The Cat in Celtic Folklore

"On Brighid's Day, the cats will bring home the brushwood"
~~ Traditional Scottish ~~

The cat, whether wild or domestic, is sacred to the Goddess in Celtic tradition, appearing in Irish, Welsh and Breton folklore. But it is in Scotland that is found a particularly powerful connection. A number of Scottish clans held the cat as their totem animal: those of MacIntosh, MacNeishe and MacNicol the domestic cat, and the MacBain the wild cat. The cat-people, a Pictish tribe known as the Kati, lived in Caithness, the ness or promontory of the cats, and in Sutherland in Gaelic is the Cataobh - cat country.

In Ireland and almost certainly throughout the Celtic world, the skin of a wild cat was used by warriors. An ancient Irish bard speaks of Talc son of Trone, who is called the cat-headed chief since his battle-dress included the skin of a wild cat, with its head attached to his helmet. The Irish Yellow Book of Lecan describes warriors wearing cats' heads, one of whom was noted as a Gaelic champion and one of the Irish kings was called Cairbar cinn chait - Carbar of the cat's head.

Although the cat was used by warriors, as was the boar, raven and bear, to invoke the avenging and protective power of the gods, it was still considered an animal associated with the Goddess and the feminine. For this reason both positive and negative attributes of the cat can be seen in folklore and tradition. As an animal clearly of the Goddess and in close contact with the spirit-world, the cat has been the victim of extraordinary persecution and cruelty. Her ability to see and work in the spirit-world makes the cat an ideal ally for any shaman and it was due to the Church's fear of such powers that many thousands of cats were tortured and put to death by burning in baskets in both Britain and France.

The cat as a creature of the Goddess was often perceived as somehow 'unholy.' It was considered unlucky to see a cat as the first animal of the year unless you were a MacIntosh or of the clan Cattan (whose chieftain is called The Great Cat). The goddess Brighid, who is known in Irish tradition as 'the daughter of the bear,' had a cat as a companion. In Welsh tradition the goddess Ceridwen in her manifestation as the great sow Henwen gives birth to a wolf cub, an eagle, a bee and a kitten. Unfortunately this last grows into the Palug Cat - one of the Three Plagues of Anglesey - that is killed by King Arthur and Cai only after a lengthy struggle.

Another tale that shows the fierceness of the cat and its role as a guradian can be found in the Irish Voyage of Maelduin, one of four spiritual tales called immrama, meaning mystical voyages. In this tale, the Druid Nuca teaches Maelduin how to build a magical boat in which he plans to avenge the murder of his father. He and his companions almost reach the murderers' island but winds blow them out to sea and they are lost for three days and nights.

They then come to a series of islands, many of which are presided over by animals. The first is the Island of Giant Ants, the second the Island of Many Birds and so on until they reach the tenth - the Island of the Cat. There they discover a 'noble hall, a king's fit dwelling.' Food and drink is in copious supply and there are soft beds and golden benches for them to rest upon. In this great hall lies treasure: silver brooches, gold-hilted swords and wide torcs. But no one is present except a 'quick, hungry cat poised on a pillar.' Against Maelduin's wishes, his foster-brother tries to steal a gold necklace but in a moment his body is turned to a pile of ash by the 'fiery paw of the wondrous cat.' The cat is seen here in her role as guardian of Otherworldly treasure.

The cat teaches respect and caution. She is sensual and will accept affection only on her terms. She is proud, independent and capable of observing both this world and the next...

~~ Courtesy of Sacred Animals ~~