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The Cat in Mythology, by Marie-Louise von Franz

Extract from:

Marie-Louise von Franz

The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption

Chapitre 4

The Cat in Mythology

"Now we should consider the cat and its amplifications both mythologically and materially. One of the most striking things about the cat as a symbol is its ambivalence. Like the serpent, its image oscillates between beneficence and malevolence. Historically, the cat was first endowed with archetypal power at the time when in Egypt it came to be regarded as a sacred animal. Its sanctification meant that it was virtually purified of the dark aspects of its nature, and was connected with man's spiritual life.

In Egypt, from very early on, the cat was considered to be sacred to Isis. But it was as the daughter of Isis and her husband Osiris that the great cat goddess Bastet emerged in the twenty-second dynasty and took precedence over all other goddesses. She was known as the Lady of Bubastis and her temple stood at the center of the city, surrounded by water.

Although conceived as a female, Bastet was often identified with her father, Ra. Here Osiris, Ra and Horus very often merge, as the gods do in Egypt. In her identification with Ra, god of life, the sun cat was believed to engage every night in a struggle of cosmic proportions with Apophis, the serpent of darkness. Thus the cat takes its place among the solar heroes of all mythology who fight with the devil in various forms.

The sun god represented as a cat kills the serpent of darkness with a knife

(Detail from the papyrus of Hunefer)

The cat was also worshipped as lunar. It was believed that during the hours of darkness, when the rays of the sun were invisible to humans, they were reflected in the phosphorescent eyes of the cat, as the light of the sun is reflected in the moon. So here we have the kind of feminine consciousness about which we have spoken already.

During the late period in Egypt, Bastet was identified with Artemis the huntress, virgin goddess of nature, linked with fertility and the feminine presiding over childbirth. According to one myth, when the Greek gods fled to Egypt pursued by Typhon, Artemis transformed herself into a cat and in this form took refuge in the moon. And Hecate also turned herself into a cat. Together with Freya, the Teutonic fertility goddess married to the sun, whose carriage was drawn by two cats, Hecate also represents the evil side of the feminine, the witch, the Terrible Mother, responsible for madness and obsession.

Finally, in the Middle Ages, the cat came to be predominantly endowed with the power of the devil. Some women, it was said, had the power to put their souls into black cats. These were witches, dedicated not any more to the light powers but to the dark powers, to the devil. The Catholic dissociation from the instincts, sexuality and generally speaking from the feminine natural element, probably has much to do with this development of the cat as a destructive, instinctual feminine symbol. In fact, the black cat may be seen as the shadow side of the Virgin Mary, a projected unconscious desire for revenge against the Church. So we see, very schematically, how the polarity of the cat archetype was established.

Now, briefly, let us look at some characteristics associated with both the light and the dark aspects of the cat. The cat is closely linked with consciousness and all creative processes. The sexual orgies of Bastet were believed to increase vegetable, animal and human fertility.

Egyptian statue representing the goddess Bastet

On the other hand, the black cat's orgies, practiced on moonless nights, were virtually sterility rites. Intercourse with the devil, who often took the form of a cat, bore no fruit, produced hail, rain and storms, destruction of crops, death of animals and sterility or impotence in humans.

The white cat was a healer and a nurse. She destroyed poison, counteracted irritation and strengthened people's powers of recuperation. Her tail was widely used to cure blindness and, generally speaking, the cat's power appeared to be located in the tail which is also believed to be an organ of balance. On the other hand, the black witchcat poisoned people's minds, infected their bodies with disease and inflicted them with blindness. The devil used the tail of his incarnation to bewitch people and bind them to his will.

In folklore and fairy tales, the white cat is the liberator of the oppressed, and helper of impoverished or underprivileged young men. It uses its cunning and resourcefulness to overthrow the powers of darkness and brings wealth, power and honor. The black cat is often an omen of misfortune, bringing poverty and frustration. It oppresses and tortures. It is a traitor and a thief. The solar cat, the light of the world, is to be seen at the foot of Christ, while the demonic cat sits at the foot of Judas. On the positive side, the cat is associated, like the serpent, with immortality. It curls up in a circle and is said to possess nine lives. On the negative side, it suggests the "vicious circle."

