FELINE FOLKTAILS - CATS IN FOLKLORE AND SUPERSTITION
There are hundreds of feline folktales and superstitions - cats predict the weather, sense domestic disharmony, steal a baby's breath, steal a dead person's soul, bring either good or bad luck and carry away a sick person's germs. Cats' eyes tell the time or the tides. Cats are witch's familiars, enchanted princesses, beloved by priests and prophets or envoys of the devil since they were sneezed forth by lions on the Ark and not created by God. This is very much a romp through some of the feline folktales and superstitions found around the world.
CATS AND GODS
The fecund cat is often been associated with fertility. The Scandinavian goddess Freyja rode in a chariot drawn by cats so farmers left out offerings for her cats to ensure a good harvest. In parts of Europe, a cat decorated with ribbons was released in the field after harvest-time to appease the gods. The Peruvian fertility god Ai Apaec could assume the form of a tomcat. A Chinese cat deity Li Shou warded off evil spirits at night and the Roman goddess Diana sometimes wore the form of a cat.
Chinese legends say that cats were put in charge of the world and had the power of speech. The cats soon delegated this job to humans so that felines could laze about. That is why cats can no longer speak and why they wear supercilious expressions when they see us scurrying about!
The shadowy patches on the necks of Siamese cats are the thumbprints of gods who picked the cats up to admire them. Birman cats started out as a plain brown cats until one jumped on the body of a Burmese priest slain by Thai invaders and the priest's spirit passed into it. The cat's body turned golden while its head, tail and legs remained brown. The cat's feet went pure white as they had touched the holy man's skin.
In Ancient Egypt, cats captured the glow of the setting sun in their eyes and kept it safe until morning, making it unlawful for cats to be killed (except in ritual sacrifice by priests). When the Persians attacked part of Egypt they tied cats to their shields - the Egyptians dared not put up a fight in case they injured or killed the cats.
To Muslims pigs and dogs are unclean, but the fastidious cat is tolerated. The Prophet Mohammed had a tabby cat which fell asleep on the sleeve of his robe. Rather than disturb the cat, he cut off his sleeve when he answered the muezzin (call to prayer). This cat once warned Mohammed of danger and to this day tabby cats have the 'M' mark on the foreheads in remembrance of his blessing and three dark lines on their backs where he stroked his cat.
The Egyptians believed the 'M' to depict the sacred Scarab beetle while in Christian folklore it is the mark of the Virgin Mary who blessed a cat which killed a venomous snake sent by the Devil to bite the Christ child in his crib. In a related version from Christian folklore, the infant Jesus was laying in the mangershivering from cold. Alerted by his cries, a mother tabby cat lay next to the child to warm him up. In gratitude, Mary stroked the cats forehead, marking it with an 'M' and to this day, the caring mother cat's descendents all carry the mark of Mary.
The non-religious version suggests that the 'M' is a set of frown-lines where the cat has been staring at a mouse-hole in concentration, waiting for the mouse emerge!
CATS, DEMONS AND FAIRYKIND
Cats are often associated with demons and the three hairs on the tips of a cats tail are the devils hairs and cause the cat to prowl at night when all God-fearing beasts should sleep. In the southern parts of America the Devil sought retribution on anyone who drowned a cat and dispensed rheumatism for the lesser crime of kicking a cat.
n Britain, kittens born at the end of the blackberry season were notoriously mischeivous since Satan was cast out of Heaven at this time of year and landed among brambles while those born in May were often drowned as they were thought to make poor hunters.
Fisherman sometimes throw a bit of fish back into the sea 'for the cat'. This cat was the animal form of a suspected witch who went to see with her fisherman lover and brought destruction on the whole fleet to spite those who wanted her drowned as a witch. Many seafarers believed that if a cat fell overboard it would call up a storm to sink the ship. The Russian Karellian cat is a longhaired bobtailed cat. Karellians are believed to be enchanted princesses.
Many cultures consider cats to be mystical creatures which were really fairies or goblins in disguise hence the Norwegian Forest Cat is sometimes called the Fairy-Cat. Stare deeply into a cat's eyes and you will see visions of the fairy world which is spying on us through those self-same eyes. In Japan, vampires can disguise themselves as cats but are readily identified by having two tails while sorcerors disguised as cats enter houses to devour naughty children!
In a British folktale akin to Rumpelstiltskin a princess has to spin 10,000 skeins of pure white linen in order to save her betrothed from a sorceror's curse. Her three devoted cats did the spinning for her. A cats' purr is an echo of the hum of the spinning wheel.
