According to one 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 (pictured on the right) 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.
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 aided in spells and carried messages to the Devil. During the tragically widespread witch trials of 16th and 17th century Europe, feline "familiars" were burned, hung, and drowned alongside their mistresses. A witch, it was said, could shape-shift into cat form whenever the moon was full. Good men were advised to lay consecrated salt on their doorstep, lest witches compel them to join in their revels.
When we turn from folklore to fairy tales, shape-shifting cats are viewed as less sinister creatures. In "The White Cat," a popular French fairy tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, 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. (For a thoroughly modern rendition of the tale, I recommend Holly Black's YA novel The White Cat.)
In "Kip the Enchanted Cat," from Russia, a mother cat and her kitten are actually human beings under a fairy's curse. The kitten is raised with a human 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 story 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. (I recommend Jane Yolen's lovely retelling in her story collection Dream Weaver.)
The Russian fairy tale "Silvershod" is the story of a poor man, a child, her beloved cat Moura, and a mysterious stag who sheds jewels in the snow. The fairy tale ends oddly, for the jewels bring prosperity but the dear little cat vanishes with the stag. In a bittersweet poem inspired by the fairy tale, Ellen Steiber writes:
In the north country
a child wakes in a soft feather bed
a red-brown cat
whose nose was cold against her neck.
In the north country
a child sits in a tall, gabled house
and remembers a pale gray stag
with a silver hoof
who gave and took
what was most precious.
The best known fairy tale cat of them all, of course, is that clever, bold rascal called "Puss-in-Boots." The story as we know it now comes from the French version penned by Charles Perrault in the 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, "Lord Peter," our plotting Puss is female, and is really a princess under a troll's evil curse -- but in most tales, Puss is a cat, nothing more, albeit a very magical cat. (The bawdiest and best retelling, in my opinion, is Angela Carter's, in The Bloody Chamber.)
In additional to Puss-in-Boots and other memorable rogues from folklore and fairy tales, cats stalk through the pages of books beloved by children and adults alike. Who could forget the grinning Cheshire Cat met by Alice in Wonderland, or poor hungry Simpkin in Beatrix Potter's The Tailer of Gloucester?
Or Rudyard Kipling's The Cat Who Walks by Himself, padding his way 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? Or the wily cats in Nicholas Stuart Gray's classic children's stories: Grimbold's Other World, The Stone Cage and Mainly in Moonlight? Or, more recently, the fabulous felines in A Circle of Cats and The Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess?
In 1817, the American author Washington Irving paid a visit to Scottish author 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."
Any one of the cats padding through our lives each day may be a future King or Queen of the Cats, just waiting for the call to claim their crown. They certainly seem to think so themselves. They know they are creatures of magic.
The paintings and drawings above are by Arthur Rackham, Virginia Lee, Gwen John, Adrienne Ségur, Ruth Sanderson, Omar Rayyan, Sir John Tenniel, Beatrix Potter, Chris Dunn, Charles Vess, Lisbeth Zwerger, David Wyatt, and Iga Moore. The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and authors.