Mythic Felines
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Ancient Greece
Mycenaean dagger depicting a hunting cat

     The ancient Greeks weren't too crazy about cats.  The love of domestic cats as companions or pets came later with the Romans.  In ancient Greece, cats were kept as mousers or, unfortunately, fodder to train fighting dogs.
     Big cats were a different matter.  There are numerous lion or leopard references in both art and mythology.  Their greatest hero, Herakles, was associated with the lion.  Here are a few of the ancient Greek big cats:



     Artemis was celebrated in the Greek pantheon as the goddess of the hunt, wild places, young women, childbirth, fertility, and the moon.  She is often identified with Selene, Aradia, Hecate, and Bast.  She is actually older than the Greek pantheon and was inserted later as the daughter of Zeus and Leto. 

     In ancient times, the deities overlapped and assimilated one another frequently.  Early Greek travelers to Egypt saw the cat-headed Bast as a version of Artemis.  Bast started out as a solar goddess, but was nudged into a lunar aspect to better fit into the Artemis mold.

      In the Iliad, Artemis is described as a lioness amongst women. Early depictions of the goddess sometimes showed her astride or accompanied by a lion. Both leopards and lions are associated with Artemis.  A 8th century BCE vase depicts the goddess holding a lion (Apollo?) in her left hand and a leopard (Dionysus?) in her right hand.  Her easy pose of holding these huge cats demonstrates her mastery over them. At Nemi, the grove and lake were sacred to Artemis.  Recalling the Nemean lion from the Herakles myth, one wonders if the lion was sacred to Artemis.

     In one myth, Artemis was the first born of twins.  Less than a day old, she assisted her mother, Leto,  in delivering Apollo (the solar brother). For the cities, she became the goddess of fertility and childbirth.  In the countryside, she was primarily the deity you called upon for abundant, healthy game.  Hunters, unsure as to whether Artemis would be happy or not with them killing the wildlife, quickly made sacrifices to appease her.

     Artemis is always associated with the beasts.  She had a variety of sacred animals and woe to any who sought to injure or kill them!  Fiercely independent, Artemis had little use for men and simply did not suffer idiots.  Some today refer to her as a virgin goddess, but "virgin" in ancient times did not necessarily mean sexless.  Instead, "virgin" can refer to an independent female who is not the chattel of any male.  When Artemis became smitten with Orion, it was her brother who tricked her into slaying the hunter.  Apparently Apollo was more worried about the virginal thing than Artemis!

     Anyway, Artemis did guard the virginity of her "little bears" - the young girls sent to her temple before they were to be wed.  Artemis demanded that the girls be chaste while they learned her Mysteries.  This may seem like an unusual demand from a fertility goddess and one wonders if this condition wasn't added in from patriarchal influences.  At any rate, there were dire punishments from the girls who had premarital flings.

     In the Pride, we celebrate Artemis by being aware of the creatures and natural world around us as well as becoming better in-tuned with our own inner animals.  The best way to pay honor to Artemis is to be environmentally active.  Organize a clean-up at your local park, shop green, volunteer at an animal shelter, or find a way to make the earth around you a better place.



     Dionysus is known as the twice-born god due to the unusual circumstances of his birth.

     In some myths, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Hera – always jealous! - sent the Titans to tear the baby apart and devour him.  The goddess Athena (or Demeter or Rhea) manages to save the baby’s heart.  The ashes of the heart were added to a drink given to Semele, who later gives birth to Dionysus.

     In variant myths, a pregnant Semele is tricked by Hera and asks to see her lover Zeus in all his glory.  Hera convinced the woman that Zeus was deceiving her about that god thing. When the god reveals himself, the woman is burned to ashes.  Zeus quickly sews the ashes of the fetus into his thigh.  Dionysus emerges some months later, born of both Semele and Zeus.

     Dionysus took the form of a lion to attack pirates.  Once, while disguised as a mortal sitting beside the seashore, a few sailors spotted him, believing he was a prince. They attempted to kidnap him and sail him far away to sell for ransom or into slavery. They tried to bind him with ropes, but no type of rope could hold him. Since Dionysus was also very attractive, the pirates decided they would rape him.  Enraged, Dionysus turned into a fierce lion and unleashed a bear on board, killing those he came into contact with. Those who jumped off the ship were mercifully turned into dolphins. The only survivor was the helmsman, Acoetes, who recognized the god and tried to stop his sailors from the start.

     Dionysus is a god of extremes.  Although associated with the cultivation of grapes, wine, and good fellowship, he also represents loss of control.  Often associated with wild satyrs, sileni, and centaurs, he is an androgynous, sensual god. Dionysus carries a phallic staff known as a thyrsus.  The pine cone tipping the thyrsus represents Cybele (whose worshippers sometimes castrated themselves).  Many people associated Dionysus (or Bacchus) with wild orgiastic rites, sexual frenzy, and the breaking down of gender roles.

