Ancient Egyptians Weren’t the Only Ones Who Worshipped Cat Gods & Goddesses
Did you know that modern day Japan reveres a contemporary cat god?Tama, in fact, is probably one of the latest deified gods in human history, considering that her deification was only on June 22, 2015 – that was just over three years ago!
Media and pop culture inform and remind us time and time again of how humans have always been in awe with all kitties, big and small; no thanks to the Egyptians.
The ancient Egyptian pantheon is composed of so many animal-headed gods and goddesses – at least thirteen of which have cat heads. The most famous of these cat gods is Bastet or Bas, the goddess of protection; the only Ancient Egyptian cat deity to have the head of the domestic cat.
This is not surprising – after all, our own frisky furry companions are balls of protective energy at home by keeping all those unwanted mice and bugs away.
Unlike Bast, other cat gods are associated with the domestic cat’s larger cousins – the goddess Mafdet, for example, looked like the ancient Egyptian lynx, a cheetah or a leopard. Sekhmet, the warrior goddess, had the head of a lion.
Yet it is not just the Egyptians who worshipped cat deities. Below are some of the cultures that worship feline gods throughout human history. Read through and you may find one cat god name purrfect for your kitty:
Big Cats in Ancient Egypt’s Neighboring Region
For some reason, ancient civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean are fascinated with the big boys of the cat world, particularly the lion.
Inanna, also known as Ishtar to the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, is an ancient Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, war, and justice. She is either depicted as a lion or as a woman with a lion beside her.
The ancient civilization inhabiting the Nubia region (currently a borderland between Egypt and Sudan) believes in Apedemac, a lion-headed god of war. The Egyptian god Maahes, the son of Bast or Sekhmet, is said to be based on this deity.
The Sphinx is a mythical creature that is related to cats. It has the body of a lion amalgamated with a human head. Among the three ancient civilizations who believed in the Sphinx – Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek –the ancient Assyrians were the ones who deified it.
The Assyrian Sphinx is a deity of protection. Lamassu (female) and Shedu (male), the two forms of the Assyrian Sphinx, both have wings and snake-headed tail aside from a human face and a feline body. Scores of the Sphinx figure decorate the gateways and entrances of Assyrian architecture.
Greek and Roman Mythology
Your kitty may not be so much appreciated by the Greeks and the Romans. This is probably because of the cat’s relation to the goddess Hecate, the goddess of crossroads, darkness, transformation, and magic. Although Hecate’s symbol was that of a dog, one of her servants is a maid turned into a cat by Hera.
Another Greco-Romano deity originally not associated with cats is the goddess of the hunt and the moon, Artemis (Roman Diana). Artemis’ animal association is that of a deer or a hunting dog, but there was a time when she transformed into a cat.
The titan Typhon, the Father of monsters, raided Olympus, and she and her siblings were forced to shapeshift into animals and flee to Egypt.
India and Hinduism
The Indians who practice Hinduism, like the ancient Egyptians, have a pantheon of gods and goddesses that are not-so-human in appearance. The protection god Narasimha, or Mha, is an example.
Narasimha is a transformed version of the god Vishnu. He has a lion head and a human body, and it is this hybrid attribute which has allowed him to destroy evil and restore order on earth.
Dawon is another feline deity revered by the Hindus. She is either portrayed as a tiger, sometimes a lion, on which the goddess of destruction and creation, Kali, sits. Together they fight the evil – Kali with her ten weapon-wielding arms and Dawon with her sharp claws and teeth.
Now, this is one badass kitty and goddess partnership you may wish to cosplay during Halloween, although you might find your feline friend in your arms instead rather than you having your pet as a mount.
Shasthi is a Hindu goddess benefactor and protector of children, vegetation, and reproduction. She is sometimes depicted to have the face of a cat and at other times, she is portrayed to sit atop a black cat.
An interesting tale of Shasthi and her feline mount is that of a girl who was so gluttonous that she ate the goddess’ offerings and when scolded by people around her, she blamed it on a black cat.
The black cat, which turns out to be Shasthi’s mount, was so insulted that when the girl got pregnant and bore children, the cat stole all seven children on their childbirth.
When the seventh child was born, the mother made sure to stay awake and eventually saw the kidnapper. She injured the black cat and followed it all the way to Shasthi, who had just been told by the cat about the young woman’s insult.
The goddess mediated between the two and the children were returned to the mother once the girl asked pardon from the cat and promised Shasthi ritual worship.
