Cats in Mythology and Ancient Worlds

While cats have lived alongside us humans as pets and companions for centuries, they’ve been a feature of folklore and mythology for even longer. From Aztec to Celtic, ancient Egyptian to Greek, there are feline characters dotted throughout the stories of these different cultures and civilisations.

Whether you’re a history fan or just a cat lover, we’re taking you on a trip through the stand-out feline stars of mythology - but be warned, they’re definitely not all cute and cuddly house cats. 

Im-paw-tant prehistoric discoveries

We’re starting our journey in the prehistoric period, with some of the very first examples of figurative art in existence. The oldest statue ever discovered actually depicts a feline! It’s a statue of a lion-human hybrid, and it was found in a cave in the south of Germany. 

Known as the Löwenmensch (which is German for lion-person), this statue was carved from the ivory of a mammoth’s tusk, and carbon dating has shown it to be between 35,000 and 41,000 years old. That’s a really ancient feline!

Similar but smaller lion-headed statues were found in another nearby cave, leading experts to suggest that the prehistoric people living in that area may have had belief systems involving these human-feline creatures. 


a column and detailed ceiling from an ancient egyptian building


The sphinx and its sisters…

It’s not just prehistoric cave-dwellers who combined human and lion traits. Mythology has more than one example of creatures with human heads and the bodies of lions, and the sphinx is a creature prevalent in the mythologies of ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, and beyond.

The Great Sphinx of Gaza, the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt, might be its most famous depiction. It’s believed to have been constructed in around 2500 BC, making it a much more modern sibling of the prehistoric lion-person statues found in Germany. 

While the most famous example can be found in Egypt, the sphinx has been a feature of mythologies around the world. Persian legends feature a creature called the Manticore, a sphinx-like being with a human head, lion body, and spiny tail. 

Cats in ancient Egypt

Mention of the Sphinx brings us to the wider topic of ancient Egypt. Regular blog readers might remember our article about cats in ancient Egypt, and there are plenty of feline Gods who featured in their mythology. 

There were many gods and goddesses with animal features, including Bastet, the goddess with the head of a cat, and Sekhmet, another goddess who is shown to have the head of a lion.

Star of the zodiac

If you’re into astrology, you’ll know all about Leo, the zodiac sign of those born between late July and late August. Leo is, of course, represented as a lion, and it’s believed to be linked to the lion Nemean, who features in Greek mythology. 

Nemean was slain by Heracles, so it’s not quite a happy ending for the cat character - but it’s mythology, after all.  


a tile mosaic showing a lion walking along and roaring


And plenty more…

There are plenty of other cats that feature heavily in certain mythologies and ancient histories, from the lynx to the jaguar.

The very realistic looking Lion of Babylon roams around on the ancient Ishtar Gate, which was built in around 575 BC in what is now modern-day Iraq. The lions on the Ishtar Gate were meant to represent Ishtar herself, the goddess of love, war and fertility.

In other parts of the world, guardian lions are a traditional architectural feature seen guarding Chinese imperial palaces. In Aztec mythology, the god Tepēyōllōtl is depicted as a jaguar, while in Celtic folklore, the cat-sìth is a creature that looks like a large black cat with a white spot on its chest.


an imperial lion statue photographed in front of a palace


If all this has made you curious about our cats and you want to discover how they made the jump from mythological creatures to snoozing on our sofas, take a look at our article on the history of the house cat.

30/06/2023 by NatuTeam

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