China and Japan
The Chinese have the
oldest surviving civilization in the world, beginning with the Shang
dynasty in around 1650 ΒΡΕ. Records recall rulers' consultations with
ancestral spirits and emphasise a male-orientated society with an
earthly reflection on the 'unworthiness' of a ruler when rivers dried up
and earthquakes and other natural phenomena occurred.
The ancient religion of Shinto, 'the way of the Gods', is the oldest
system of belief in Japan. Buddhism and Confucianism, followed by Zen,
emerged later. One of the chief deities in the Shinto pantheon was
Amaterasu the Sun goddess, who symbolised fertility and was said to be
the bringcr of good fortune.
First China and then Japan absorbed Buddhism from India. While Indian
Buddhism was concerned with the individual's path to enlightenment, the
Ear Eastern version was more family-based. Gradually deities evolved,
and the female goddess Kkuanyin, 'bestower of children', became a
popular fertility totem.
The Chinese and Japanese depicted the cat in delicate and finely
executed watercolours on parchment and silk.These works of art indicate
that the cat was important in the oriental way of life: apart from its
obvious use in keeping vermin away from the precious stocks of silk, the
air of equinamity which surrounded the cat and its aura of inner wisdom
were qualities with which Buddhists could empathise. So the cat found
its way into the pantheon of oriental deities, one such being the
Chinese cat god Li Shou, said to ward off evil spirits of the night.
Agricultural deities too, were often depicted in the form of cats.
The Chinese believe that the size of the pupil of a cat's eye is
determined by the height of the Sun above the Earth's horizon. To tell
the time, they simply lift up the lid of a cats' eye. In China, white
cats are linked with the Moon and arc thought to steal moonbeams.
Black in colour and
black in spirit
Black cats have
appeared in numerous demonic guises throughout the ages, and some
emerged from watery beginnings. In ancient China manuscripts tell of a
cat owned by an Emperor which bathed in a pool of water following three
days of rain. Suddenly the cat transformed itself into a dragon, flew
off and was never seen again.
Revenge and dark deeds
In sixth-century China
it was believed that after death people sometimes changed themselves
into cats in order to take revenge upon their enemies, saying that if
you were afraid of a cat you must have been a rat in a previous
existence. A lady of the period, whom the Empress had condemned to die,
threatened to return and change the Empress into a rat so that she might
catch and kill her.
According to Chinese myth cats were supernatural creatures who could
detect ghosts and evil spirits. Subsequently, in certain parts of China
cats were held to be very special and even worshipped. It was thought
that cats could not only see demons but also be demons themselves, and
for this reason dead cats were not buried but hung in trees to scare
evil spirits away from those passing beneath.
In Japan tortoiseshell
or tri-coloured cats are considered to be lucky, and long ago Japanese
sailors took these mike neko on their voyages. The cats' behaviour
patterns foretold storms, enabling the sailors to return to port in
safety. The animals were also kept as rat-catchers on the boats, and to
deter the 'honourable ghosts' of the sailors' ancestors.
Superstition in Japan
The Japanese are
superstitious about their cats and prefer their own native short-tailed
variety, the Japanese Bobtail, because these are said to be less likely
to 'bewitch humans'. The figure of a cat with its left paw raised is
commonly seen in gift shops in Japan, where they arc sold as souvenirs.
It is believed that the beckoning cat brings good fortune to its owner.
In Japan, cat-vampires could be recognised by the fact that they had two
tails. This is another reason that the Japanese native Bobtail cat was
The Japanese believed that a black spot on a cat signified that the
cat's soul belonged to one of their ancestors. A frequent figure in old
Japanese folk tales was the fearsome vampire cat, sometimes seen in the
guise of a wicked sorcerer who could turn himself into a cat and eat
In the legend of the vampire-cat of Nabeshima, the creature killed the
favourite concubine of a prince and took her form. Each night as the
prince visited her he became weaker and weaker. But the cat-woman was
seen by a guard during the night, which rendered it harmless. The
creature escaped to the countryside but was eventually tracked down and
In old Japan it was believed that a black cat could cure spasms if
placed on the stomach of sick person. In this way it was thought that
black cats could also cure melancholia and epilepsy. Conversely, in
China black cats were omens of sickness and poverty.
