Friday, December 20, 2013

Cat symbolism

Cats keep appearing in my dreams and, while it's true that I love them (and live with several) I think these dreams are pointing to more than just the fact that I like them. I've come to the realization that I really need to do a thorough exploration of the symbolism of the cat.

As with owls, cats are often associated with the night – both animals hunt at night, both are characterized by their ability to see well when we ourselves can’t. And since the unconscious is like the unknown night, how you feel about the unconscious will generally be reflected in how you feel about animals of the night, whether you hate and fear them or find them fascinating and helpful.

In keeping with their connection with the unknown and unseen, one idea that often crops up with cat’s is invisibility:
Albertus Magnus, the teacher of Saint Thomas Aquinas, insisted that a man could become invisible by wearing on his thumb the ear of a black cat, boiled in the milk of a black cow. Apparently the recipe was never tested; or if it was, the negative results were ignored."

The Arabs assigned very peculiar properties to such a stone [tiger’s eye]. They believed it could make its wearer invisible in battle. They also believed it could prevent an adulterous wife from conceiving children by her lover, provided her husband made her drink milk in which the stone had been dipped, before he went away on a journey. Perhaps the stone, perceived as an eye, was thought to affect various phenomena of vision and watching.”

All of this is pretty obvious I think and not super interesting, the whole black cat thing and everything. The first interesting thing I found about cats was Marie Louise von Franz's description of the cat and how it often symbolizes a kind of independent femininity:
“The cat in our country stems originally from Egypt, where it was once a divine animal. There, they had a cat goddess who was the goddess of music, sexuality, pleasure in life, and life-embracing feminine fertility. The cat, in contrast to the dog, has never sold its soul to man. It has a kind of egocentric reserve. The cat says, ‘You may stroke me and you may serve me,’ but it never becomes your slave. And if you annoy it, it just walks out on you. In women's dreams, therefore, the cat often is an image of something feminine, independent and sure of itself, just what modern women so often lack. That's why the cat goddess come up in women's dreams as a positive model of feminine behavior. It is not brutal; it does not display any masculine features. It is feminine and, at the same time, very firm, very identical with itself. The cat is not very amiable, but very true to itself.
(von Franz, Marie Louise, The Way of the Dream)

Cats are usually thought of as female... which makes it a bit weird for me because most of my cats have been boys. People are always asking me how “she” is doing, even though I've told them repeatedly that “she” is a he. There's just something about cats that people intuitively feel is feminine, and, this is just based on a very small sample but my impression is that people who don’t like cats often generally don’t like “girly” things either. Cats are Aphrodite-like animals; sensual, associated with pleasure, fertility and drinking (not just Bast but Sekhmet, Bast’s blood-thirsty sun-lion twin, was only appeased by alcohol mixed with blood). Bast’s temple in Egypt was described as small but beautiful, surrounded by water on three sides (very Aphrodite).

Another god associated with cats and alcohol is Dionysus, the god of drink, who’s usually portrayed wearing a leopard skin. The Dionysus man is sensual and fascinating, like a leopard, and also as dangerous emotionally. Cats have that Dionysus quality of sensuality but without the danger. Maybe that’s what people who hate cats really hate; the desire for sensual pleasure which refuses to be controlled. That independence and refusal to be controlled is an integral part of the cat:
This calm, cool exterior bleeds over into the Tarot to convey a sleek mood of secretiveness and obscurity. The cat is an ultimate authority of its own inner realms. It needs no permission to behave in one way or another - therefore the cat must be given full reign to rule as it sees fit.

It makes sense that under Christianity cats would fall out of favor; cats are sensual animals, animals of Aphrodite (pleasure) and Dionysus (ecstasy). Body-negating and full of hatred for earthly pleasures, such a religion would hate animals that symbolized pleasure. (“Christian: Satan; darkness; lust; laziness.”) (
All these ideas of connection between human and animal were more or less diabolized under the Christian system, which regarded animals as soulless or demonic, or at the very least devoid of any feelings that needed consideration. Men, jealous of women's propensity to make pets of animals and treat them with love, soon found ways to condemn women for sensual, affectionate relationships with their dogs or cats. A woman seen fondling or talking to her pet fell under suspicion of witchcraft. Even a woman who spoke to any animal, as one might say "Hello there" to a squirrel or a bird, could be considered a witch. During the centuries of persecution, women were often burned for keeping cats, or nurturing lambs, or talking to frogs, or raising colts, or even for having mice in the house or toads in the garden.

What really surprised me about the cat symbolism in my own dreams is my sudden realization that, for me, they’re one half of a split animus complex. This may be why they’re always male in my dreams (I’m sure the fact that my cats are all boys has something to do with it… or it may be that my cats are always boys because of my complex??) I read the following recently and a bolt of realization hit me:
The animus in the dreams of a woman in psychotherapy often displays an even sharper split, appearing again as two quite different ego-projected complexes. One is the dominating, judgmental, condemning side, personified as a patriarchal father, dictator, judge or menacing animals such as a tiger or bear. These animus personifications seem to attack the woman dreamer, corresponding to involuntary thoughts that may attack her in waking life, saying, "What good are you? What could you accomplish? All you do is worthless."

In the same woman, a complementing ego-projected complex may be weak, helpless, or impotent. He may be an oversensitive artist; a deformed, crippled, or crazy boy; a distant, indifferent, or frigid man unable to love; or a weak, helpless animal.”
(Donald F. Sander & John Beebe, Psychopathology and Analysis, from Murray Stein’s Jungian Analysis, p. 312)

This is true, for me at least. In all of my dreams, whenever cats have appeared, they’re always in danger. I always have to protect them and keep them out of danger. Or if it’s not a cats it’s another weak, helpless animal. I always thought these weak animals were my inner little girl but it may be that they’re really images of the weak, helpless half of a split animus. I do know that at least part of my animus is cruel, domineering and, at least until recently, degrading. Are these cats and other helpless animals the other half of my animus? It seems so to me, right now at least.

One final facet of the cat that I’d like to explore, one which is particularly appropriate in light of the way cats are in my own unconscious: the role they play as protectors. Cats, at least in Egypt, are actually seen as protectors of the Pharaoh. Cats kill not only kill grain eating vermin but also snakes and scorpions. In Egyptian mythology cats were protectors of the Pharaoh; the cat goddess Bast fought Apep, the snake god of evil, and killed him: “[I]n other myths, it was the cat goddess Bastet, daughter of Ra, who slew Apep in her cat form one night, hunting him down with her all seeing eye” (and here again is the association with vision and night-sight.)


Cats are, in an obvious way, associated with sensuality and pleasure, independence and the night. But they’re also warm-blooded protectors against that which is poisonous, or that which would devour the nourishment the unconscious depends on for life. Perhaps the independence and joy in earthly pleasures is one way of protecting ourselves from these things in our lives.

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