     Dionysus is usually depicted wearing a leopard skin, flanked by a leopard, or being pulled by a chariot with panthers.  He has been called the god of cats and savagery.  Indeed, his followers, the Maenads and Bacchae, would wander the wild places of Ancient Greece in a mindless frenzy.  If they came upon a luckless traveller or animal, the Maenads would tear their victim to pieces – even consuming the raw flesh.  The Bacchae were said to enjoy human blood as much as the blood of the grape.

     The worship of Dionysus coincided with that of Apollo (especially prophesy).  Dionysus’ domain is divine madness and chaotic dreaming as opposed to Apollo’s calm light and order.  To enter his domain, one must induce a voluntary psychosis.  Logic and reason  have nothing to do with it!

     In Sabertooth’s Pride, Dionysus represents sensual awakening, overpowering passion,  and how it’s easy to get carried away.  One can enjoy the gifts of Dionysus in moderation, but to immerse yourself in them leads to poor judgement, loss of self control, and destructive behaviors.  For Shamans, to face the wild god is always dangerous because of the maddening loss of control and rational self.  You face the wildest place within yourself – the naked face of the god – and it can consume you like Semele!  Whatever happens, the experience will be a re-birth of sorts and it is up to you to decide if you will assume mastery over your life or let chaotic forces rule you.  To paraphrase Joseph Campbell: either you ride the leopard or else it will tear you to pieces.


Ancient Greek Cat-Creatures 

THE SPHINX had the body of a lioness, the head and breasts of a woman, the wings of an eagle, and sometimes a serpent's tail.  She guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes, keeping travellers at bay.  To enter Thebes, a traveller had to answer the Sphinx's riddle.  If he failed to answer correctly, the sphinx flew down, throttled him, and ate him.  The sphinx ate everyone who dared her riddle until Oedipus solved the riddle.  The sphinx was then said to have thrown herself down from her rocky perch and devoured herself!

In antiquity, the riddle was never specified.  Later on in history, the Riddle of the Sphinx was as follows: What animal is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and on three legs in the evening?  Oedipus (who later became one of the greatest Greek tragedy figures) correctly answered: Man - he crawls on  four limbs as an infant, walks on two legs as an adult, and leans on a staff in the evening of his years.

THE CHIMERA incorporated the head of a lion, the head of a goat in the middle, and the tail (or sometimes the head as well) of a snake.  It belched fire from all three heads and was difficult to get near, much less slay.  Bellerophon got around the fiery breath problem by shooting arrows at it from the back of Pegasus, the flying horse.  While it lay dying, he finished it off by plunging a spear with a lump of lead at its tip into the monster's gullet.  The lead melted instantly and choked the Chimera to death.

THE NEMEAN LION was described as a huge beast with an inclination to be vicious and attack humans.  It also had an impervious hide, making arrows and edged weapons useless.  Herakles was charged to kill and skin the Nemean Lion as his first labor.  To kill it, Herakles had to trap it in its lair and strangle it to death by sheer strength.  He then used its own claws to skin it.  Herakles is usually depicted as wearing the lion's head and skin as his armor.

Because of the huge size of the lion described, it is my personal theory that the Nemean lion might have been one of the last remaining cave lions in Greece.THE MANTICORE hailed originally from Persia.  In 400 BCE Ctesias, a Greek physician at the Persian Court of King Artaxerxes II,  introduced the strange animal to Europe.  The manticore ("man-eater") was described as similar to a tiger (also described as a red lion), but with 3 rows of teeth along each jaw and spikes at the tip of its tail with which it defends itself at close quarters, while it hurls them like an archer's arrows at more distant enemies. Furthermore, the manticore kills instantly without a bite or a scratch, then devours its victim bones and all.  Later Medieval illustrations portrayed the manticore as having a human face. 

THE GRIFFIN also originated in the east. The griffin had the head, wings, and the talons of an eagle as its forelegs and the body and back legs of a lion.  It also had ears resembling that of a horse.  Because eagles are the king of the skies and the lion is the king of beasts, the griffin was used as a symbol of Zeus to show his mastery of the heavens and earth.  As a symbol of the divine, it was also a guardian of things divine. The griffin was said to build a nest, like an eagle: instead of eggs, it lays sapphires.  The animal was supposed to watch over gold mines and hidden treasures, and to be the enemy of the horse.
And when they weren't eating horses?  The offspring of a griffin and a mare is a hippogriff!  Hippogriffs apparently get no genetic input from the lion parts and are eagle/horse hybrids.
The opinicus is a heraldic beast that differs from the griffin principally in that all four of its legs are those of a lion.  Winged opinicus are female.

Greek Sphinx
Griffin bowl
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