Updated date:

The Folklore of Cats

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

It's been said that the internet was invented so that people could post videos of their cats, but veneration of felines goes back way before the world wide web arrived. People have created mythologies around cats; sometimes the kitties come out looking benign and majestic, other times they are malevolent and harbingers of disaster.

The Domestication of Cats

Before there were domestic cats there was an animal known as Felis silvestris lybica (North African/Southwest Asian wildcat).

Humans developed agriculture about 12,000 years ago and that led to the storage of grain from the harvest. This attracted the attention of mice looking for food, which, in turn, attracted the attention of wild cats also looking for food.

Our farming ancestors would have noticed that the wild cats controlled the rodent population that was stealing their grain. So, cats were encouraged to hang around the farmyard. Slowly, they became accustomed to human contact while keeping their hunting instincts.

Veterinarian Dr. Ruth MacPete, writes that “Ultimately, cats either followed their human companions, or were intentionally brought along, as humans migrated across the globe. This makes a lot of sense when you think about how domestic cats today, including 'fancy' purebreds, maintain their hunting skills. In many ways, we didn’t domesticate cats, they domesticated us.”

There's a Hebrew legend that has a different explanation for the origin of cats. On his ark, Noah was overrun by rats, a problem made worse by the fact that God had not created cats. So, Noah prayed to God for help and two cats came out of the mouths of the lioness and lion. The cats immediately went to work and reduced the rat population to the original two. When the flood receded the cats were given the honour of leading the parade of animals leaving the boat, giving cats their proud nature.

Cats in Fairy Tales

Tabbies have been popular characters in fairy tales for a long time. Aesop told about how a council of mice devised a plan to protect themselves from a cat. The scheme was to tie a bell around the cat's neck so it would ring and give warning of the animal's approach. Then, a wise old mouse asked “Who will bell the cat?” There was silence so the old mouse said “It is easy to propose impossible measures.”

Certain politicians might want to take note.

A story from China tells of a fortunate couple who had a golden ring. They sold the ring and their luck left them. They had a cat and a dog and the animals decided they had to retrieve the ring. Working together, they recovered the ring, but the cat got back to the couple's house first and took all the credit for bringing back the ring. The dog was fed scraps and had to live outside, the cat was pampered and slept by the fire. This is why dogs and cats don't get along.

“Kip the Enchanted Cat” tells the tale of a cat and her kitten in Russia. The cats were humans cursed by a fairy. The kitten helped a human princess perform magical work and this broke the fairy's spell. The cat and her kitten returned to being human and they married handsome princes.

Then, there is rascally Puss-in-Boots. There are various versions of this story but mostly they involve a roguish kitty with magical powers. He uses wily subterfuge to win for his penniless master a castle, a title, and a princess as a bride.

Cats as Killers

In general, fairy tales treated cats kindly and people in the Middle East and north Africa even worshipped them. However, in Europe, cats tend to get a bad name in folklore and mythology.

In Britain, cats were, and still are in certain quarters, believed to be baby killers. The story is that cats are attracted to the smell of milk on a baby's breath and that moggies then suck the air out of the infant. In 1791, a coroner's jury in England decided a cat was guilty of infanticide for killing a child in this way.

Okay, if that's a bit too far fetched for you, there's the theory that the arrival of a newborn in a house makes the cat jealous. Loss of its privileged status makes the feline kill its rival. Snopes.com tells us that “This theory is of far more recent coinage than the bit of lore it purports to explain, though, coming into fashion no earlier than the 20th century (while the 'smother' belief dates to at least the 1700s).”

Celtic people have the Cat Sith, a black feline the size of a dog, with a white blaze on its chest. These siths were shapeshifters, turning into a witch and back to a cat as the spirit moved them, but they were limited to eight transformations.

The ninth change meant the animal stayed a cat for the rest of its life; this is where the legend of a cat having nine lives comes from. Cat Siths were believed to steal the souls of the recently dead, so people played games and used catnip to distract the moggies away from the corpse to give the soul time to be claimed by the gods.

Medieval folk associated cats with the devil and witchcraft. The worst sin that was attributed to them was that they could turn beer sour. So clearly, they had to be got rid of.

Massacres of cats, often by burning them, took place under the urging of the Roman Catholic Church. But, the law of unintended consequences kicked in. By killing cats, the rat population increased and so did the fleas that lived on the rats. These were the same fleas that carried the bubonic plague causing the deaths of between 75 and 200 million people.

And, Icelanders are careful not to mess with the Yule Cat.

Cat Superstitions

  • In Wales, it was believed that when a cat's pupils were dilated rain was on its way. Clearly, this meant that Welsh cats had permanently widened pupils.
  • British fishermen sometimes throw part of their catch into the water to appease a sea cat that, superstition says, has the power to wreck ships if not treated properly.
  • Cats are supposed to bring bad luck if they (a) follow you, (b) sleep with you, (c) go with you when you move, (d) sneeze three times in a row, and (e) appear in your dreams.
  • In Scotland, people moving into a new home would send in a cat first; the idea was that the tabby would ingest any curses or diseases left by the previous residents.
  • Killing a cat in Asia, whether on purpose or accidentally, meant all the cat's sins would be transferred to the killer.
  • Black cats are deemed to be bad luck or good luck; take your pick.
  • Playing too much with cats (“too much” is not quantified) will cause you to have poor health.
  • If a cat jumps over a grave in Southern Europe, it's believed the corpse will rise as a vampire.
  • Dutch people avoid having private conversations with a cat in the room, because felines are believed to be notorious gossips.
  • Cats in theatres are believed to bring good luck.
  • Cleo, the writer's family cat, says that bestowing upon her endless cuddles and good food will guarantee a long, happy, and comfortable life for all of us.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a proclamation declaring that cats were “the devil’s favourite animal and idol of all witches.”
  • Morris the Cat, billed as the “world's most finicky cat,” was used in advertisements for 9Lives cat food and went on to movie roles. He was several cats, all rescued, and had an estimated net worth of between $100,000 and $1 million.
  • There are about 700 million feral cats in the United States.
  • “Unsinkable Sam” was a cat that served in Germany's Kriegsmarine and the British Royal Navy during World War II. He was aboard three naval vessels that sank and survived all three catastrophes. You can read more about him here.
Cats sleep up to 16 hours a day.

Cats sleep up to 16 hours a day.

Sources

  • “The Truth about the Origin of the Domestic House Cat.” Dr. Ruth MacPete, pethealthnetwork.com, August 13, 2014.
  • “Feline Folklore.” Terri Windling, Myth & Moor, August 8, 2019.
  • “Cats Suck Babies’ Breath.” David Mikkelson, snopes.com, June 29, 2007.
  • “The Cat Sìth in Celtic Mythology.” Rowan Moffet, scotclans.com, August 15, 2018.
  • “Cat Superstitions & Folklore.” superstitiondictionary.com, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Joanne Hayle from Wiltshire, U.K. on July 12, 2021:

Great piece. Cleo is a wise cat! There were/are some very odd thoughts and mindsets out there. I didn't know the reason for the nine lives before so thanks for telling us!.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on July 09, 2021:

Very interesting cat facts and superstitions here, Rupert. I have six felines and no two act the same.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 08, 2021:

Peggy. I grew up with pets of a variety of persuasions. Dogs come first, cats are second. Rabbits and guinea pigs were okay. Goldfish and budgies don't make the cut.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 08, 2021:

Many of those superstitions about cats are crazy, at least in my opinion. We love cats and have had several through the years. My parents also had cats along with their dogs, so I grew up with both.

Related Articles