Your kitty is king among the ancient civilizations of Central and South Africa; thanks to the Jaguar. This is because the Jaguar, a big cat that is native in South America, is the continent’s counterpart of the lion that is the symbol of power in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa
In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the Olmec civilization of Central America is one of the earliest to worship the Jaguar, making the animal a totem or spirit animal of the shaman.
The were-jaguars were equivalent to rain gods. Succeeding tribes, such as the Maya and the Aztec, as well as the South American civilization of the Inca, incorporated into their religion the belief of the Jaguar as a powerful god.
The Mayan civilization believed in the Old Jaguar Paddler, a god who paddles a canoe through the underworld at night, ferrying souls in the underworld from West to East where he ends his shift and turns the canoe over to the Old Stingray Paddler god.
The Jaguar is also the god of the darkness in some of the Amazon tribes. They believe that its spots are the heavens and the stars and the Jaguar god swallows the sun to cause an eclipse.
The Mesoamericans also believe in other cat gods. The Mayan’s god of war, Cit-Chac-Coh, has a name that translates to “twin of the red lion”, with the red lion referring to the mountain lion or the cougar, as well as Itzamma, the god of healing, who is associated with jaguars.
The Quechua Indians believed in a Ccoa, a cat deity who controls lightning and can strike crops and people.
Asia and Felines of Luck
Cat worship and reverence is not new in Asia, thanks to the spread of Buddhism and the existing trade and travel in between the main continent and the islands within the region.
Take the case of Barong of Bali, Indonesia. For the Balinese, Barong Ket or Barong is a red-faced lion deity and the king of good spirits.
There is a traditional dance in Bali that retells the battle between Barong and Rangda, the demon queen, reminding those present of the never-ending struggle between the forces of good and evil.
This belief of the lion deity as the leader of good spirits may remind us of the Chinese Shi Shi, or the Japanese Jishi – the stone lion that marks the entrance of temples, palaces, tombs, and homes, as well as knockers and pottery. This is because the lion is believed to be a spirit of protection that guards against evil spirits as well as bad luck. Shi Shi always comes in pairs of female (yin) and male (yang).
The belief of the Shi Shi extends not only to pottery and architecture but also in dance and customs. In China and in other parts of Asia, for example, there is a practice called lion dance which is held during Lunar New Year.
In Japan, the Shishi-gashira or the lion’s head is placed near a newborn baby boy because the lion is a protector against evil spirits and misfortune.
The belief of the Lion spirit protectors spread to countries like Japan, Korea, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. Tibet believes in the Snow Lion, a white-colored version of the Shi Shi, with the female reputed to give milk that heals and restores harmony to the recipient.
Not all deities bring good. The Bakeneko is said to be a malevolent cat spirit that was transformed from a cat that has been lived for too long or from a cat that has tasted human flesh.
Many tales throughout Japan tell of the Bakeneko as a malicious or a vengeful cat, but there are also places where certain Bakeneko is deified due to the spirit’s change of heart. Other places have deified Bakeneko because the cat spirit took revenge for its masters who died due to maltreatment and unfair judgment.
Among the Bakeneko, there is one that even other Asians, especially those who engage in business, have adopted – the Maneki Neko or the beckoning cat. One of the most prominent legends behind the Maneki Neko is that of a cat looked after by a poor local priest in a run-down Gotokuji Temple.
One day, a samurai was resting under a tree when he saw the cat summoning him to the nearby temple. The man approached the cat just in time as lightning struck down the tree. It turns out that the samurai was a wealthy man so he rewarded by having the temple funded. When the cat died, the temple had the kitty deified.
Deification in Japan is not unusual because one of the country’s major religions is Shinto which accepts the notion of all things and being may be deified. An example of this deified being is the Tama the cat, the stationmaster of Kishi Station in Wakayama Prefecture.
In 2007 the station was near-bankrupt and there was no human to employ it, so the kitty, who was born and raised in the station, was made station master.
News of Tama spread and attracted a lot of tourists, reviving Kishi station. Tama even rose to the rank of – guess what – Vice President!
When Tama died in 2015, the feline’s burial ceremony was attended by 3,000 mourners. Tama the cat was enshrined as the “honorable eternal station master”, and her bloodline did not end there. Her position when she was alive is succeeded by her apprentice station master, a cat named Nitama.
Cat gods and goddesses are usually deities of protection and bringers of good luck. Cats have a mystical quality in their movement and the way they approach their human, not to mention they do keep mice and unwanted pests away from our homes.
So the next time your cat brings you something like a trinket or a neighbor’s sock, you may want to consider if it is a sign of good days ahead.