Because of its unblinking eyes, and due to the fact that it sees in the dark, the cat is also a seer. It possesses foresight and insight. On the negative side, the cat's eyes suggest the power of fascination. They can paralyze their victims. Because of its independence and freedom, the cat has been linked to the Virgin, but also, as we have seen, to the witch. The cat is a healer and a servant to men; it protects their houses and crops from rodents and snakes, and has also been seen as a curser, a bewitcher and a vampire.

We now have to consider another aspect of the cat which places it between the extreme polarities which have been seen so farthe cat as medium. According to a Gnostic belief, there was a cat in the Garden of Eden, guarding the tree of life with its knowledge of good and evil. In the same way, the Egyptian solar cat was associated with the Persea tree, which was also a tree of life and consciousness.

The great cat of Heliopolis killing enemy of the sun Apophis, under persea tree

(Tomb of Inherkau Second chamber, South wall)


Cats originated in Egypt. All cats are ultimately of Egyptian descent. There were no cats before. In Egypt it was a sacred animal, and seems still to be considered beneficent. There's an amusing autobiographical novel by Agatha Christie, whose second husband was an archaeologist who took her to do excavations in Egypt. They lived in a small hut and the plague of mice and rats was so terrible that they seriously thought of leaving. They put down poison and tried everything but they couldn't get rid of them.

Finally they complained to their Arab Sheik, who said, "Oh, that's very simple." The next evening he arrived with an enormous cat and said, "That will settle it." The whole night they heard thumps and squeaks and within three days there were no more mice. Agatha Christie was absolutely overwhelmed by what the cat has really done for man, and that makes us understand this sacred animal. She is a real protector and helper, in the dark and at night when one feels helpless. So, for our connections, I would rather stress the place of the female cat, the moon quality, the protectress.

Bastet, in Egypt, has no witch traits at all. Her dark side has to do with the land of the dead and of the moon (which is also the land of the dead). But she has no devilish qualities. She's an extremely positive archetypal figure. She has to do with fertility, with folk festivals, and also with music. The sistrum, musical instrument of Isis, was always associated with the cat and excavations in Egypt have discovered many cats with a sistrum. That is because of those beautiful love songs they sing in the night, though they're not quite for our ears.

Bastet was always supposed to be very musical. For instance, at her festival, the people went on barges down the Nile and the women turned their backs, lifted their skirts and showed their behinds to the applauding masses on the shore. That was the kind of fun they had in honor of Bastet. Fertility, sexual rites, even lasciviousness and so on were part of it, but all on the positive side. She had no dark witch traits.

Bronze Sculpture of Bastet shaking a sistrum

(Egypt ; Ca 600 BC to 300 BC)


Cats are exceedingly tough. They survive the most amazing accidents, very often unharmed. They can fall from high places and always land on their feet. They are very vital animals. I grew up with both cats and dogs; with a dog we were often at the vet's, but with a cat, never. They always survived the most terrible things.

Something else one should mention about the cat is its independence. The dog has become a touching, sentimental friend of humans, and very loyal. Most dogs, if you drive them out in the wild, will perish or at least become very, very unhappy and miserable, while a cat can more easily resume a wild life away from humans. The cat has never associated with man as closely as the dog has. I was always amused in my youth how the cat was a flatterer.

For instance when it asked for food or when it wanted to be stroked, it just came and rubbed itself this way and that with its tail up, and sometimes if I didn't have time, I said, "Go away. I have to read." Then the cat said, "Okay," and began to rub itself against the chair, as if to say, "If you don't stroke me, I stroke myself." "That's okay too." A dog would be hurt in his deepest heart and look at you reproachfully; you couldn't do such a thing to a dog. But a cat, ''Oh, never mind.'' It never gives its soul into our hands. It's friendly and makes use of us, but remains independent.

A cat goes its own way. It knows what it wants and goes its own way. A cat comes for certain feeding times, and then it's really friendly. But when it wants to leave, "Meeow," you have to let it out.


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