Cast are one of my absolute favorite animals, along with ravens and corgis (and their teeny tiny legs). Found almost all over the world, they range from large cats like lions and tigers, to small house cats, to even some breeds that are in between the two. While there’s still questions over whether we domesticated cats or they domesticated us, whatever the reason, they have gone from wild animals that protected our grain from rodents, to beloved household pets. And with such a history behind them, there’s no wonder that there are so many myths and legends surrounding these furry felines.
Cats were considered divine in many different countries, most notably in Ancient Egypt. Scientists believe that cats were first domesticated in in the fertile crescent over 10,000 years ago, and the domesticated felines made their way into Egyptian mythology. Since cats killed rodents and snakes, they were praised as house pets and mummified upon death. They appear often in hieroglyphics or underneath women’s chairs, representing fertility.
The first record of a cat goddess was the lion goddess Mafdet, though she was sometimes represented as a mongoose instead. As a goddess, she protected against scorpions and snakes. In legends, she represented laws and justice, and some Egyptologists believe she also represented capital punishment.
The most famous cat goddess in Egyptian mythology, Bast, or Bastet, is often depicted with a cat’s head. Originally a warrior goddess with the head of a lion, she battled against Apep the chaos serpent each night in order to protect the sun. She was the protector of Lower Egypt as well as Ra and the pharaoh. Her figurines were normally carved out of alabaster and often seen on perfume bottles, earning her the name “the perfumed protector”.
Sekhmet was also a warrior goddess, depicted with the head of a lion. A goddess of healing as well, she was the fiercest hunter known to the Egyptians. Her legends state that it was her breath that formed the desert and at times she was seen as a solar deity as well as a warrior goddess. When she fought, Sekhmet would enter a state of frenzy, tearing apart all who lay in her path. Even after the battle had subsided, Sekhmet still remained in the frenzy, threatening to tear apart allies as well. The only way to calm her down was to get her extremely drunk. In fact, at the beginning of each year the festival of intoxication was held in her honor.
There are many, many superstitions associated with cats, especially black cats. From bad luck to witchcraft, cats fall under a wide range of beliefs. Possibly the most devastating superstition is the association cats have with witches. In the Middle Ages, cats were often considered a witch’s familiar and due to this they were killed en masse during the Black Plague. Ironically, with no cats to control their population of rats, which were the real culprit behind the spread of the plague, the rodents were able to run rampant and spread the disease even more.
Even during the Renaissance and Victorian eras, black cats were closely associated with witches, believed to either be their familiars or the witches themselves transformed. Due to this, cats were sometimes burned alive or hurt on sight in order to chase them away. There are many legends throughout Europe of a villager injuring a cat during the night, only to find the town’s strange outcast woman having the same injuries in the morning.
Even in modern day western societies, black cats are considered a sign of bad luck. Superstition goes that if a black cat walks in front of your path, it’s a sign that bad luck will soon befall you. This superstition even extends to the highest seat of power in the United States. Legends around the White House speak of the demon cat, a black cat that’s supposed appear whenever someone is about to die.
In Japan however, cats are considered good luck and symbols of prosperity. The Maneki Neko, also known as the fortune cat, is usually depicted waving one paw. The legend behind this cat was that during a storm, a man noticed a cat waving at him. A few seconds after he came over to the cat, lightning struck the place where he had been standing.
Russians also believe that cats are good luck symbols. It’s believed that owning a cat and letting it into a new house before humans live there are both signs of good luck. At the Winter Palace, cats have been protecting the inhabitants from rodents since the 1750s. These cats were originally taken care of by special servants. After the Russian Revolution, this job was taken over by volunteers. In current times, there are now special employees take care of these very pampered pets.