It’s not just the internet that’s obsessed with cats. Since time immemorial, civilizations across the world have been devising myths about these curious creatures, ranging from superstitions about their supposed luckiness to stories of them playing fiddles, hanging out in cradles, or sailing the sea with owls in pea-green boats. Cats pop up in many religions as well, as both angelic and devilish figures. Whether the tales are true or not (they’re not), here are some of the more curious beliefs different cultures have held about felines throughout history.
1. THEY’LL STEAL YOUR BABY’S BREATH.
For centuries, folks in England believed that a cat is liable to climb into an infant’s crib and “suck” the child’s breath until it suffocates and dies. (In some versions of the tale, the cat is jealous because the newborn infant has suddenly deprived it of attention; other versions say it’s not jealousy but the scent of milk on the baby’s lips that inspires them.) In 1791, a jury at a coroner’s inquest in Plymouth, England, found a cat guilty of infanticide in this way. This has been a persistent myth that followed emigrants to the New World; in 1929, the Nebraska State Journal printed an alleged report from a doctor who said he’d witnessed a housecat “lying on the baby’s breast, a paw on either side of the babe’s mouth, the cat’s lips pressing those of the child and the infant’s face as pale as that of a corpse, its lips with the blueness of death.”
2. THEY’LL EAT YOU FOR CHRISTMAS DINNER.
Iceland, for all of its twee elven aesthetic and excellent quality of living, has some pretty savage Christmas stories. It seems that Íslendingar grow up in fear of the ferocious Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, who prowls the frozen countryside around Christmastime, looking for humans to eat. But this giant, bloodthirsty cat-monster isn’t looking to make naughty children into his meal, as you might expect. He’s got an eye for fashion and is looking for people—kids, adults, whatever—who aren’t wearing fine new clothes for Christmas Eve. (Farmers tell this tale to their workers as an incentive to finish processing wool before autumn comes, so everyone can get their new clothes made before the slob-eating Christmas Cat shows up.) This very weird fable sounds like something from the Viking Age, but it isn’t really that old—it first appeared in print in the 19th century and wasn’t popularized (in poem form, in true Icelandic style) until the early 20th.
3. THEY CAUSED THE BLACK DEATH.
In the Middle Ages, cats were commonly thought of as sinister beasts with basically the same powers as witches and warlocks, obviously in cahoots with Satan. A cat’s bite was poisonous, as was its flesh, and if you breathed its breath, you’d be infected with consumption (also known as tuberculosis). They could also make your beer go sour if they felt like it. As such, when bubonic plague swept the European continent in the 14th century, killing up to 60% of the population in some regions, it was naturally assumed that the Devil was responsible, and his handiwork was attributed directly to his feline minions. Tremendous numbers of cats—especially black ones—were destroyed during this wave of the plague, and sometimes their owners along with them. (To be fair, snakes were also blamed and destroyed as well.) This was ill-advised, of course, because the real distributor of the plague was the Oriental flea, which lives on rats, and with dramatically fewer cats (and snakes) to keep their numbers in check, the rat (although some say it was a gerbil) population in Europe soared … as did the plague.
4. THEY’RE LUCKY, BUT ONLY IN CERTAIN COLORS, AMOUNTS OF TOES, AND LEVELS OF CUTENESS.
The Japanese believe that cats are lucky, but there are a lot of qualifiers. The maneki-neko (“beckoning cat”) is an iconic Japanese talisman that, it’s believed, brings good fortune to its owner, usually in the form of cash. One legend explains that a Japanese cat once waved a paw to beckon a lord into a house, which saved him from being struck by lightning a moment later, and so a cat who beckons with her paw is considered a lucky gesture. Tortoiseshell cats are also considered lucky in Japan, especially the rare male ones.
A Buddhist belief says a cat with a dark coat brings promises of gold, while a light-colored cat brings silver. In Russia, Russian Blue cats are considered lucky. Many cultures think that a polydactyl cat (one with extra toes) is a good-luck charm, and it’s said that early sailors who sojourned to America routinely brought many-toed cats with them to ensure safe travels, which is why there’s still an influx of polydactyl cats in New England today. Finally, in China, the older and gnarlier a cat gets, the luckier it's said to become.
5. THEY’RE SCORNED WOMEN IN DISGUISE WHO LIKE TO FEAST UPON NEWBORN BABIES.
This one comes to you from the Bible. As you may know, Adam’s sassy, insubordinate ex-wife, Lilith, is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah, referencing a much-older demonic figure from Hebrew folklore who likes to eat babies. But did you know she could also turn into a cat? According to some Sephardic Jews, Lilith was also known as El Broosha, a demon who eats babies and takes a giant, black, polymorphous, cat-shaped form. She likes newborns best and stalks them in the night, draining them of every drop of blood, vampire-style. She sometimes shows up in folklore as a screech owl too.
6. THEY’RE BASICALLY LIVING URNS FOR HUMAN SOULS.
A certain sect of Buddhism once practiced in the former kingdoms of Siam and Burma believed that when you die, if you’re holy enough, your soul is transferred to a cat for safekeeping. In this way, special souls lived in a sort of feline purgatory, and when the kitty died, the chaste soul would ascend to paradise. The sect obviously holds cats in high regard, depicting sleeping cats at the feet of Buddha statues. Although Siam is now called Thailand, a ritual that’s still strictly observed during the coronation of a new Thai king is to present him with a live cat adorned in gold jewelry. (A Siamese one, of course.) In this way, it’s thought, the spirit of the old king is able to witness the coronation, through the cat’s eyes. A gold-trimmed cat was present at the crowning of the current Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 1950.
