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The Symbolic Meaning of The Cat

A Cat, Doh! (j/k)

I love cats, and when I thought there should be other things besides just my adopted pets on my page, the first thing I thought I should add was something about my favourite felines. So, this is information about what cats symbolize, taken from the Dictionary of Symbolic & Mythological Animals by J C Cooper.

The changing dilation and contraction of the cat's eyes make it a natural symbol of both solar and lunar powers: solar as the varying strength of the sun and lunar as the waxing and waning of the moon. As a nocturnal animal it also represents the splendour of the night, but its movements typify stealth. The black cat is totally associated with the lunar aspect, with death, evil and the power of witches. The good luck of the black cat is a modem development. There is a supernatural element connected with the cat; it is said to be psychic and, like the rat, to have foreknowledge of impending disaster. Sailors will not use the word at sea, and care must be taken over what is said in front of a cat. It has been persecuted and avoided as a witch's familiar; cats and dogs as familiars are also rain-makers, hence 'raining cats and dogs', but in other connections the two animals are in opposition as hereditary enemies; here the dog is solar and the cat lunar.

The cat appears in Greek art in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, but is little mentioned; it is depicted in Pompeii as a pet in Roman art, and the Goddess of Liberty has a cat at her feet symbolising the rejection of all restraint. Artemis took the form of a cat when fleeing from Typhon. Pliny and Seneca mention cats, and they feature in Gallo-Roman sculpture as an attribute of the Moon Goddess Diana. The cult was spread by Roman colonists.

The Egyptian veneration of the cat was widely established from 1570 BC. It was sacred to Set, the power of darkness, and to the goddess Bast or Bastet; at Bubastis she has a cat's head and human body; she also appears as Ubastet or Pasht (this has been suggested as the origin of the word 'puss'). Bast represented the benign aspect of the sun as the cat basks in the solar rays. Originally a Lion-Goddess, she was Goddess of Joy and guarded against disease. Herodotus said that cats were so cared for in Egypt that the people would save cats from a fire in the house rather than the house itself or any other possessions. Cats were mummified; this implied the protection and favour of the Mother Goddess Isis, and the cat also portrays pregnant women since the moon makes the seed grow in the womb.

The cat does not play a large part in Celtic tradition but it was associated with chthonic powers and was thus funerary, also a prophetic animal. In Roman Gaul and in Irish lore there was a 'Little Cat' as a guardian of treasure; it turned into a flaming object and burned the thief to ashes. There was an island inhabited by men with catheads. In Celtic saga there were Monster Cats to be fought by the Hero, the cat taking the place of the Dragon. The Welsh Great Cat was born of the enchanted sow Henwen, originally a human; it could eat nine score warriors. Monster cats and sea-cats appear in Irish tradition of probably Celtic origin. In Irish myth the eldest son of a hog had a cat's head and was known as 'Puss of the Corner'.

In Scandinavia, cats are an attribute of Freyja, the northern Venus, who symbolises love and passion and who controls the night; cats draw her chariot.

The Amerindian Wild Cat is a Hunter-God, younger brother of the Coyote, it portrays stealth; as the Tiger Cat or Cat-a-Mountain it is fierceness, ingratitude. The Wild Cat replaces the Badger (who is not strong of will) in Zuni hunting rituals. The Peruvian cat Ccoa is a storm spirit with a large head and with hail raining from its eyes and ears. The Guirivulu is a cat monster of South America, its tail ends in a claw; it can change into a snake and live in the waters. The Wild Cat is also a totem animal of an Australian Aboriginal tribe.

In the East, the Hindu Goddess of Birth, Shasti, rides a cat as a symbol of the prolific. With the Chinese the cat, as a nocturnal animal, is Yin and associated with the powers of evil and of transformation, it is a shape-shifter. Seeing a strange cat foretells change and a black cat denotes misfortune or illness the cat maintains its symbolism of transformation in Japan but it also becomes peaceful repose. In Japanese myth and legend the cat, with the fox and badger, is associated with endless trickery, shape-shifting, bewitching phantoms and vampires. The cat is, with the venomous snake, under a curse, as they were the only two creatures who did not weep at the death of the Buddha, but the cat is popular with Japanese sailors as it can keep off evil spirits of the deep and has control over the dead. For the Ainu of Japan cats are capable of bewitching people, possessing them, or causing misfortune. Their nature is demonic as they originally rose from the ashes of a demon defeated and burned by the Mole deity, but another myth says that cats were created to deal with rats that bit off the Devil's tongue. As coming from demons they must be treated with care.

Zoroastrianism divides the animal kingdom into those who serve Ormuzd, the good, and those of Ahriman, the evil. Dogs belong to Ormuzd but cats to Ahriman and there are Divis who are cat-headed with horns and hoofs that depict the 'false gods' of Persian myth. This symbolism is reversed in Islam, in which dogs are unclean but the cat, having received a blessing from the Prophet, may be kept by Muslims.

The domestic cat is not mentioned in the Bible but has a single reference in the Apocrypha in Baruch 6:22 which probably refers to the Wild Cat, associated with the bat as unclean and as being among the animals appearing on Babylonian images - cats, bats and swallows.

Christianity connects the cat with Satan, the HellCat, darkness, lust and laziness.

In British Heraldry the Wild Cat, the Cat-a-Mountain or Cat-a-Mont appears frequently but most often in Scottish armory; it is always represented full-face, like the leopard.

It is suggested that the nursery rhyme 'Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle...'had Egyptian origins - the Cow being Nut, the Heavenly Cow, the lunar Great Mother, and the cat-headed Bast, with the Dog representing the jackal or dog-headed Anubis; the fiddle is the sistrum of Isis and the dish and spoon ritual vessels. The sacred Cow-Dog-Cat theme appears in Roman, Gallic, British and Celtic traditions.


© Bex (Rebecca Staker)1998