• Hrafnsunna Ross

Who's Afraid of the Big Black Cat?

Monstrous Cats in Norse and British Myth





We recently got two lovely kittens, one grey and one black. This inspired me to write about mythical cats, especially the monstrous kind. There are many supernatural cats in myth and folklore, but in this article I want to focus on a few of my favorites.


By Alexander Murray (1874)

I think it’s best to start off with Freyja’s cats. It’s not explicitly stated that they are monstrous,

but they must be large if they were to be able to draw a cart. There is really a saddening lack of information about them, and they seem to be the only heavenly steeds in Norse mythology without names. However, them being steeds of Freyja, who is arguably one of the most popular deities of the Norse pantheon, is a good indication of the importance of cats to Old Norse people. Brenda Prehal writes extensively about viking age cat beliefs in her essay Freyja’s Cats: Perspectives on Recent Viking Age Finds in Þegjandadalur North Iceland. In the essay she talks about the important connecton cat’s have to Freyja and evidence points to them being a part of some magic rituals.



By Yuri_B on Pixabay.com (edited)

Prehal references the Fornmannasögur when describing a pitch-black she-cat who gave birth to a giant called Brúsi. She had terrible eyes and breathed fire from her mouth and nostrils. This reminds me of the ketta (literally she-cat) which, according to English Philologist Nora K. Chadwick, is in some sagas referred to as the mother of undead men like the haugbúi, but it is not certain if this is an ogress, cat or a mix of both. Then there is Þórólfr from Laxdælasaga who had an army of large, fierce black cats that he could enchant to become even more vicious. Prehal also mentions that Köttur (literally Cat) is listed as the name of a Jötunn in Nafnaþulur. This is more what I want to focus on right now, the “troll cats”.


Art by Alex C. Mosk

One of the most famous monster cats in Icelandic folklore is the Yule Cat, eating those who don’t receive new clothes for Yule. This might sound a bit absurd, but if you look at the Yule Cat as a symbol of winter, clothes are pretty important if you are going to survive the harsh months that are to follow. Another less widespread threat was that if you didn’t finish things you started knitting before Yule, the cat would take all the high-fat foods rationed to you and rub them into unfinished garments. It would also just sometimes eat the food.

From Pet Sematary (1989)


The origins of the Yule Cat are unknown, but it is said to be a kind of urðarköttur or scrag-cat. These monster cats with a lethal gaze come into being when a normal cat starts eating human corpses then dwells three winters underground in a church yard. The ethnologist Hrefna S. Bjartmarsdóttir puts forth that the root of the Yule Cat could very well have been brought over from the British Isles and mentions the at least 500 year old Scottish belief that it was unlucky to not receive new clothes before Christmas. I assume she is also referring to beasts like Cath Palug.


By Starzshine on Pixabay.com

This cat has many stories related to it and is said to be the child of the great sow Henwen. The story seems to usually be that it started as a black kitten cast into the sea but caught in a fisherman’s net later. Soon he grows to be a large and frightful monster and described as one of the three great plagues of Ynis Mona. There are many stories of Cath Palug fighting King Arthur but interestingly, which of them wins is not consistent.The origin of Cath Palug’s name is uncertain but there are a few theories. Palug is thought to come from a stem meaning “to scratch/hit/claw/dig” among other things. Others interpret it as “Palug’s Cat”, as one Welsh myth states that the cat was raised by “the sons of Palug'' but I cannot find any other mention of these sons of Palug or who/what Palug is supposed to be. The Old French and Anglo Norman counterpart of Cath Palug is Chapalu which means “bog cat”, and this is by far my favorite meaning. Cath Palug and his counterparts (like the monstrous cat of Lausanne) have a strong connection to water and are always located near a water source in myths. In Anglesey, one of Cath Palug’s homes, there is a large marshland called Malltraeth (translated as “blighted shore”).


Photo of Malltraeth Marsh by Stephen Elwyn Roddick

There are certain aspects of Cath Palug that remind me of Fenrir.

Fenrir, too, lives on an island (the island Lyngvi in the lake Ámsvartnir). Fenrir’s name is said to stem from “fen”, and the French form of Cath Palug’s name mean’s “bog cat”. Both beasts are raised and cared for until they become too big and frightening. I at least really like the thought of a bog-cat and there are more creatures that fit that role, like Ireland’s Black Bog Cat and possibly the Orcadian ketthontla. It seems a little contradictory for cats to be associated with marshes and water, at least when it comes to domestic cats.

Photo of taxidermy Kellas cat from Wikimedia Commons

Things start making more sense when we look at the Kellas cat, a hybrid species between Scottish wildcats and domestic cats. They are large, almost entirely black and there is a recorded sighting of one swimming after wildfowl. Kellas cats are also thought to be the root of the Cait-Sith, fairy cats in Scottish folklore.


I think I’d like to end with a fun little rhyme that Icelanders sometimes end stories with:



Köttur út í mýri

Setti upp á sér stýri

Úti er ævintýri


“A cat in a bog

Raised it’s tail,

The story comes to an end”

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