Author Terry Pratchett 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 Egyptian cat goddesses and cat gods? Probably. Do you think of any other cultures when it comes to cat goddesses, cat gods and worshipping cats? 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.
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 tales surrounding cat goddesses and cat gods that we rarely hear about. Here are six tales about cat gods and cat goddesses that you might not know.
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.
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 one of the ancient cat gods 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.
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.
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.
More on cat gods
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 about cat gods 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.
Tell us: What are your favorite myths and folklore about cat gods and cat goddesses? Please share them in the comments!
Thumbnail: Photography by EgyptianStudio on Thinkstock.
This piece was originally published in 2015.