the fairies — watching mankind and reporting back to their masters. Fairies and ghosts can see through the eyes of cats in tales told all over the world — and conversely, to look deeply into the eyes of a cat is to see Fairyland.

     Numerous legends tell of human beings who transform into the shape of a cat. Although some male wizards, magicians and shamans were gifted with this power, more commonly the shapeshifter was a woman, and a witch. Cats (along with bats, owls and toads) were believed to be witches' companions who carried messages to the Devil, and aided with spell-casting. During the widespread witch trials of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries (a holocaust in which millions of people, primarily women, were tortured and killed) cats were burned, hung by the neck or drowned alongside their mistresses. A witch, it was said, would shape-shift into cat form whenever the moon was full. Good men were advised to lay consecrated salt on their doorstep at this time, lest witches compel them out into the night to join in their revels. Many tales told of a man who shot a black cat in the paw, only to find the local witch with a bandage on her hand the next morning.

     When we turn to traditional fairy tales, however (passed down primarily by women storytellers), we find that shape-shifting cats generally have a far less sinister aspect. "The White Cat" is a popular tale that comes from 17th-century France, by Countess Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy. In this tale, the three sons of a king are sent upon a series of quests. The youngest son meets a lovely white cat — the queen of an enchanted castle filled with cat-servants and courtiers. She helps the prince with his tasks, and over time he falls in love with her. In the end, she asks him to cut off her head; sadly, the young prince obeys her command. This breaks the spell, and the cat assumes her true shape as a human princess. In "Kip the Enchanted Cat," from Russia, a mother cat and a kitten are actually mother-and-daughter under a fairy's curse. The kitten is raised with a princess, and eventually aids her with several magical tasks, leading to the spell's undoing . . . and a double wedding with two suitable princes. (This tale — about women's friendships — was a particular favorite of mine as a child.) "The Cat Bride" is a tale of animal-transformation in reverse: a house cat becomes the human bride of a good and gentle man who allows the gossip of neighbors to undermine his marital contentment. Jane Yolen includes a lovely retelling of the tale in her picture book Dream Weaver; while Storm Constantine creates a sensual version of the cat bride story in "My Lady of the Hearth," from the erotic fantasy anthology Sirens. Angela Carter makes startling use of feline shape-shifting imagery in her dark retelling of "The Tiger's Bride" (an animal bridegroom story and variant of "Beauty and the Beast") in her brilliant collection of adult fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. "Silvershod" is the Russian tale of a poor man, a child, her beloved grey cat — and a magical deer who sheds jewels in the snow; Ellen Steiber's poignant long poem based upon "Silvershod" can be found in The Armless Maiden. Steiber retells another classic cat tale in her novella "The Cats of San Martino" (forthcoming in the anthology Black Heart, Ivory Bones), based on "The Colony of Cats," the Italian story of a poor girl who becomes the servant in a household of cats at the wild edge of her village. (This tale lies at the root of the Italian saying "She's gone to live with the cats," used to describe a girl who has run away from home.) The most clever fairy tale cat of all is not a human in cat-disguise, but a feline who walks and talks like a man: that bold rascal called "Puss in Boots." The tale as we know it comes from the French version of Charles Perrault (17th century); in earlier versions (such as those of Straparola and Basile in Italy) Puss is just as wily, but hasn't yet taken to wearing his famous boots. In a Scandinavian version of the tale, called "Lord Peter," our plotting Puss is female, and turns out to be a human princess under the evil curse of a troll — bringing the story back into the shape-shifting tradition. (For a ribald adult retelling of Puss in Boots, see Esther M. Friesner's wry story "Puss," published in the anthology Snow White, Blood Red.)

     In additional to Puss in Boots and other clever rogues from old fairy tales, memorable cats can be found throughout English literature of the last hundred years. Who could forget the grinning Cheshire Cat met by Alice in Wonderland, or poor hungry Simpkin in Beatrix Potter's Christmas tale, The Tailor of Gloucester? Or Rudyard Kipling's The Cat Who Walks by Himself stalking through the Just So Stories? Or Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy Cat, setting to sea in their pea-green boat? Or T.S. Eliot's dashing Growltiger in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats? Or Mehitabel, friend to Archy the cockroach, in the poems of Don Marquis?

     Scottish author Nicholas Stuart Gray (writing in the 1950s and '60s) created some of the most memorable cats to be found in children's literature, in the fantasy tales: Grimbold's Other World, The Stone Cage, and Mainly in Moonlight. Fritz Leiber's story "Space-Time for Springers" (published in 1958) is one of the great cat tales of all time, involving a teleporting kitten; other memorable cats include those prowling through Diana Wynne Jones's The Lives of Christopher Chant, Will Shetterly's Cats Have No Lord, and Jack Cady's recent magical realist novel The Off Season.

