THE ROLE OF CATS IN MYTH AND RELIGION
Copyright 2006 - 2011, Sarah Hartwell

Note: This article is in progress and will be updated. It is not a definitive list of religious belief, since worship is a highly personal act.

Throughout history, humans have created gods in their own image and in the images of creatures around them. Sometimes they've blended attributes of humans and animals to create composite creatures. Some of these deities were personifications of natural or cultural phenomena (e.g. the sun, fertility and motherhood, warfare, love) or were viewed as divine protectors of people or places. Over time, the identity and nature of some of these deities have evolved as society evolved.

Concepts such as sun, moon, wisdom, healing etc are common enough in human society that different cultures independently spawned deities responsible for those same activities. When a nation was conquered, the new rulers often brought their own religion which absorbed aspects of the old one. As a result, the names, roles and relationships of deities mutated. Slaves and immigrants imported their native beliefs and some of their rituals and deities were incorporated into the mythology of their captors.

Monotheist religions do not have deities that combine feline and human form, though some have folklore that includes cats.

BIG CAT, LITTLE CAT

Big cats are generally personifications of power or warfare and often associated with rulers. This reflects the role of big cats as predators upon humans. Big cats were sometimes kept rulers as a symbol of their power and status. The lion, with his magnificent mane, was a symbol of male power as he commands and defends his harem of lionesses. The lioness, meanwhile was a fierce protectress of her cubs.

Domestic cats are more often symbolic of hearth and home. Their reproductive habits associate them with devoted motherhood, fertility and promiscuity. They were also protectors of the home because they hunted the pest animals that raided or fouled food stores.

BAST (Ancient Egyptian Lower Kingdom)

Probably the most familiar cat deity is Bast (also known as Bastet, Ubasti, Pasht or Pakhet) worshipped since the Second Dynasty. The name means "devourer" (feminine). The main centre of Bast-worship was Bubastis (Per-Bast). She was originally the protector goddess of Lower Egypt and depicted as a fierce lioness. She defended the pharaoh and the sun-god Ra. Although she began as a solar goddess, the Greeks changed her to a lunar deity because the associated her with the Greek lunar goddess Artemis, brother of Apollo (and by extension, she became the daughter of Isis and Osiris). This lunar aspect fits well with the cat's nocturnal nature.

The variant spelling "Bastet" emphasised her feminine nature and also associated her with perfumed ointments. Through this gentler image, Bast became a domestic cat although images of her in demi-human form sometimes showed her holding a lioness-face mask. Through her association with the domestic cat, Bast became associated with fertility and motherhood. Female cats are, of course highly promiscuous, notoriously fertile and generally very devoted mothers. She is often depicted with a sistrum, a type of musical rattle.

Bast also took the role of patron goddess of cats at a time when cats had become important as vermin controller in Egyptian granaries. Cats were bred and cared for, and possibly sacrificed, by priests in temples dedicated to Bast. Hundreds of thousands of mummified cats have been unearthed at Bubastis although some have turned out to be fakes made of other bones padded and wrapped to look like a cat. Many cat mummies have broken necks, which could indicate sacrifices of temple-bred cats or the straightening of the neck after death to create an upright stance.

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld mythology, which parodies many religions, Bast is the male god of things left on the doorstep or half-digested under the bed. Thus the tradition of deities changing roles continues.

MAAHES (Ancient Egypt)

During the New Kingdom, Egyptian mythology created/adopted the fierce lion god Maahes (also Mihos, Miysis, Maihes or Mahes) who was considered the son of Bast. In the Upper Kingdom, Maahes was the son of the fierce lion goddess Sekhmet (Upper Egypt) or Bast (Lower Egypt) - those goddesses were later combined into a single entity hence this confusing dual identity of his mother. His father was either Ptah or Atum-Ra. He also (or originally) represented the destructive power of the sun's heat. Maahes is depicted as both a lion-headed man and a lion devouring a captive

Maahes was first mentioned in the New Kingdom, possibly as a foreign import into Egyptian theology. He is similar to the Nubian lion-god Apedemak. Maahes was considered the devourer of the guilty and protector of the innocent. As son of Atum-Ra, Maahes fought Apep during Ra's night voyage.

