The Key Marco Cat
is a number of things at the same time. It is a relic
. It is a bit of folk art
and an item in a museum
collection. It no doubt had meaning to someone and might have been a token of power. It might be a goddess, or a god. It is pretty though unremarkable. It is a ghost of a dead people
, though who those people were is not easy to say. So it is a mystery, a suitable vocation for any cat.
Physically, it is a wooden sculpture about 6 inches high in the form of a kneeling figure with a cat's head and tail. Other than the face and the vaguely defined outline of the tail in back there is little enough detail in the figure, but by the way it kneels one is immediately struck with the notion that this is a cat's head on a human body. Plus a tail. Given the way things are the cat resides, along with other artifacts of the Native American tribes of the Florida peninsula, at the National Museum of Natural History. And by happy circumstance it is also a statuette sitting among other artifacts on an altar in my home.
Physically that's what is /is/, but what /was/ it? And who made it?
I think I can tell you why they made it, but that is a somewhat personal observation and will be shared below.
There are many (primarily residents and recent immigrants of Key Marco, Florida, justifiably proud of their rich and ancient history, though the natives themselves are long gone) who will inform you that the Key Marco Cat was carved by the Calusa tribe of Florida, probably after the 8th century and as recently as the 16th century. But the Calusa were famous travelers and traders, being something of the Phoenicians of their place and time, making way by canoe to Cuba and islands of the Caribbean, and we can well imagine them running across all manner of interesting baubles.
But the cat was indeed found in Florida, where there exists a species of petite cougar to this day, so the story concerning Calusa origins is as good as any.
It was dug up (or disturbed, depending on how you look at it) by Frank Hamilton Cushing in 1895 while practicing anthropology in a bog. It is said the bog contained what was essentially flotsam from some great storm a thousand years before, perhaps a hurricane similar to the ones that even today batter the Florida coastlines and send the occasional house or small town flying on the winds, to fall as wrack for future anthropologists to ponder. Cushing disinterred many other artifacts as well, such as woven nets and fishing gear made of bone, all preserved by oxygen-depleted bog conditions, but most or all perished due to difficulties in preservation. However the cat survived, as cats are wont to do.
The site of the cat's discovery now lay under housing projects, so though the cat remains its ancient home is gone. Take that as an ill-omen for current residents if you like. Gone too are the Calusa, but where to none are sure. Certainly they were set up by other Indian tribes. Smallpox took it's toll. Perhaps the survivors traveled west to distant, dessicated reservations along with many other Indian tribes in the last days. One story is that they fled to Cuba, and we can only hope this is true. Much was lost regardless, but there is nothing to indicate that anyone alive by the end would have known anything about the cat, or its purpose. But then again, nobody was asking either.
But one can speculate after the fact. A figurine is something personal, generally for the home or a private place of worship, to be placed around the hearth, or carried in a pouch, to be hauled out on special days, or used in healing or birthings. As the cat is carved in wood it certainly could have been whittled by an elder hunched over the fire on a rainy day. As it is very nicely done, with particular attention to the face, we can imagine that it had real purpose, was protected from casual harm by fire and abuse, and so was loved. It might have been a remembrance of a real feline, a rare pet or a spirit guide glimpsed in the wilds. It also might have been carved particularly for a burial, perhaps of a dead child or mother, and so ended up underground on purpose. All sensible guesses, I'll confess rooted in cat lore from other people in other times.
Cat worship and reverence, and representations of human half-cats, have roots dug deep into human history, where gods might have feline heads, or turn into felines. The ancient Egyptians are probably the best known for feline worship, though we all know someone, often an elder living alone, who would appear to carry on a similar tradition in having numerous cats and lavishing attention on them, unwittingly practicing paganism. The Egyptians had cat temples crawling with welcomed feline strays, cat mummies in kitty sarcophagi, and probably cat-centric holidays. Killing a cat was a crime punishable by death. However even they were somewhat ambivalent regarding cats. The goddess Bast was a cat (or woman with a cat's head) who looked over the home and birthing mothers, and in all surviving representations would seem to be as gentle and maternal a pussy as you could hope to know. On the other paw, the goddess Sekhmet was a lion-headed being that one fine day set out to drink all the blood of mankind, a plot undone only by the combined actions of the rest of the Egyptian pantheon; they brewed a strong beer, turned it red with herbs, and invited the raging Sekhmet to drink her fill. Subsequently she fell into a drunken stupor. There's no comment about what happened when she awoke; presumably she like all cats forgot about the whole affair and went off on some other adventure, every day being as it were a new beginning. Thus were we saved, cats being rather inconstant creatures.
