The Feline’s Divine Protector. Uncovering the Ancient Deity of Cats

Introduction

Cats have been revered by humans for millennia and often associated with gods and goddesses. Ancient Egyptians in particular venerated cats, depicting cat-headed humanoid deities representing justice, fertility, and protection like Mafdet, Bastet, and Sekhmet (https://www.history.com/news/cats-ancient-egypt). Cats were useful predators as well as symbols of divinity in Egypt.

Feline deities and their connection to cats can be found in mythology worldwide, from Norse and Greek goddesses to witchcraft and modern spiritual movements. This article will explore some of the major ancient cat or feline deities and how the divine status of cats emerged and evolved across cultures.

Bastet – Egyptian Cat Goddess

One of the most well-known cat deities, Bastet was an Egyptian goddess depicted with a cat’s head. Bastet was originally a lioness warrior goddess who served a protective purpose in early Egypt. Over time, she took on more domestic qualities as cats rose in popularity in Egypt. Bastet became known for representing home, fertility, and motherhood as these were seen as the domain of the domestic cat.

Bastet’s worship began over 5,000 years ago and a cult center flourished in her honor at the city of Bubastis, where vast cemeteries of mummified cats have been found. Bastet was so beloved that even killing a cat, whether accidentally or purposefully, incurred the death penalty in Ancient Egypt. Her important status reflects the vital role cats played in Egyptian society, protecting grain stores and being cherished as pets. Bastet’s other domains included ointments, music, dance, and intoxicating pleasure or sensuality.

As cited here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bastet, Bastet underwent a transformation from her earlier portrayal as the lioness warrior goddess to a goddess of protection, fertility, motherhood, and the home. This reflects the domestication of the cat in Egyptian society and the growth of Bastet’s cult as cats gained popularity.

Freyja – Norse Goddess

Freyja, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, war, and death, was said to ride a chariot pulled by cats.[1] According to Norse mythology, Freyja owned a magical cloak made of falcon feathers that allowed her to transform into a falcon. She used this ability to fly across the battlefield in her chariot, choosing who would live or die.[2]

Freyja’s prized companions were her two gray Norwegian Forest Cats named Bygul (Bee-Gold) and Trjegul (Tree-Gold). These large, fluffy cats were believed to represent Freyja’s nobility and prosperity. According to legend, the magical cats were a gift from Thor as repayment after Freyja agreed to marry a giant in order to restore peace between the gods. Bygul and Trjegul dutifully pulled Freyja’s chariot and served as her faithful protectors.

As a goddess associated with magic and witchcraft, Freyja was also known for her shamanistic practices and prophetic powers. Her reverence for cats connected her to the mystical powers they held in Norse folklore. For the Vikings, Freyja and her cat companions represented feminine strength, divinity, and authority over life and death.

Ailuros – Greek Cat God

Ailuros is a lesser known Greek deity with origins as a cat god. He emerged from the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet, who was originally depicted as a lioness warrior goddess. When Bastet’s image evolved into that of a domestic cat, the Greeks adapted her into their mythology as Ailuros.

Ailuros was a god associated with fertility cults, the underworld, and the realm of dreams and nightmares. His name means “cat” in Greek. As cats were known for their prolific breeding abilities, Ailuros became connected with fertility religions in Greece. Cats were also known for their ability to navigate the darkness, so Ailuros was linked to the underworld of Hades and dreams.

According to some sources, the Greek writer Aelian recorded the first mention of Ailuros in his work On Animals. Aelian describes Ailuros as a cthonic deity who wanders between the realms of waking life and the underworld. Other sources suggest Ailuros emerged from the Egyptian city Bubastis, which was the center of cat-goddess Bastet’s cult. As trade occurred between Greece and Egypt, the cat god Ailuros disseminated into Greek folklore.

Ailuros is often depicted in art as a human male figure with a cat’s head, similar to the Egyptian representations of Bastet. However, he remained an obscure figure in Greek mythology and was not widely worshipped. Still, his origins provide an early example of a feline deity emerging in ancient Greek religion.

The Lioness Goddess – Prehistoric

The lioness goddess is one of the earliest known feline deities, worshipped by prehistoric humans across Europe and the Middle East. Ancient figurines and cave paintings dating back over 30,000 years depict powerful, protective lioness goddesses. These early societies venerated the lioness for her ferocity and maternal instincts. The lioness represented womanhood, fertility, and the protection of the community and children.

Archaeologists have uncovered many prehistoric Venus figurines merged with lioness images. The lioness goddess figurines are believed to be symbolic of strength and nurturing. Prehistoric people saw the lioness as a revered guardian and provider. The blending of the female form with the lioness expressed feminine power and divinity. The cult of the lioness goddess in the Paleolithic Era shows an early human reverence for felines.