In England, black cats are considered lucky and white cats unlucky. In America it is the other way; black cats are unlucky and white cats are the bringers of good fortune. In England if a black cat crosses your path you haven't offended the witch and she's passed you by (the cat either belongs to a witch or is a disguised witch), but in America the black cat's association with witches makes it a target for abuse not a good luck symbol. If it crossed your path from the left it brought ill luck, but if it crossed from the right it brought good fortune.
CATS FOR LUCK
In Russia, blue cats were often thought lucky while in Japan tortoiseshell-and-white ('mi-ke') is luckiest and tortoiseshell cats, especially tortie tomcats, are lucky for sailors wanting fair weather. Tri-coloured cats are also lucky in Canada, but naughty-torties are reputed to be troublesome in England. In Japan, a black spot on a cat means the the cat contains the soul of a departed ancestor. In Britain the black cat is considered to be a symbol of good luck and some people consider white cats to be unlucky, though "unlucky white cats" is not a widespread belief in Britain. In the US, white cats are lucky while black cats are unlucky and some shelters claim it is harder to rehome black cats because of the association with bad luck.
In many countries cats are said to foretell the weather. In Indonesia cats are thought to control the rain. Pour water on a cat and it will summon rain. Even today, the cloud-grey Korat is ceremonially sprinkled with water to bring rain for the crops.
In China the older and uglier a cat is, the luckier it is. This is self-explanatory as pets are forbidden and, according to a Chinese houseguest, his people traditionally eat "anything with legs except the table".
In parts of northern Europe a cat which enters a house of its own volition brings good luck with it. In Russia, couples make sure a cat moves into their new home with them to bring good fortune. In Japan, a cat waved a forepaw to beckon a lord into a building, saving him from a lightning bolt and the beckoning cat is still used as a good luck charm. According to Buddhists dark coloured cats attracted gold and light coloured cats brought silver.
In Abyssinia an unmarried girl who kept a cat was a wealthy catch. In rural areas of England it was believed unwise for a pregnant woman to let a cat sleep on her lap as the baby would be born with the face of a cat.
Cats show tremendous variation in tail length with bobtail mutations, kinks and curls having occurred in Asia, the Isle of Man, America and possibly in Russia.
Siamese palace and temple cats helped guard precious treasure. So diligent were they that their eyes became crossed from staring at the objects they were guarding. Their kinked tails came about when a Princess put her rings on a cat's tail while she bathed. The cat knotted its tail round the rings for extra security hence the kinked tails of early Siamese cats.
The Manx lost its tail when boarding the ark and the door closed on its tail. Others say that cat-tails were used to decorate spears and helmets so mother cats bit off their kittens tails at birth. Sadly there is a modern day version of this tale. On some Greek islands kittens risk being caught and killed and their tails turned into souvenir keyrings.
In Bali you stop a new kitten from straying by cutting off its tail and burying it by the door. Cats in Bali grew wise to this trick which is why cats in parts of Malaysia and in Japan only have bobbed tails. Of course, in England you just smear their paws with butter to stop them running off.
Buttering the paws, in a round-about way, could solve the derivation of the saying "no room to swing a cat". A plausible derivation for that saying is mentioned in Peter Ackroyd's book "London, The Biography". During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Whitechapel, when a family moved home it was customary to swing the family cat (hopefully not by the tail!) around one room of their new home to deter it from running away (much like wiping a cat's feet with butter in other folklore). Being a poor area of London, many families would have ended up in homes where there wouldn't be any room to swing the cat.
There aren't many superstitions about cats' feet. Polydactyl cats are also believed lucky by many people, especially by the early sailors travelling to America which is why there are now so many polydactyl cats in New England. They sailed across from Europe and jumped ship in the New World, leading to a high concentration of genes for polydactyly.
The belief isn't restricted to those sailors. "Six-finger cats" are also lucky for Malaysian households. Although some American writers and breeders have stated that polydactyls are only found in America, in actual fact they are common in Britain, fairly common in mainland Europe and not uncommon in Asia.
I've mentioned only a few variations of the more common feline folktales. There are hundreds more folktales, legends and regional variations on these tales. There are also modern-day Urban Myths involving cats. Like the older legends, some Urban Myths are malign and others benign reflecting the cat's continuing association with both good and evil forces.
More myths and tales about cats can be found at Moggycat's Cat Pages.