Contrast Sekhmet with Bes, a somewhat laid-back lion-headed god who played harp and danced. Bes might not be Egyptian in origin however; in representations, he is the only god or goddess shown full-face rather than in formal profile. But don't joke around with Bes's sister Beset, who was a demoness. Maftet was part cheetah and as goddess was a snake killer.
The Egyptians shared some things with the Kush people, cat-headed deities among them. Apedemak was a Kushite god of war, a lion-headed (sometimes four heads) man who was the offspring of Bast.
The ancient Syrians had Asthartet, another lion-headed deity with a somewhat confused lineage, but who was patroness of chariots.
The Incas of pre-Columbian South America had sacred cats, and used cats in ritual decoration. Their “jaguar warriors” are said to have wore jaguar pelts as armor, and the cat head as head gear, and were thought invincible.
So we dip into feline power when we need to, as do the gods. There are traditions of goddesses taking cat form. Greek Diana, Norse Hel, the Scottish Cailleach Bheur, and Black Annis of Leicestershire. Something they were not able to do in their normal form they could accomplish as a cat.
Apropos of nothing, I have a hard time thinking of the Key Marco Cat as being anything other than a female. She sits very centered on wide hips, head up and watching, curious about you, her beautiful eyes wide and luminous. Many will point out that women are often compared to cats on a number of key points, not the least of which being their sensuous nature. But that is a topic for another day.
Less along the half-cat angle but somewhat related to the discussion, cats were maligned in Medieval Europe as agents of Satan and familiars of witches and were rounded up and destroyed along with the old women who kept them. European domestic cats almost disappeared. But there must be avenging gods after all because then the rats rejoiced, multiplied, and spread the Black Death, and almost everyone perished. The message would seem to be; don't mess with the cats.
Catgirls benign and otherwise are not restricted to the ancients. There is a thriving artform in modern Japanese manga that centers on the manners, appearance, temperament, feelings and sexual delights of modern mythical catgirls. These catgirls are human in ways that render them suitable for the bed (or for warfare) and sport any or all of cat tails, ears, faces, claws, fangs, brains, appetites, sleeping habits, culinary preferences, collars replete with bells, and sometimes fabled feline promiscuity. They are usually drawn as well-endowed, physically strong, and appealing even when they are killers, and in the latter deployment are, like Sekhmet, the final fem fatale. Apparently there are no catboys (though I could be wrong as manga is an enormous field) and this might seem only obvious since it is the boys who tend to read comics. Except that there are many female manga fans who presumably like their male counterparts would enjoy the fantasy of a toy who is human enough for a bit of rough-and-tumble with the added bonus of being, at the end of the day, merely an animal. Come to think of it maybe it really is a male thing.
The Key Marco Cat, one can imagine, filled a need somewhere in between the range of domestic protector, alien fury, image of animal, and sex aid. But we will never know.
And as I mentioned, I have the cat sitting in my living room right now. It is a model in fired clay, not wood, and I picked it up in a metaphysical curio shop many years ago. I'm not sure if I did so before, or sometime after, I became a furson and feline myself. Perhaps the cat spoke to me then and I heard something that pushed me into a new life. Perhaps it reminded me of myself, half-animal, nightkind, between worlds. It hardly matters now I suppose. But I do think I know something about what it meant to the original artist. They made it from, and of, themselves. An act of personal truth, an exercise in self, a meditation. Something to look at when in doubt, a reminder of spiritual connection, of a vision. Like the Egyptians one might worship the great cat-headed deity in the temple because that is the way, but one sits and carves a cat's head on a human body because that is what one is.
It's what sometimes happens when you run with the cats.