As Halloween is just upon us, what better way to prepare than sharing tidbits about the spooky dogs and cats of myth?
Nekomata – In Japanese folklore, a domesticated cat contains a monster spirit that comes about once the cat reaches old age. The Nekomata are one of the more sinister feline yōkai. Origins of this myth date back to 1185. Accounts of this creature incited fear and, unfortunately, affected the way cats were treated during this era. During the Edo period, the Nekomata was described as a rather large cat with powers, and later, between the 17th and 18th centuries, more details emerged about this cat and how it was transformed from a domesticated cat if it had been kept in the home for a certain length of time. The tail of this cat would split in two before it transformed. It is indeed a hostile creature, inclined to eat other, rather large, animals, setting buildings ablaze by creating balls of fire, and given to necromancy or shape-shifting into lions or leopards.
Bakeneko – The slightly less hostile monster cat of the yōkai form, the Bakeneko would also transform once they reach an age over 13 years. They maintain their appearance as an ordinary house cat for a time, then their supernatural powers increase as they grow even older and will eventually be given to stand upright and walk around on their hind legs. They will grow larger, sometimes even to the size of their human caretaker. Their powers include shape-shifting (becoming smaller, regular sized cats or taking on the form of other people, even their owners), and if they are disguising themselves as humans, you can tell it is a Bakeneko if they are wearing a towel wrapped around their head. According to folklore, signs that a house cat was going to transform into one of these Bakeneko was their age (over 13 years old), their weight (if they grew to be over 8 lbs), if they have a very long tail, or if they had been spotted licking up lamp oil. The Bakeneko will not necessarily eat other large creatures like their supernatural cousin, the Nekomata, but they are said to bring with them curses and misfortune.
Maneki neko – This yōkai is actually a popular symbol for good luck and fortune. If you’ve ever passed by a storefront or a counter at a restaurant, you may have seen a little statue of a calico sitting, smiling, and holding up its paw. In opposition to the Nekomata and the Bakeneko, the Maneki neko are benign cats who are good luck charms for agriculture – they eat the mice and other pests that would otherwise attack a farmer’s crops – and the folklore says they protect their owners from danger and bring them riches.
Black Shuck – Near England, there was a creature that haunted the folktales of people who lived along the coastlines and countryside. The Black Shuck is a large spectral black dog with glowing red eyes and a howl like a savage wind, it hunts in wild lands.
The Wampus Cat – One of the stories surrounding this creature depicts it as a supernatural feline spirit from Cherokee folklore which originated in a part of North Carolina. A woman was turned into a half-woman/half-cougar monster called Ewah (or, the Wampus Cat) as punishment for sneaking into a secret meeting of the Cherokee men who were telling sacred stories that women were forbidden to hear. She was cursed to wander the forests, howling for and lamenting her true human form, terrorizing anyone who became lost in her forest after dark. In opposition to this, another tale relates that the Ew’ah was an evil demon which plagued the lives of the Cherokee tribes until one day they sent their bravest to fight the Ew’ah. This warrior was named Standing Bear. He did not return from his mission until weeks later but he was never the same, deranged and no longer any use as a warrior. He came home crazed and screaming. In revenge, Standing Bear’s wife, Running Deer, went after the Ew’ah. Garbed in a mask depicting a bobcat and covered in special black paste to hide herself from the demon’s notice, she snuck up on the creature, sprang forth and vanquished it. It is said that Running Deer’s spirit resides in the Wampus Cat to watch over her tribe’s lands.
Werewolves – What short collection of legends regarding the canine and feline creatures of lore would be complete without the mention of the infamous werewolf? Most of us are aware of this particular character – most commonly a man that transforms into a wolf or wolf man sometimes by the influence of a full moon – because of literature and film. Werewolves have historically been a part of the world’s folktales since about 1200 B.C. where the first known reference of this creature was made in the Mesopotamian odyssey The Epic of Gilgamesh. The god Zeus cursed Lycaon by turning him into a werewolf. According to many stories, one can become one of these terrifying monster dogs by being bitten by it, and cursed to transform under each full moon, given to madness and mayhem. Or, as some myths proclaim, lycanthropy was a punishment from the gods. In Northern European legends, the werewolf was likely to have emerged from the stories of men dressing in the pelt of wolves in order to battle like wolves. The Norse berserk warriors share a similar trait in that they don the pelt of a bear in battle.
Thank you for reading and remember, black cats are NOT bad luck, make sure your pet does not get into the trick-or-treat bucket, and have a safe and happy Halloween!