Cats in Myth & Folklore

All over the world, cat myths and legends abound. Throughout history, cats have been seen as magical beings, demons, witches, noble spirits, even gods! Here are just a few of my favourites.

Cat Sìth, Grimalkin, King of the Cats

The Cat Sìth (no, nothing to do with the dark side, it’s pronounced “shee” ) is a Celtic mythological creature; a fairy beast said to hunt the Scottish Highlands. The Cat Sìth is an enormous black cat, with a white marking like a star on its chest. According to legend, the Cat Sìth sometimes tries to steal the soul of a dead person before they are buried. People once held wakes, played music and told riddles to distract the cat and keep it away. And woe betide anyone who didn’t leave a saucer of cream on their doorstep for the Cat Sìth at Samhain…

The Cat Sìth is also associated with Grimalkin, a witch’s familiar, of Macbeth fame: “I come, greymalkin!” and also the King of the Cats himself. Grey Malkin or the Cat Sìth also stars of the first ever horror novel written in English, William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat. (1553).

Il Gatto Mammone

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Il Gatto Mammone, or the Mammon Cat, is a mysterious figure from Italian folklore. One story tells of how a beautiful girl is sent by her jealous mother to an enchanted castle to ask the fairies for a sieve. Once there, she sees the palace cats doing their chores of washing and cleaning, and being good natured, helps them out. In return, their leader, Il Gatto Mammone, tells the girl a secret: not to turn her head at the bray of a donkey on her way home, but only at a cock-crow. She does this, and finds a beautiful star glowing on her forehead. When her sister, envious of this blessing, attempts the same, she ignores the cats and refuses to help them, so Il Gatto withholds the information. Of course, she turns at the wrong moment and ends up with an ass’s tail in the middle of her head.

The moral of this story? Never shun a cat, especially not Il Gatto Mammone!

Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur: The Yule Cat

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A figure of Icelandic folklore, the Yule Cat stalks the dark, snowy nights of the Yuletide, hunting unfortunate individuals who have not received anything new to wear on Yule Eve. If you have a new item of clothing, you’re safe. If not, then the monstrous cat will yowl outside your house, break in and eat your festive dinner, perhaps even followed by you…

Apparently, the origin of the Yule Cat can be found in wool-making, as an incentive to agricultural workers to get the autumn wool spun before midwinter. If they did, they received a reward: in the form of a new piece of clothing. If they didn’t work hard, they might become supper for the Yule Cat. Better not sneer at those Christmas socks!

If you speak Icelandic, you can read Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s poem Jólakötturinn,

Tom Bawcock’s Cat

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From The Mousehole Cat, illustrated by Nicola Bayley

On December 23rd every year, the fishing village of Mousehole in Cornwall celebrates Tom Bawcock’s Eve. Legend has it that during a time of famine, old Tom Bawcock, a widowed fisherman, braved the terrible winter storms in order to bring back enough food to sustain the village… accompanied by his brave fishing cat, of course. In celebration, the dish of Stargazy Pie is made every year, a lantern procession fills the streets and the whole village is illuminated, remembering the lights and candles that guided Tom Bawcock and his cat home.

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Lili Hayward is the author of The Cat of Yule Cottage, a magical tale of land, love, friendship, the Yuletide and one remarkable cat…

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16 thoughts on “Cats in Myth & Folklore

  1. Very interesting post. Thank you! In Estonia, I believe we have only one believing . That black black cats crossing a person’s path, is a bad omen.. 🙂

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