SEKHMET (Ancient Egyptian Upper Kingdom)

Sekhmet (also Sachmet, Sakhet or Sakhmet) was the fierce lioness-goddess protector of Upper Egypt. She began as the war goddess of Upper Egypt, her cult centre moving to the new capital, Memphis, during the 12th Dynasty. Sekhmet absorbed the pre-dynastic vulture goddess Nekhbet, protectress of Nekheb in Lower Egypt and was herself eventually absorbed into the more powerful goddess Mut.

Because Upper Egypt had conquered Lower Egypt, Sekhmet was considered more powerful than Bast, the lioness-headed protectress of Lower Egypt. Sekhmet became protectress of the Pharoah. Later she was considered the bringer of disease (apparently due to priests protecting her statues from vandalism by coating them with pathogens) and was therefore also prayed to by those wanting to cure disease. Thus she became the goddess of doctors and surgeons in the Middle Kingdom. Through her association with bloodlust, and with blood in general, sekhmet became associated with menstruation.

Sekhmet was depicted as both a fierce lioness and a lioness-headed woman. Tame lions were kept in temples dedicated to Sekhmet at Leontopolis. When the religious systems of Upper and Lower Egypt were merged, fierce Sekhmet became an aspect of peaceful Hathor, mother of Atum/Nefertum and wife of Ptah. In the combined theology, Sekhmet and Hathor diverged due to their greatly different natures and Sekhmet's identity merged with that of Mut.

AILUROS (Ancient Greece)

Ailuros was the Greek name for Bast. The Ancient Greeks viewed Bast as a version of their lunar goddess Artemis, sister of Apollo and daughter of Zeus and Leto.

APEDEMAK (Ancient Nubia)

A fierce lion-headed god worshipped in Nubia, and later incorporated into Ancietn Egyptian mythology in the form Maahes.

SPHINX (Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Assyria)

Not actually a god, the Sphinx is found in Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek and Assyrian mythologies. The lion was a powerful symbol in Ancient Egypt where there were several fierce lion-human composite deities. The Egyptian Sphinx may be found in the role of protector with the head of a Pharoah combined with the recumbent body of a lion; a combination of wisdom and strength called an androsphinx by the Greeks. Others are ram-headed sphinxes (criosphinxes). Whole avenues of Sphinxes of either type lined the routes to important temples, while the famous Great Sphinx of Giza guards the pyramids.

Greek mythology there was only one Sphinx – a woman-headed demon of bad luck and destruction – depicted sitting upright rather than recumbent. The Greek version had eagle's wings and sometimes a serpent's tail. She challenged travellers to Thebes to answer a riddle and strangled those unable to answer correctly. The name "sphinx" is from the Greek verb "to strangle". The famous riddle of the Sphinx related to a creature that moves on 4 legs in the morning, on 2 legs at midday and on 3 legs in the evening. The answer is "man" – he crawls on 4 legs as a child, walks on 2 legs as an adult and walks with a cane (3 legs) in the twilight of his life.

Assyrian Sphinx was sometimes depicted as having a man's head and chest, a lion's forequarters, a bull's hindquarters and an eagle's wings. This was incorporated in Christianity to symbolise the Biblical tetramorph and the four living creatures of Revelation. [Ezekial 1:5-14; Rev. 4:6-8] which can represent the cherubim; the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John or 4 kings of the created world. The lion is king of the jungle, the eagle is king of the air, the bull is king of the farm and man is king of creation. According to St. Jerome, the man represents Christ's Incarnation, the bull represents Christ's Passion, the lion represents the Resurrection and the eagle represents his Ascension.

MHA (India, Hinduism)

Narasimha or "man-lion" was the 4th incarnation of Lord Vishnu according to Hindu tradition. In this incarnation, he had a human body with the head of a lion and was a god incarnate as a part-human, part-animal in order to kill the demon Hiranyakashipu, who cannot be killed by human, god or animal. As Narasimha is not any of these, but is all of these at once, he is able to kill the demon.

