This week I worked on a short story where the protagonist saves a werewolf from hunters, with help from her old barn cat. To make the story work I needed to know more about cats in myth and folklore, so I went digging and discovered:
- "Kate Kearney's cat" is proverbially incredibly old, old enough to have "eaten the year."
- The Assyrian lamassu is similar to the sphinx, but their five feet create a pretty clever optical illusion. Somewhat hilariously, there seems to be disagreement about whether it is a cat or a bull. I've seen "bull-headed sphinx" before, though, so I think archaeologists just like to play fast-and-loose with terminology.
- The oldest known animal-shaped sculpture is a lion-headed, human-bodied figurine carved from mammoth ivory over 30,000 years ago in Germany.
- Cats in Burmese mythology serve as psychopomps, transporting the souls of royalty and monks to the heavens after death.
- Oregon folklore tells of a winged cat (the Splintercat) that flies through the Cascade Mountains so fast that when it hits a big tree, it knocks the branches off, withers the trunk and leaves behind a 'dead snag.'
Kilkenny cats are a fabled pair of creatures who fought until only their tail remained, sort of like a feline ouroboros. Idiomatically, they evoke notions of a Pyrrhic victory. Written evidence of the story dates from 1807, you can read it here.
Like a mountain lion with, well, a ball at the end of its tail, the folklore surrounding ball-tailed cats comes to us from American loggers at the end of the 20th century. What's most interesting are the variants, at least one of which has spikes on one side of the tail ball and a flat surface on the other, apparently to allow for more targeted attack types. [Read More]
Shapeshifting cats are common in folklore, from the French "White Cat" who turns into a human princess when her suitor cuts off her head, to a Russian princess' BFF, to "the Cat Bride," which is strikingly similar to Irish Selkie myths.
Mixtures & Deformations
In the late 1800s in Baltimore, two women brought a specimen to a museum that was "part cat, part bird." Upon examination, it was determined to be a deformed kitten somehow missing its hindquarters. This led the anthropologist to a fascinating story about the origin stories of various mythological creatures, including the sphinx & the mother of the Nemean Lion. Read More.