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6 Cat Gods and Goddesses Worshiped by Ancient Cultures

You might know that the ancient Egyptians worshiped cats, but have you heard about the Polish cat god who barked like a dog?

 |  Aug 13th 2013  |   9 Contributions


Author Terry Pratchett once said, “In ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.”

When you hear this phrase, do you automatically think of ancient Egypt? Probably. Do you think of any other cultures? Probably not. But don’t worry, I’ve been guilty of this misconception, too: For many years, I believed that the ancient Egyptians were the only ones who revered, praised, and even worshipped cats. But as I began exploring world mythology, I found that there’s a lot more to cats, deities and miracles than I first thought.

The ancient Egyptians were not the only ones who thought cats were so awesome that they made stories about them.

Beyond all the folklore about beckoning cats, helpful cats, temple-guarding cats, prophets being kind to cats, and cats serving as omens and familiars, there are a few deity-related tales we rarely hear about. Here are six of them.

1. Freyja’s cat-driven chariot

The Norse goddess Freyja, deity of love, fertility, war, wealth, divination, and magic, rode in a chariot pulled by two giant gray cats given to her by the god Thor. Farmers left offerings for the cats in order to ensure a good harvest.

Freyja rides her chariot pulled by two gray cats. Image: Plate from the "Manual of Mythology : Greek and Roman, Norse, and Old German, Hindoo and Egyptian Mythology," published in 1865 by Alexander Murray. {{PD-US}}

2. A shape-shifting Peruvian god

Ai-Apaec, a god of the pre-Inca civilization known as the Mochica, was often depicted as an old man with a wrinkled face, long fangs and cat-like whiskers. He was said to have evolved from an ancient cat god and to be able to assume the form of a tomcat.

3. A guardian of Chinese families

A cat god called Li Shou appears in the Chinese Book of Rites. He was worshipped by farmers because he protected the crops from being eaten by rats and mice.

The Ovinnik, a god, demigod or spirit depending on which source you check, often appeared in the form of a black cat with flaming eyes, who barked like a dog. Black cat on a rooftop by Shutterstock

4. A Polish protector

In ancient Poland, Ovinnik, who appeared in the form of a black cat, was worshipped by many farming families because he watched over domestic animals and chased away evil-natured ghosts and mischievous fairies. (Like most creatures of Slavonic mythology, they were great until you didn’t appreciate them or give them what they needed -- then they did things like make mischief that could have tragic results.)

5. A shape-shifting Greek goddess

Greek mythology tells of how the goddess Hecate assumed the form of a cat in order to escape the monster Typhon. Afterwards, she extended special treatment to all cats.

The Mochica god Ai-Apaec was said to have evolved from an ancient cat god. Pictures of Ai-Apaec in the "huaca de la Luna". La Libertad, Peru, (CC-BY-SA) by Joel Takv

6. A Celtic goddess' aides

Ceridwen, the Welsh goddess of wisdom and mother of the famous bard Taliesin, was attended by white cats who carried out her orders on Earth.

I couldn’t go into all the stories of gods and goddesses who shape-shifted into large cats, or this post would have been about a mile long. This has unfortunately excluded many stories from Native American and other First Nations tribes, among others, and for that I apologize. I’d love to write another post about big cats and spiritual traditions if you’re interested, because the subject of jaguars, tigers, leopards, and other large felids in folk traditions, religious beliefs, and creation stories is definitely worth a read.

The Welsh goddess Ceridwen was said to have a pair of white cats that did her bidding. Print by J.E.C. Williams in the book 'Y Mabinogion', trans. J.M. Edwards (Wrexham, 1901). {{PD-US}}

What are your favorite myths and folklore about cats? Please share them in the comments!

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

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