Long ago it was said that a Samurai warrior, caught in a terrible storm,
took refuge beneath a tree. His gaze rested on a nearby temple, in whose
doorway he saw a cat which raised its paw and appeared to be beckoning
to him. The warrior followed the cat as it disappeared into the temple,
and at that moment the tree under which he had just been sheltering was
struck by lightning. The Samurai turned to thank the cat for saving his
life, but the creature was nowhere to be seen.
In Japan during the
600s CE sacrifices were made to the Guardian of the Manuscripts, a
sacred cat whose duty it was to guard the precious papyrus rolls from
rats and mice. The Japanese also used images of cats to guard their
mortuary chambers from rats. Whether this method proved a successful
deterrent is not recorded, but it must have been given some credibility
since a seventeenth-century wood carving of a cat placed over the door
of a shrine in the Nikko temple was said to have driven all rodents from
that sacred place.
Often, in Japan, live animals as charms were replaced by their images,
such as the popular seated cat with its paw raised to the side of its
face. This good luck symbol appeared at the doors and entrances to a
variety of businesses, ostensibly beckoning people to come in and buy
Japan has a legend of a
feline spirit which each year demanded a human sacrifice. Λ soldier
travelling through the mountains, stopped the night at an old ruined
temple. At midnight he found himself surrounded by a number of ghostly
cats which chanted: 'Don't tell Shippeitaro about it.' The cats
disappeared and the soldier resumed his travels until he came upon a
village whose inhabitants were in great distress.
It appeared that a beautiful young village girl had been put in a cage
from which the dreaded phantom cat would carry her off to his lair and
then devour her. When the soldier enquired who Shippeitaro was he was
told it was the name of a large brave dog.
That night the soldier, accompanied by some village youths and the dog
Shippeitaro, lay in wait for the phantom cats and their monstrous
leader, a huge torn. The soldier flung open the cage door as the huge
cat leapt forward, and in a flash the brave dog seized the cat and slew
it with one blow. Thus the village was saved from its ghastly annual
ritual of providing a human sacrifice.
The Islamic faith was
founded by Mahomet, who was born in Mecca around 570 CE. Having
knowledge of both the Christian and Jewish religions, Mahomet was
committed to the banishment of paganism. Islam in Arabic means
'submitting oneself to God' and respect for all life was one of the
basic tenets of the Islamic faith.
These teachings arc recorded in the Koran and reflect the principles of
one of the world's major religions. Today, most of the approximately 600
million followers of Islam live in the Arab countries South-West Asia,
North and East Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Malay
peninsula and Indonesia.
It is said that, due to Mahomet's love for his cat Muezza, the cat
became sacred to the Muslims. One legend tells that, while living in
Damascus, the Prophet and his cat sat one day in deep contemplation.
While doing so the cat fell asleep in her masters robes, the sleeve of
which Mahomet cut off so as not to disturb her slumber. At this, Muezza
purred her thanks and arched her back to be stroked. Mahomet stroked her
three times, thus ensuring her a place in Paradise, and vowed that she
would never fall from there.
In this way, it is said, the Prophet gave the feline species in general
the power of always landing on its feet.
Mahomet allowed Muezza to enter the mosque at will. According to legend,
the 'M' (for Mahomet) mark on the tabby's forehead was created by the
Prophet as he laid his hand lovingly on the brow of his favourite cat.
It is known that,
before the coming of Islam, Arab peoples in Persia worshipped a Golden
Cat and that gatu, meaning 'cat', occurs in Zend, the ancient Zoroastnan
language once spoken there. Centuries later the Knights Templar,
commissioned by the Church in England to recruit money for the Crusades,
became involved in cat worship and the various cult practices that this
Reputedly told by
Mahomet, there is a legend relating that when Noah built his Ark he had
two of every living thing except the domestic cat, which was unknown at
that time. The rains came and the rats and mice began to multiply, so
that the store of food disappeared at an alarming rate. Noah, in
despair, asked the lion for his advice. The lion thought and thought and
then sneezed, whereupon two little cats jumped out of his nostrils. The
cats began hunting immediately and the number of rats and mice grew less
and less. The terrified survivors disappeared into their holes, never to
be seen again.
Mahomet's version of this legend appears in an early Muslim scripture
and includes the words: 'God therefore caused the lion to sneeze and
when there came forth from it two cats, the rats then concealed
themselves from the view of the cats . . .'
