The cat was the guardian of the Celtic Otherworld (the Celtic version of the Ancient Greek or Roman Underworld). To the Celts, cats exhibited a vast intelligence, and were said to guard their secrets for all eternity.
With a reputation for intelligence and secret-keeping, the cats of Celtic mythology supposedly possessed the ability to steal souls – an unfortunate characteristic that contributes to the idea that cats are ‘dark’ or ‘evil’. In order to protect the soul of the recently deceased, Celts would distract the cat with unanswered riddles. The idea was that the curious feline would ponder the riddle, and either forget about the soul or waste the time available to collect it. Another method was to place catnip away from the body to lead the cat away, or to entertain the cat by playing a “coronach” or funeral lament.
One interesting tale is that of the King of Cats. There are numerous stories in Celtic mythology depicting its various incarnations including a brief mention by William Shakespeare, but one well-known depiction is titled, ‘The Farmer’s Cat’. The story goes that one evening a farmer was travelling home when he witnessed eight cats carrying a coffin. The coffin beheld a royal shield, and the cats were chanting that the King of Cats was dead. When the farmer arrived home, he told his wife what he had seen, and their cat promptly cried, “Old Tom is dead? Then I must be King!” And the cat vanished up their chimney.
Another prominent feline figure of Celtic mythology is Cat Sìth or Cat Sidhe (both pronounced ‘caught shee’). The cat—whose name translates to “fairy cat”—is said to appear in the form of a large black cat with a white spot on its chest. Folklore explains that the cat was in fact a witch who could transform into a cat eight times. Upon transforming the ninth time the witch was trapped in her cat form – a tale that most attribute to the legend of a cat having ‘nine lives’. It was also said that on Samhain (or Halloween) that leaving out a saucer of milk for Cat Sìth would result in a gift from the mythical feline. If Cat Sìth were to pass your house and found no milk the cat would instead curse your cows.
Most speculate that the legend of Cat Sìth is based on a real-life species of cat: the Kellas cat. Native to Scotland, the Kellas cat is a hybrid between the Scottish wildcat and the domestic cat, and was named for the village where it was first found. Originally thought to be pure folklore, the cat features a large stature and black fur – the latter thought to have contributed to its mythical associations. Several specimens of the Kellas cat can be seen today at the National Museum of Scotland.