     If you'd like to know about cat lore and legends, Katharine Briggs is the standard authority; her book Nine Lives: The Folklore of Cats is both informative and entertaining. Lady of the Beasts: The Goddess and Her Sacred Animals by Buffie Johnson is a useful reference source, as is Deerdancer: The Shapeshifter Archetype in Story and in Trance by Michele Jamal (although be warned of the overly New Age slant of the latter volume). I highly recommend The King of the Cats and Other Feline Fairy Tales edited by John Richard Stephens, an excellent book on the subject gathering both well- and lesser-known fairy tale variants from around the world. All Cats Go to Heaven edited by Beth Brown (published in 1960 and a little hard to find) is a delightful collection of fifty cat tales by the likes of Lewis Carroll, Lafacadio Hearne, Karel Capek, Paul Gallico, Suki, Colette, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Lloyd Alexander. I also highly recommend The Sophisticated Cat, an anthology edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern — a fat, treasure-house of a volume gathering a range of stories from writers like Anton Chekhov, Emile Zola, P.G. Wodehouse, Earnest Hemingway and Damon Runyon to Angela Carter, Soseki Natsume, Alice Adams and Ursula K. Le Guin — as well as poetry by Keats, Shelley, Yeats, Graves, Rilke, Neruda and numerous others. The Japanese story The Boy Who Drew Cats is retold by Arthur A. Levine in a gorgeous picture book version illustrated by the great French illustrator Frederic Clement. Ellen Steiber also makes use of this story (transplanted to England's mist-covered Dartmoor) in a magical tale for young readers called Fangs of Evil. T.S. Eliot's hilarious Old Possum poems are available in many editions, but I particularly recommend the picture book version illustrated by Errol Le Cain: Growltiger's Last Stand. The Wild Road by "Gabriel King" is a lovely new British fantasy novel about cats on an epic quest, filled with gems of cat folklore, written by the talented team of Jane Johnson and M. John Harrison. Cat lovers may also enjoy a witty little book called Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton's Polar-Bound Cat, by Caroline Alexander. The book purports to be the journal kept by Mrs. Chippy, the (male) cat on board the ship Endurance in its 1914 trip to Antarctica; the journal is introduced by another cat, Lord Mouser-Hunt, F.R.G.S., and comes complete with maps and photographs, all presented quite earnestly (albeit tongue-in-cheek). You'll find a whole herd (or is it pride?) of magical cats in Catfantastic, a four-volume anthology series edited by Andre Norton and Martin H. Greenberg. My own preference, however, is for Twists of the Tale, an anthology of "cat horror" edited by Ellen Datlow — which I recommend even to those who don't usually like horror (or theme anthologies). It's a wonderful collection of enchanting, spooky, unusual and highly literate stories, edited by a woman whose own two cats clearly keep her on her toes.

     The association of fantasy writers and cats is not new to this century. In 1817, Washington Irving (the author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) paid a visit to the Scottish writer and folklorist Sir Walter Scott. The following comes from Irving's account of that meeting, published in 1835: "The evening passed delightfully in a quaint-looking apartment, half-study, half-drawing room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of Arthur, with a fine deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to me to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture. While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin [Scott's cat] had taken his seat in a chair by the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.

     "'Ah,' said he, 'these cats are very mysterious kind of folk. There is always more passing in their minds than we are aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar with witches and warlocks.' He went on to tell a little story about a gude man who was returning to his cottage one night, when, in a lonely out-of-the-way place, he met with a funeral coffin covered with a black velvet pall. The worthy man, astonished and half frightened at so strange a pageant, hastened home and told what he had seen to his wife and children. Scarce had he finished, when a great black cat that sat by the fire raised himself up, exclaimed, 'Then I am king of the cats!' and vanished up the chimney. The funeral seen by the gude man was one of the cat dynasty. "'Our grimalkin here,' added Scott, 'sometimes reminds me of the story, by the airs of sovereignty which he assumes; and I am apt to treat him with respect from the idea he may be a great prince incognito, and may some time or other come to the throne.'"

     As a writer who also lives with cats, I confess I share Scott's attitude, and the attitude of the ancient Egyptians — I'm inclined to treat cats with the care and courtesy usually due to royalty (much to the amusement, I might add, of non-cat-owning friends).

     Two pairs of eyes are watching me now, from the couch and the ledge by the window. Faerieland shines in those eyes. And I must leave you, for it's the witching hour and a full moon is rising. . . .


Additional Recommended Reading:
Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-bound Cat , by Caroline Alexander
Fudoki, a novel by Kij Johnson (highly recommended)
The Wild Road, by Gabriel King
The Golden Cat, by Gabriel King
Tailchaser’s Song, by Tad Williams

About the Author:

Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio. For more information, please visit her Endicott bio page.

Copyright © 1998 by Terri Windling. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1998, and may not be reproduced in any form without the author's consent. "Cat at Door" by Arthur Rackham.


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