A Persian proverb
Two mice stole a piece
of cheese and, unable to agree over its equal division, they decided to
ask an old cat who had long since given up chasing mice to be the judge.
'Gladly,' replied the cat. 'See, I will divide the cheese fairly for
you.' The wily old cat took a knife and cut the cheese into two unequal
parts. She then placed these on the scales and, finding that they did
not balance, cut off a piece of the larger portion and swallowed it.
Seeing that the other part was now too heavy, she cut a piece from this
also and ate it. She repeated this process until there was only a very
small piece left on one of the scales. Gobbling it up, she quickly
explained: And this is for my fee!'
The Angora and the
The breed known as the
Angora originated in the Turkish city of that name, now known as Ankara.
Much admired for its long, silky coat and quiet, graceful charm, the
Angora had a long, slender, 'oriental' type body. An English writer in
1868 described the Angora as a "beautiful variety with silvery hair of
fine texture, generally longest on the neck but also on the tail'. The
white variety of Angora was felt to be the only true representative of
the breed, but in its homeland the Angora is known by other names
according to colour. The red tabby variety is called the sarman, the
silver tabby is the teku and the odd-eyed white is known as Ankara kedi.
Another variety which evolved within the Angora breed was the Turkish
Van. Living high in the mountainous regions around Lake Van, these cats
were white with auburn colouring restricted to the cars and tail.
Predictably, the Van was an expert swimmer, earning it the name of the
Cats do not
significantly figure in the Russian Orthodox religion, but the country's
richly entertaining literature and folklore offer a pertinent insight
into the warmth and humour with which the Russian people regard the
domestic cat. The cat is seen as a charming, often rakish figure
residing in, and typifying, the warm, friendly, well-kept Russian home.
Here the cat sleeps by the fireside, adding much to the general
wellbeing and happiness of the family circle.
The Russian cat also has a place on the farm, often to be seen pitting
its wits against other barnyard animals. Here, the cat shares its
cheerful image with Riaba the hen, another creature which enjoys a firm
niche in Russian folklore. In the countryside, usually only an
unthrifty, lazy person had no cats. Houses of such people gave no
shelter to horses, cows or hens, which were the usual property of even
the poorest peasant family. The Russian proverb 'He even has no cat'
meant that the life of that person was in complete disorder and
Cat lore surrounds life's rites of passage such as births and marriages,
and tales of vagabond cats with a twinkle in their eye tell of the wily
feline whose lively brain inevitably helps him outwit his enemies.
All of Russian life is reflected in the adventures and antics of the cat
in that country's myth and legend, providing fascinating reading for all
cat-lovers and for those simply interested in folk tales from other
Cat in Russian Folklore
White cats and black
Snow-white cats with
soft, fluffy coats were extremely rare in Old Russia, and therefore of
great value to devotees of the unusual. Cats such as this lived in
comfortable houses and spent their days not climbing trees but
quietly drowsing on splendid sofas, protected from the
outside world and content to be the beautiful playthings of their
Black cats were thought to be unlucky in Russia, since black signified
evil and held connotations of the Devil. It was considered a bad omen if
a black cat crossed a person's path, and if someone had had a troubled
day he would be asked if a black cat had crossed his path that morning.
An age-old symbol
Despite the fact that
in Old Russia the cat was always believed to be a symbol of warmth and
friendliness in the home, it was felt that in its own subtle way the cat
was privy to many mysteries and lived according to its own laws. That it
was said to be a 'lock without a key' only enhanced its charm and
reinforced beliefs that it harboured magic forces.
As elsewhere throughout the world, the shamans or medicine-men of Old
Russia had a special knowledge of herbs and potions which helped to cure
many diseases and injuries. The secret techniques were passed down the
generations and carefully preserved. To make these potions more potent
the shamans either
added ashes from a portion of burnt cat fur or took one cat whisker,
pounded it into a powder and added it to the mixture as a 'magical
The imperial Antichrist
During the rule of
Peter the Great in the seventeenth century, Russia's merchants became
very discontented. Peter's reforms halted their freedom and many were
deeply insulting to their traditional ways. Rumours spread that the
Antichrist had arrived, and Peter was depicted wearing a black cat's
head and tail to show that he belonged to the dark world of evil.
