It’s October, and October makes for an excellent opportunity to talk about monsters. Everyone is familiar with a werewolf, but did you know there’s a cat equivalent? Werecats are prevalent in many cultures across the world! In Central and South America, we see werejaguars. Europe has werepanthers. In Africa, there are werelions and wereleopards. And in Asia, weretigers dominate. Let’s explore some of this global folklore surrounding monstrous big cats.
What is a werecat?
A werecat is defined as a person that turns into a cat. They fall into the overarching category of therianthropy, the mythical ability to transform into an animal by shapeshifting. Furthermore, werewolves, weredogs, werecats, and werehyenas are all seen in this category. Turning into a cat is known as Ailuranthropy, and a person that turns into a cat is known as an Ailuranthrope. Ailuranthropy comes from the Greek roots ailouros, meaning cat, and anthropos, meaning human.
Generally, werecats come in all shapes and sizes, from the largest tiger to the smallest domesticated cat.
Werecats around the World
South and Central America
Ancient Central and South American cultures, like the Mayans and the Aztecs, are known to worship the jaguar. The biggest cat in the Americas, the jaguar, was revered as a god and was often related to the royal family. The werejaguar specifically is often seen in Olmec art and religion.
The Olmecs are widely acknowledged as the first Mesoamerican culture. It is, therefore, one of the biggest influences on current Mesoamerican culture, as well as the ancient cultures that succeeded it. Cultures like the Mayans and the Aztecs continued to worship the jaguar after the Olmec had long disappeared.
The Olmecs often depicted werejaguars having cleft foreheads, flame eyebrows, broad, flat noses, and a wide, downturned mouth, sometimes with teeth, sometimes without.
One of the best examples of a werejaguar appears in the Aztec religion. The god Tezcatlipoca has a jaguar form called Tepeyollotl. Tezcatlipoca is considered a brother to Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. During one of their encounters, Quetzalcoatl hit Tezcatlipoca with an axe, giving him a cleft forehead.
Olmec royalty was also thought to be descendants of Tezcatlipoca, literally birthed as a result of a female human and a male jaguar mating. Werejaguar children often had physical deformities that showcased their similarity to their jaguar father. Often seen were spina bifida, hydrocephalus, encephaloceles, and cranium bifidum. Spina bifida is a prenatal condition that affects spine development and, as a result, causes cranial deformities. All three cranial deformities, hydrocephalus, encephaloceles, and cranium bifidum, can cause cranial swelling, separating the skull and resulting in a cleft forehead. The cleft forehead possibly represented the soft spot on a baby’s head which was supposed to connect someone to the spiritual world. The downturned, angry expression of werejaguar art could have represented the pain these individuals would have been in. Even early deaths could have been explained as a jaguar soul leaving the human body to return to their jaguar god.
In Europe, most werecats are believed to be people who turn into domesticated cats. Some became giant domesticated cats, known as werepanthers. In general, werecats were labeled as witches. In most cases, witches were depicted to have many different kinds of powers; however, werecats, and were-animals, only had the power of self-transformation. Throughout the witch trials in Europe, all shapeshifters, including werewolves and werecats, were persecuted. Whether the person transforming was female or male, they were labeled a witch and often put to death.
Similar to Central and South American cultures, many African cultures associated cats with divine or royal bloodlines. In Egyptian mythology, for example, there are multiple human-cat hybrid gods, like Bastet, depicted with a cat head, and Sekhmet, depicted with a lioness head. Werecats turning into lions were often believed to be royalty.
Wereleopards, another African big cat, were thought to be disguised deities walking among mankind. It was said when these deities mated with humans, their offspring could turn into shapeshifters or have other powers.
African folklore does reference a creature called the Nunda or Mngwa. According to the stories, it was a massive cat, more ferocious than a lion and more agile than a leopard. It took the form of a human by day, and a werecat by night.
Most Asian werecats are said to turn into tigers, however, each country has a different way as to how. In some mythos, weretigers were formed when a human put on tiger skin. Occasionally this also included an incantation or charm. In others, a human would have to shed their clothes or their humanity, recite an incantation, and burn some incense. If the clothes were stolen or lost, they would remain a tiger forever. This could be avoided with an accomplice. Accomplices could transform a weretiger back into a person by throwing the clothes at them. They could also help a person transform into a weretiger by sprinkling water over them and then doing it again to transition them back into a person.
In some beliefs, it was a spirit that turned a weretiger, and that spirit could be passed from family member to family member. While in others, some are born with a tiger spirit, and after death, remember their humanity. They come to visit their family members and protect them.
Another weretiger belief was that humans don’t actually transform into tigers. Instead, during sleep, their spirit leaves their body to wander the spirit world or dreamscape as a tiger. Some believed that it attached itself to the soul of a real, living tiger. The tiger is then capable of acting out on the human desires of the sleeping. It is thought that an injury that befalls the tiger in this spirit state also hurts the human body.
Werecats are still not as popular as werewolves, but they do exist in popular culture. Some are superheroes, like Cheetah from the DC Universe and Tigra from the Marvel Universe. In MTV’s Teen Wolf, they introduce werejaguars in season 4. Children’s movie and doll line Monster High has many werecats, including a main side character named Toralei. Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s main character She-Ra’s best friend turned enemy was a werecat named Catra. Werecats have made appearances in shows like Scooby Doo, books like Eragon, and games like Dungeons and Dragons. They’re out there if you know where to look!