Bubastis – Sacred Egyptian City

Bubastis was an ancient Egyptian city located in the eastern Nile Delta that served as one of the main cult centers for the cat goddess Bastet. The city’s name derives from “Per-Bast”, meaning “House of Bastet”. Bubastis prospered especially during the 22nd Dynasty around 945–715 BCE, becoming the capital of Egypt for a short period. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Bubastis was known for its abundant water supply, productive vineyards, and fragrant flowers.

The primary temple honoring Bastet was described by Herodotus as one of the largest and most beautiful temples in Egypt. Excavations of the site have revealed foundations of an enormous temple compound with multiple shrines, including a central shrine for Bastet. The temple housed a pool with fish considered sacred. The city earned renown for its annual processions and festivities honoring Bastet, attracting participants from across Egypt. Pilgrims brought mummified cats as offerings to bury in the vast cat necropolis adjacent to the temple.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubastis

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/history-magazine/article/bubastis-egyptian-sacred-city-of-cats

Modern Cat Deities

Cats continue to be revered in modern religions and spiritual practices. In Shintoism, the Japanese religion, there are several cat deities that are still honored today. These include Uke Mochi, the goddess of food, and Maneki Neko, the famous beckoning cat statue seen in many Asian stores and restaurants. Maneki Neko is believed to bring good luck, fortune, and prosperity.

In witchcraft and Wicca, cats are considered magical familiars or spirit guardians. Witches often form strong bonds with their cat familiars. Cats are seen as being closely in tune with the spirit world in these modern pagan practices. Black cats in particular are thought to be especially lucky in witchcraft traditions.

New Age followers may also look to cats as spirit guides or totem animals. Cats are believed to represent qualities like intuition, independence, healing, and mystery. Meditating on the spiritual attributes of cats is thought to impart wisdom. Overall, while ancient cat deities provide historical context, cats continue to hold an exalted status in various modern spiritual belief systems.

Cats in Witchcraft

Cats have long been associated with magic, witchcraft, and the supernatural throughout history. In medieval Europe, cats were said to be the “familiar” or animal spirit that aided witches in their practice of magic. It was believed that witches could transform into cats to sneak into people’s homes unnoticed. The fear of cats as demonic led to widespread cat killings during the Middle Ages. Cats were often seen as a threat, and just owning a cat could cause suspicion of witchcraft [1].

This association of cats and witchcraft dates back to pre-Christian times in Europe. Ancient Celtic and Norse legends linked cats to magical powers and prophecy. Freyja, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, war, and death had a chariot pulled by cats according to mythology. To the Egyptians, cats were sacred animals protected by the cat goddess Bastet. Killing a cat was a crime punishable by death in ancient Egypt [2]. Despite this sacred status elsewhere, medieval Europeans saw the cat as a symbol of heresy and paganism.

Cats in New Age Spirituality

In New Age beliefs, cats are often seen as spirit guides that can provide a psychic link to the divine. Their mystical, independent nature makes cats ideal symbols of magic and occult knowledge. Many New Age practitioners believe cats can protect against evil spirits and negative energy. As awareness grows of cats’ intuitive abilities, more people consider cats to be mystical creatures that can see beyond the physical world.

According to https://www.youandmeow.co.uk/post/a-feline-mystery-why-cats-are-so-deeply-associated-with-spirituality, cats are thought to be sensitive to psychic energies and spiritual forces. Their gaze seems to look into one’s soul. Those who believe in animal spirit guides often look to cats to reveal hidden knowledge and advice from divine realms. Cats can purportedly sense impending danger or evil presence, making them valued protectors in spiritual circles.

Many mystics and psychic mediums keep cats as their companions and partners on the spiritual path. The cat’s wisdom and sensitivity is seen as complementing and aiding human spiritual work. Their independence represents fully embracing one’s own intuitive path. Overall, cats symbolize the mysterious and magical aspects of spirituality for many New Age adherents.

Conclusion

Throughout history and across cultures, cats have often been revered for their mysterious and mystical nature. In ancient Egypt, Bastet was worshipped as the cat goddess. Her role evolved over time from a lioness warrior deity to a goddess of protection linked to domestic cats. Norse mythology also features the goddess Freyja, who rode a chariot pulled by cats. In Greek mythology, Ailuros was a cat god who was said to have protected babies from being swapped with changelings. There is also evidence of a prehistoric lioness goddess being associated with cats from ancient figurines and paintings. The Egyptian city of Bubastis was home to a sacred cat temple and vast cat cemeteries. Even into modern times, cats are viewed by some as magical creatures or familiars to witches. New Age spirituality has also embraced the wisdom, independence and healing energy of cats.

Across eras and cultures, the cat has been a mysterious and mystical creature. Revered as deities, honored in sacred temples, depicted in folklore legends, and viewed as magical familiars, the cat has often embodied spiritual meaning beyond an everyday domestic animal. The fascination and affinity humans feel towards cats may be partly rooted in the sacred symbolism, power and prestige these unique creatures have held throughout history.

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