Striped or tabby cats
were popular in Russia. These were the heroes of folk tales, and as a
rule were endowed with great cunning and resourcefulness. They were
cheerful cats, total optimists who never gave up on any situation! A bit
of a bandit, an adventurer, a daring Don Juan and definitely not a
supplier of goods (like Riaba the hen), the tabby cat of folklore
enjoyed stealing the most tasty delicacies from his owner's cellar.
The striped cat's appearance wasn't too respectable, either he was
often seen with a torn ear and no whiskers on one side! However, he
undoubtedly enjoyed his disreputable role in Old Russian folklore and
all his adventures were described with great humour and sympathy!
When a family moved to
a new home and all the house contents were neatly-packed into the
horse-drawn wagon, the family would return to their house and sit down
quietly for a moment or so. This ritual was called 'sitting for the
trip' and was always followed before any long or difficult journey. Then
they would collect their cat and set off for their new home. To leave
the cat, especially if it were old or sick, was considered impossible
it would mean the loss of prosperity. So, as official keeper of
wellbeing in the home, the cat always moved to the new abode with its
Should the cat of the
house vigorously rub its muzzle with its paw, its owners would smile and
say: 'The cat is washing, we shall have guests!' Much excitement and
preparation would then ensue, since it was always a happy event to have
guests in Russia.
Following the arrival of the guests, everyone would sit around the tea
table with the traditional samovar and the lady of the house would say:
'We have been waiting for you Koshka was washing for you!'
Native, North and
In America, the
earliest record of the introduction of the domestic cat is revealed in
the chronicles of a French missionary who, as a token of friendship,
gave a cat to the Huron Indians. The Indians accepted the cat but left
it to die, not realising its value as a rodent killer.
The Native Americans were preoccupied with bravery and the prowess of
their warriors, and the Chippewa people of eastern Canada tell how a
serpent spirit came to one of their braves as he slept. In his dream,
the young man wrestled with a ferocious wild cat and was about to
succumb when the serpent appeared, wound itself tightly around the cat's
flailing body and so allowed the brave to escape. The dream foretold
that the warrior would overcome an adversary with the help of a wise
It is interesting to note that a North American lynx, fitting the
description above, was brought to Britain in 1505 by two Portuguese
explorers on their return from Newfoundland. The cat was presented to
King Henry VII and mentioned in the royal accounts as a 'catte of the
mountayne', or catamount, then the commonest term for the British wild
In 1749 cats were imported into the New World from Europe, when colonies
of settlers in Pennsylvania were overcome by plagues of rats. The
usefulness of the cats in this respect became widely appreciated, and in
1750 the first domestic cat was imported into Paraguay in South America
for the price of a pound of gold.
Around this time, cats of the traditional tabby pattern became very
popular and travelled with their owners to the Americas specifically
to the Boston area. Today, almost half of the Boston cats are of the
classic tabby pattern, and the range which the original venturing toms
travelled can be seen and assessed by the numbers of cats featuring this
coat pattern in the neighbouring areas. Consistent with other means of
travel, this fact is also evidenced by the same tabby markings seen in
San Francisco, Dallas, Houston and Mexico City.
The Maine Coon
One of the oldest
breeds of cat in America, and claimed to be that country's first native
breed, the Maine Coon is accompanied by an amazing myth testing the
credulity of even the most novice cat lover. This splendid animal
originated in the State of Maine and was first recorded in 1861 with
mention of one called Captain jenks. Some authorities hold that the
breed was the result of matings between longhaired cats sent from France
by Queen Marie Antoinette in the eighteenth century and Maine working
cats. But American folklore has it that, because of the dark tabby coat
and bushy tail, semi-wild cats must have mated with raccoons hence the
name Maine Coon.
Not unlike the Norwegian Forest Cat, the Maine Coon is a hardy cat with
a shaggy, semi-longhaired coat. It is also one of the largest of the cat
breeds males can weigh around 57kg (11 151b). One magnificent
example was said to have weighed 18kg (40lb). First exhibited in America
in 1895, the Maine Coon is now a popular cat in both the USA and the UK.
Vengeance is sweet
When the witch-hunting
mania of the mid-seventeenth century spread across the Atlantic to New
England, the village of Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony became the
focus of malevolent hysteria.