7. THEY HAUNT THE CELTIC COUNTRYSIDE (OR AT LEAST ONE OF THEM DOES).
In ancient Scottish and Irish folklore, an oversized black cat with a trademark white patch on its chest, called the Cat Sìth, skulks around at night looking for souls to steal. At wakes and funerals, to protect the poor deceased’s soul from the wily Cat Sìth, various distractions were supplied to deter or distract it, such as catnip or loud music. A fire was also never burned in a room with a corpse, since every cat loves to curl up by a warm fireplace.
This spectral cat isn’t as huge as some of the others found in folk tales—it’s about the size of a dog—and it’s secretly a witch who can turn into a cat, but she can only do it nine times. (Sound familiar?) Upon the last transformation, she’s stuck in cat format forever. The Cat Sith wasn’t all bad, though. Each year, on the Gaelic festival of Samhain, saucers of milk were left outside houses for her, and she’d bless the houses in return. However, if you didn’t leave a saucer of milk for the sorceress, you’d be cursed and all your cows’ milk would dry up. Seems fair.
8. THEY CAN TALK, CARRY COFFINS, AND FORM A MONARCHY.
Speaking of black cats with white patches: In the British fable The King of the Cats, a sexton digging a grave (in some versions he's just walking down the road) spies a clowder of nine black cats with white spots on their chests, carrying a miniature cat-sized coffin with a crown resting on it. One of the cats tells the man to "Tell Tommy Tildrum that Timmy Toldrum is dead." The astonished man returns home to his wife and relays the news, while their housecat keeps interrupting his story with frantic meows. The couple ignores him, and they continue discussing the strange occurrence, amidst the racket. Finally, at the end, the man asks his wife if she knows who Tommy Tildrum is, so he can tell Tommy that Timmy has died, whereupon the cat cries out in the King’s English: "What? Old Tim dead? Then I'm the King o' the Cats!" At this, the housecat—who is named Old Tom—scrambles up the chimney, never to be seen again.
9. THEY CAN PREDICT THE WEATHER.
Or, rather, by watching them, you can. It’s said in England that a cat who claws at the curtains or the carpets is predicting windy weather, and the Welsh believed rain was coming when a cat’s pupil broadened. Rain is also foretold if a cat busily washes its ears. As well, if a cat continually looks out a window on any day, rain is on the way, and some say that when a cat sleeps with all four paws tucked under its body, it will rain. A rainstorm is coming if the cat sleeps on its back too. Basically, if a cat does anything, it’s gonna rain.
10. THEY LIVE IN THE SEA AND CAUSE STORMS.
Superstitious fishermen in the British Isles might throw a bit of fish back into the sea “for the cat.” This mythical cat was a woman who “knew more than a Christian should” (a.k.a. a witch) who went sailing with her fiancé, a fisherman. On the voyage, she cursed the whole fleet by calling up a storm to wreck the ship, as revenge upon the crew members who thought it was unlucky to have a woman on board and wanted her to be drowned. She was turned into a four-eyed cat who haunted the ocean, and the fishermen still throw her a morsel of food to appease her, lest she try it again. Many sailors and fishermen also think that if a cat falls overboard, a storm will show up and the ship will be capsized.
11. THEY CAN TRANSFER THEIR FACES TO UNBORN BABIES.
In a few different areas of Europe, it was thought to be ill-advised for a pregnant woman to pick up a cat or let it sleep in her lap. In Portugal, it was once said the cat will afflict the baby with a wart or mole, usually a hairy one, and in England, it was thought the baby will either be born with a cat-shaped birthmark or with the face of a cat. This is sort of not fair, because another English folk tale says that black cats are lucky as a wedding gift, as is a cat (of any color, apparently) who sneezes within earshot of the bride on her wedding day.
12. THEY WORK FOR THE DEVIL.
Medieval people thought that cats were the Devil’s personal soul courier, ferrying spirits to Hell. The three hairs on the tip of a cat’s tail were said to be “the devil’s hairs," which compelled the cat to stay up all night, prowling, when all Christian creatures should be asleep. In the American South, it was thought that anyone who drowned a cat would be punished by the Devil himself (for the lesser crime of kicking a cat, he’d just give you rheumatism). Back in Europe, it was said that kittens born at the end of the blackberry season were especially rambunctious, and that was because when Satan was thrown out of Heaven around the end of summer he landed in the blackberry brambles, so he imbued their kitteny souls with mischief. Early Christians believed that if a cat sat on a grave, the soul of the deceased was possessed by Satan. Also, if two cats were seen fighting on a grave during a funeral or near a dying person, it was believed that they were, in fact, an angel and a devil fighting over that person’s soul—in cat form.
13. THEY ARE CACTI, AND THEY LIKE TO DRINK BOOZE.
About a century ago, tall tales in the Pueblo and Navajo country in northern Mexico and Arizona described a living, moving, breathing cat-shaped cactus, with needles in place of fur and two sharp blades for forelegs. The cactus cat liked to go around slashing the bases of real cacti with its knife-paws, to let the milky juices collect and ferment into pulque. It would do this to 80 cacti at a time, specifically. Once his work was done, the creature would return to the beginning of the circuit, get drunk on the pulque inside the cacti, then go around causing trouble in the region, swiping at cowboys and leaving telltale red welts.
14. THEY’RE JUST MYSTICAL BEINGS IN GENERAL.
In many cultures, as you might have gathered by now, cats are considered mystic creatures. Egyptians considered them deities, and killing a cat was punishable by death. When a family cat passed on, the whole clan went into mourning. Meanwhile, up north, every Norwegian Forest Cat is supposedly thought to be either a fairy or a goblin in disguise—and the difference can be ascertained if you stare into their eyes. It's said the cat's eyes act as windows to the fairy world (or goblin world, which are possibly the same world), and if you peer through them, you can see visions of the magical realm beyond.