(Scandinavia)

sNore deity Freya (also Frija) is the goddess of love and fertility (both animal and the land) and the wife of Odr or Ottar. She rode in a chariot pulled by 2 cats the size of lions. An early form of Freya was Frya, an earth goddess. Some cat fanciers like to identify Freya's cats as Norwegian Forest Cats. Freya had a fondness for fairies and that breed is also known as the Fairy cat.

AMERICAS

Cahokia was a Native American city in pre-colonial Illinois. Cahokians believed in a different god for most items. Their god of the earth was depicted as a cat-headed snake. South America is home to the powerful Jaguar, Puma, the medium-sized Ocelot and Margay and a number of small cats including the Jaguarundi/Eyra. Although the Jaguarundi was sometimes kept as a pet, none of the small cats were truly domesticated.

Mesoamerica, also called the pre-Columbian civilizations of southern Mexico and northern Central America, includes the Olmecs (c.1500 - 400 BC), Mayans (c. 300 - 900 AD), Zapotecs (c. 300 - 600 AD), Toltecs (c. 900 - 1180 AD) and Aztecs (c. 1325 - 1521 AD).

The agrarian Olmecs were skilled artists and architects and built impressive religious centres. Their gods formed the basis of the later cultures' religions. Olmec religious tales and practices were earth-centred and full of animal symbolism, including the form of the jaguar. This is analogous to the lion becoming a symbol of power in Africa and the Middle East. The jaguar is the native big cat of Central and South America and its power would have been both feared and admired. The Jaguar was also the totem (spiritual animal) of the shaman, which gave rise to the tales of were-jaguars (perhaps due to the frenzied dancing and the wearing of skins and skulls of this big cat).

The Olmecs man-jaguar combined the characteristics of both human and big cat and may have been the forerunners of Aztec and Mayan rain gods. The Olmec religion influenced the Zapotecs and Maya whose more sophisticated and mature religions retained the earlier anthropomorphic Jaguar deity. The gods of the warlike Toltecs were more bloodthirsty and barbaric and coincided with the disappearance of the Maya. Next came the Aztecs who continued the tradition of cruelty and sacrifice. However, during all of this, the jaguar figure was honoured and respected.

The Mayan war god, Cit-Chac-Coh translates to "twin of the red lion" ("lion" meaning the cougar or mountain lion while their god of healing, Itzamna was fond of jaguars, lizards, and wisdom. The Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue was not cat-like in form (she combined aspects of serpents, dragons, crocodiles and even a giant frog), but she did revere the jaguar.

The greatest of the South American cultures were the Incas who, in their 90 year span (1440 - 1530), created a vast empire and unified various tribes. Although absolute power was wielded by a "living incarnation" of the Inca sun-god, they remained tolerant of the different cultures of the tribes they conquered and worshipped the jaguar as a powerful god.

The Brazilian twin gods Ariconte and Tamendonare were actually half-brothers, having different fathers (much like kittens in the same litter!). Although not feline in form, their mythos is linked to South American wild cats. One had a mortal father and the other had a deity father, but they argued over who was son of whom and became deadly foes. However, when their mother was eaten by cannibals, the twins united and got their revenge by turning the cannibals into wild cats.

The Amazonian Tucano Indians believe the roar of the jaguar is the sound of thunder. Other tribes believe the jaguar to be the god of darkness or that its spots represent the stars and heavens, with eclipses caused by it swallowing the sun.

The Quechua Indians of South America made placatory offerings to a temperamental cat spirit called Ccoa who controlled lightning and struck down both crops and people.

Noel Mollinedo from Bolivia has provided descriptions of the Supay (Bolivian Andes) and Simpira (Peru). The Supay is an evil genie that owns all the silver in the world and all the precious metal mines. It has the power to transform a rich mine of gold into common dirt or vice versa. The Supay is depicted as a having ram’s horns, the head of a jaguar and the body and paws of a puma and the smell of brimstone. It is also able to transform itself into a handsome man, a beautiful woman, a domestic cat, an owl, or into nature disasters such as hailstorms, hurricanes or earthquakes. The Simpira is the lord of “panshin nete” (a place similar to hell) and has the form of a black jaguar with deer horns, one of his paws has the form of a corkscrew and can grow large enough to catch wrongdoers and drag them into panshin nete where they are transformed into into jungle beasts to serve the Simpira.

