Scratching apart the sexy symbolism of the feline.
Here’s something appropriate for Helloween, a pagan holiday which I don’t endorse all that much actually.
A Short History of the Symbolism of Cats
Cats were domesticated in Egypt around 2100 BC for the purpose of hunting.
The Egyptians had great reverence for cats. They had multiple cat goddesses, including Bastet (the mother of fertility), Sekhmet (goddess with the head of a lioness), and Mafdet (goddess having come before Bast, who represented feral Egyptian cats). Each of these gods is female, which supports the association between cats and women.
The Celts also had a fondness for felines, associating them with their pre-Christian folk goddess Brighid. They saw certain qualities in cats admirable, like sensitivity and stealth. In Britain and Ireland, they believe cats are representative of friends and companions, much like dogs are thought of, and that black cats are lucky. Little black bog cat statues are sold for good luck.
All of the above mentioned goddesses are female, and were commonly associated with fertility, health, medicine, healing, and magic. For instance, ancient Druidic priests would use “cat magic” to cross between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Anyone who has spent any time around cats knows that they can be very solitary animals. The evoke the spirit of independence, cleverness, curiosity, and stealth. Cats are also symbolic of rebirth and resurrection, and this is described in the saying, “Cats have nine lives”. This belief is not without foundation. I once saw a cat fall off a window ledge on the sixth floor. I expected to see it splatter on the pavement below, but instead, the cat took off running just moments after.
Christianity turned these positive traditions with cats upside-down by connecting cats with Satan, witches, and evil. Because cats are nocturnal, they were also associated with darkness, as well as fear, the unconscious, and things that are hidden. Cats have always been symbols of mystery and magic, as aforementioned, but also unpredictability. Cats were seen as unlucky, bad omens, or evil influences. At times, they were regarded as accomplices and were hung or garroted with their masters when convicted of a crime, such as heresy. The Pilgrims shared these opinions of cats when they came to the Americas, and thus, Western society has many superstitions about cats.
In Taiwan, people once believed that the corpse of a dead cat should not be allowed to get wet, otherwise, the spirit of the cat would continue to dwell in that place and harass people. So dead cats were usually tied or nailed to trees until they dried out and mummified. People held the opposite set of beliefs about dogs, and threw dead dogs into rivers to prevent their spirits from returning.
Another society that wasn’t so fond of cats included the Native American tribes, for instance the Oglala. They would not have anything to do with any feline animal because they believed that cats had powerful magic and the ability to curse people.
The association between Cats and Sex
In addition to the fertility of feline goddesses, cat symbolism also has strong sexual overtones. (Imagine all the noise that cats make during mating and copulation.) This connotation continues to carry over into our modern culture. There are many words, phrases, and idioms used to describe sexual anatomy, sexual experiences, or sexualized women, which make associations to cats. For example, cat lady, cat scratch fever, catwoman, cougar, lovers fighting like cats, lynx, muff, pussy, sex kitten, to be/go on the prowl…
…which reminds me of a song that I really loved when I was a kid, What’s new pussycat? by Christopher Scott and Burt Bacharach. Here is a cover of the same song by Tom Jones.
Listening to this song again as an adult, I am amused by the overt sexual connotations which I was unaware of as a child. I can’t imagine how funny it must have been to see me as a four-year-old boy singing along to this song so proudly and confidently. This explains why my mother hated to play this song for me, even though she owned the album.
I also remembered that my maternal grandmother’s favorite singer was Tom Jones. That must have irked my mother even more. I’m LMAO!
While we’re on the topic of cats, culture, connotations, copulation, and cacophony, I can’t omit this tunage from Al Stewart. Year of the Cat was his seventh studio album, and it was produced and engineered by the great musical legend, Alan Parsons. It was released in 1976 and went on to be a top five hit in the United States. One of the top selling tracts was the hit single with the eponymous name, Year of the Cat, co-written by Peter Wood.
One of the most mellow grooves you’ll ever hear, AllMusic described this song as “one of those ‘mysterious woman’ songs”. Well now, you don’t say…
Turn down the lights and make yourself comfortable with your favorite cat-object/person before listening to this one. Let’s explore the mystery.
Live in Concert
On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre*
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat
She doesn’t give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow ’till your sense of which direction
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There’s a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat
While she looks at you so cooly
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what’s waiting inside
The year of the cat
Well morning comes and you’re still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you’ve thrown away your choice you’ve lost your ticket
So you have to stay on
But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the new-born day
You know sometime you’re bound to leave her
But for now you’re going to stay
In the year of the cat
Now, fast forward 20 years…
When you realize how cougars transform into cat ladies as they age, somehow, the “mysterious woman” image is not so mysterious any longer.
Happy Howloween. I’m out for a cat nap.
* Peter Lorre was a popular actor in 20th century films, who is best known for playing a very iconic, obsequious, sneaky, seedy, greedy bad guy.
Year of the Cat lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Carlin America Inc.