One story told was that a young woman swore vengeance on the object of
her unrequited love. The young man who was the centre of her ardent
attentions remained indifferent to her charms and indeed, refused to
acknowledge the girls persistent blandishments. 'There'll come a day
when a she-devil will come out of the darkness to seek him out!' she
One night when the young man lay in bed he was awakened by an unusual
sound. The curtains stirred and a ghostly shaft of moonlight fell across
his quilt. His eyes strained into the darkness but he could see nothing
except the pale light of the full moon, and eventually he fell asleep
Then a faint scratching sound came from the direction of the window. The
young man leapt from his bed and looked out again he saw nothing. But,
glancing into a dark corner of the room, he saw two glowing orbs the
young man shrieked and a devilish creature sprang at him, hissing and
spitting and clawing at his body.
In abject terror the youth sank back on to his bed as the creature,
still hissing and rasping like a demonic cat, hurled its soft, furry
form on to his chest. Petrified, the young man lay still, fearing that
if he made any move it would be his last. Then tremulously, he mouthed
the words: 'In the name of God and all that's holy, begone!' Whereupon
the beast snarled and cowered, relaxed its grip and slunk away into the
Faithfulness of cat
Spanish-American War of 1898, a salvage expert named Hobson had been
given the task of towing a Spanish wreck, including the ship's cat, into
the port of Charleston, South Carolina. A great storm arose in the Gulf
of Mexico and it was decided to cut the wreck's tow rope to allow both
wreck and cat to sink. The wreck drifted to an island and Hobson,
who had grown attached to the cat, persuaded the captain of a small ship
to take him out to rescue the animal. They set off, only to find that
the cat had been adopted by the islanders.
At great cost the salvage expert bought the wreck back, and as they set
sail for the mainland another storm arose which the captain of the ship
put down to the presence of the cat. Hobson disagreed, saying that the
cat had acted with great bravery in staying with the wrecked ship. From
that time, the island towards which the wreck had drifted was called Cat
In New England it is
said that a person can tell the time and tides by looking into the
pupils of a cat's eyes. In Wisconsin, if a cat washes itself while
seated in a doorway it is believed that a clergyman will soon visit the
house. A strange black cat visiting a home in Ozark country is said to
bring good luck, but if it stays the opposite can be expected to follow.
A certain American tribe perceive the waning Moon as a victim of mice,
which in lunar mythology are seen as creatures of the darkness, nibbling
away at its sides until they have totally consumed it. In Native
American lore, when the cat is seen to represent the Sun the Moon is
sometimes likened to a white mouse.
African Cat Lore
Seen in her original
form as a lion-headed goddess, Egypt's Bast was the earliest of the
'big-cat' deities. Her alter-ego, the war-like Sckhmet, was also
lion-headed. Big cats, with their ability to hunt down large prey and
feed on their flesh, were a symbol of great strength and power. Kings,
tribal chiefs and other leaders therefore associated themselves with the
cunning and skill of these magnificent beasts, keeping lions, cheetahs
and other large cats to enhance their power and status.
Their skins were worn to invest the wearer with all the prowess and
hunting skills of the big cats and similarly, united in battle, the
war-lord in his chariot drawn by large, fierce-looking cats presented a
formidable sight to the enemy. The cheetah's swiftness was legendary,
the leopard renowned for its hunting prowess, and the saying 'as brave
as a lion' has been a popular epithet since the Assyrians, Persians and
Babylonians created much of their royal myth around the King of the
While lion bones have been found at the site of ancient Troy (in modern
Turkey), the close relationship between felines and royalty can be
traced even further back in history. Solomon's throne was supported by
lions, and in Ancient Egypt the coronation of a Pharaoh depicts the
ruler seated on the Lion Throne. The Sphinx, said to be the protector of
thresholds and personifying royalty, featured the body of a lion and the
head of the Pharaoh.
Although lions once roamed through much of the Middle East, today they
are mainly restricted to Africa, particularly Tanzania, Kenya and
Uganda. But the Dark Continent is, as ever, still in the thrall of the
big cat. Some West Africans believe that the human soul passes into the
body of a cat at death, and to kill a cat is taboo for this reason.
In addition to Western or European witches, African wise-women or
shamans and Zande witches have been associated with the domestic cat as
well, having cat daughters or cat familiars, and are said to kill people
by showing their cats to them.