FELINES IN ABRAHAMIC RELIGIONS

Being current monotheistic religions, there are varying (and sometimes bitterly disputed) interpretations of these faiths and of the folklore that becomes associated with these religions, but does not form part of the official religious doctrines. Religions are not static. Beliefs of earlier religions and cults may be assimilated when tribal people are converted to Christianity and native deities and rituals may become associated with Catholic saints as has happened in parts of South America. Religions evolve to suit changed needs as cultures change, attracting new interpretations. Modern religions also attract bodies of folklore in the same way that earlier religions did. The current mythos of works of fiction such as "Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" and "Da Vinci Code" are examples of how modern religions continue to evolve through popular belief. This section is intended to be impartial and not follow any single interpretation.

CHRISTIANITY

In Christianity, the "M" marking on the forehead of tabby cats is said to be where Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ (Christianity's primary prophet and son of the single Christian god) touched and blessed a tabby cat that comforted her baby.

Cats later got a much worse deal when they became associated with the devil. In the Middle Ages they, along with many other ordinary creatures, were considered the familiars of witches. Witches were mostly harmless old women who probably kept cats as company and to kill rats and mice around the home. When cats were tortured to death, their screams were said to be the screams of Lucifer himself. Devil worshippers variously revered cats (apparently kissing them under the tail i.e. on the anus) or using them as animal sacrifices. Black cats were especially associated with witches and continue to form part of witch-lore, especially at Hallowe'en.

The tale of the escaped slave and the lion was one of Aesop's fables about kindness being repaid. It has become a Christian parable in the form of Androcles (or Androclus) and the lion. Androcles the slave (a Christian slave in George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play and the version adopted into Christian folklore) escaped his cruel master and fled into the countryside. He hid in an empty cave and thought himself dead when it turned out to be a lion's den. The lion turned out to be injured and the slave removed a large thorn from its paw. The grateful lion allowed the slave to live, hunt and eat with him.

According to Aesop's version, the slave became homesick and returned to human society. According to Christian fable he was captured, along with the lion, by Roman soldiers. Either way, he ended up in the arena either as an example to other slaves considering escape or because he was a Christian at a time when they were persecuted. The lion pitted against him turned out to be his companion from the cave. Rather than attack him, the lion made a fuss of him. The Emperor demanded an explanation and was impressed enough to grant them both their freedom. A child's Sunday School version is styled "Andy Rockles and the Lion".

Over the ages, Christianity has tended to incorporate earlier mythologies and reinterpret them to align with Christian beliefs. The Assyrian Sphinx therefore became symbolic of the Biblical tetramorph. It could represent the four living creatures of Revelation as detailed by Ezekial. It could represent the cherubim; the Gospels of the 4 Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John or 4 kings of the created world. The lion is king of the jungle, the eagle is king of the air, the bull is king of the farm and man is king of creation. According to St. Jerome, the man represents Christ's Incarnation, the bull represents Christ's Passion, the lion represents the Resurrection and the eagle represents his Ascension.

The Greek sphinx usually had 3 parts – human head, eagle's wings and lion's body – which equate to the Christian trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost (the Bible is fond of things that occur in threes e.g. 3 kings/wise men, 3 shepherds). Its optional serpent's tail can no doubt be interpreted as the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden!

ISLAM

In Islam, the "M" marking stands for the prophet Mohammed (Muhammad) who had a great fondness for cats. While dogs are considered unclean by many Muslims, cats - who frequently bury their own waste and rarely eat another animal's faeces - are not.

Mohammed apparently loved cats and rather than disturb his sleeping cat, Muezza, he once cut off a sleeve of his robe which she was sleeping on when the call to prayer sounded. It is also said that the reason he loved cats was that one saved his life from a snake that had crawled into his sleeve. Legend says that Mohammed blessed cats with the ability to land on their feet. One of his writings tells that he had a vision of a woman punished in Hell for starving her cat to death.

MESSYBEAST : GENERAL INTEREST

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