Living in both Asia and
Africa, where black panthers (melanistic leopards) arc not uncommon,
leopards are renowned stalkers. Their uncanny ability to avoid their
hunters has earned them the name of were-leopard half-human and
half-animal. In medieval legend it is said that the leopard was born of
a mating with a lion (leξ) and a pard, a panther having no white specks
in its coat.
Though familar with Christianity and Islam, much of African culture and
religion is still based on animism, seeing gods in living creatures and
natural objects. In many African societies the leopard is an important
symbol of physical strength and spiritual power. In Nuer society, the
leopard is also a symbol of crop fertility and the priest wears its skin
during fertility rites. Masks, too, representing the head of a big cat
(the head is the part of the animal which is believed to hold its power)
are worn during tribal dances so that the wearer is protected from evil
and is enabled to dance like the animal.
Some West African
people believe that a lunar eclipse is caused by a cat eating the Moon.
The belief is that the Sun returns along the same path at night as that
followed during the day, and that a lunar eclipse means that the Moon,
having lost her way, has stood in the way of the Sun and is being
devoured by him. A ritual of slow hand-clapping is said to help the Moon
by persuading the solar cat to release her from his mighty grasp.
continually fascinate with the myths and Stone Age origins of the
indigenous Australian Aborigines, the New Zealand Maoris and the exotic
traditions of Oceania (a group of islands and archipelagos stretching in
a great triangle from New Zealand to Hawaii and Easter Island). There is
no evidence to suggest that the cat held a place in the ancient
mythology of these locations. Tξ the Australian Aborigine, the nearest
approach to a 'domestic' animal was the dog-like dingo. And while Maori
guardian spirits included owls and other birds, lizards and fish,
totemic symbols appear to be of objects rather than of animals.
Captain James Cook himself may well have introduced the first domestic
cat to the Antipodes when, in 1773, he landed on the group of islands in
the South Pacific now known as the Cook Islands. Following Cook's
discovery, Australia became a British colony in 1788.
From popular myth surrounding the various reports of 'cat-like
creatures' in Australia, it is obvious that some kind of wild carnivore
did and probably still does exist. Evidence of this is both sketchy and
A 'tiger' of
eighteenth-century report from an employee of the Dutch East India
Company in Batavia cites the existence of a 'tiger' in Queensland,
Several instances of the creature appear throughout the ensuing years
and it became known as the Queensland tiger. Reports maintain that the
body was dog-like, the head and neck short and the coat fawn to grey and
striped, tiger-fashion. Paw pads armed with terrifying lance-like claws
gave credence to reports that the creature had caught and killed
kangaroos. A Queensland tiger skin was said to measure five feet long
from nose to the tip of the tail.
. . . a 'panther'
A panther-like animal
reported to have been seen in New South Wales, northwest of Melbourne,
the Wimmera outback and other isolated places describes a cat-like
creature with a long, curving panther-like tail. Reports of these (rare)
sightings reveal a head which is described as small, as were the cars
and nose; a lithe body and a sleek dark coat. Generally only seen at a
distance, slaughtered livestock, mainly sheep, seem to be its calling
card. Lore similar to that of the mysterious British 'Beast of Bodmin'
surrounds the Australian 'panther'.
. . . and a 'puma '
In the late 1970s
reports of a sighting of a large cat, described as 'puma-like', were
seen in the Australian press. Again active in New South Wales territory,
a 'tawny' creature with 'large yellow eyes and fang-like teeth' was shot
dead after purportedly stalking a father and son. The two men skinned
the animal and left behind the remains, effectively ruling out positive
identification.The pelt, examined some two years later, was said to
resemble a large feral domestic cat rather than a puma.
A cat is a cat. . . or
Reports of a fierce,
strong-bodied carnivore excite a frenzy of speculation especially if it
seizes and kills domestic livestock. Thar there are marauding cat-like
creatures roaming the countryside in various parts of the world is not
in doubt, though good photographic evidence and reliable, believable
descriptions are rare and often conflicting. However, the fact remains,
something out there stalks the plains and undergrowth, killing livestock
in order to survive and only occasionally allowing itself to be seen by
an unsuspecting human. Is it truly a cat? And if so, what is its origin?
T he feline enigma continues apace . . .