Myth Monday: How the Sacred Birman Cat Was Created (Burmese Legend)

Myth Monday: How the Sacred Birman Cat Was Created (Burmese Legend)

By Kara Newcastle

Birman2 by Berk wikimedia commons

In Khmer, animals were precious. Some outside the empire would look at an animal and just see an animal, but the Khmer people knew that human souls could be reincarnated into animals, where they would await their final departure into the afterlife. Each human had an animal scared to their station, and cats had the special honor of carrying the souls of priests and kings.

Sorrowfully, the Khmer empire was not always at peace. Strife from without and within could ravage the land at any time, and it was during one of these wars that the priests found themselves fleeing deep into the mountains of northern Burma. Once they were sure they were safe, the priests constructed an astonishing temple Lao-Tsun, dedicated to their gods Song Ho and his wife, the blue-eyed goddess Tsun Kyankse. There, the priests were able to worship and study in peace, caring for the one hundred temple cats and any creature or person they found in need.

Bagan,_Myanmar,_Htilominlo_Temple_2 by Vyacheslav Argenberg wikimedia commons

The chief priest was Mun-Ha, and none could compare to him in his piety, and in his devotion to Tsun Kyankse, who oversaw the reincarnation of souls. He was such a generous and kind man that the goddess blessed him with a beard of gold, so all who saw him would see how good and pure he was. Always at his side was Sinh, the cat. Sinh had eyes as yellow as the chief priest’s golden beard, and his body was covered in long, soft fur the color of earth. Sinh devotedly followed Mu-Ha everywhere he went, purring and chirping to him and no one else.

The priests and their cats lived in peace for only a short while; the horrible night came when their enemies discovered the new temple hidden in the mountains and attacked it with the rage of a thousand demons. In the chaos of the massacre, Mun-Ha was found slumped on the floor, dead. Wide-eyed Sinh was huddled beside him, at times laying back his ears and hissing at the murderers when they came too close.

Upon seeing the body of their cherished abbot, the other priests despaired; how could this have happened? They worked so hard to stay hidden, they dedicated every moment of their lives to worshipping the gods and caring for weak, doing all that was required of them, and now they were all to die? Not even the virtuous Mun-Ha had been spared!

As if sensing the priests’ anguish, Sinh suddenly stood. Looking down at his fallen master, Sinh lifted one front paw, then the other, placing each of his four feet gently down on the dead Mun-Ha’s forehead.

As the confused priests watched, a golden light seemed to burn from deep within Sinh’s chest. It flared out like a roar of flame, swirling around the cat’s body. As the light passed over him, Sinh’s fur changed from earthen brown to glowing gold. His eyes, once a burning yellow, shown with the same blue shade of the goddess Tsun Kyankse. Each of Sinh’s paws turned snow white.

Blinking his incredible blue eyes once, Sinh turned and gazed at the temple entrance.

All the priests understood immediately; they had witnessed a miracle. Mun-Ha’s soul had passed into Sinh’s body, and the goddess Tsun Kyankse was now watching over them. Knowing that they had not been forsaken, the priests rallied and fought back, driving their stunned attackers back and barricading the doors. Unable to breach the temple a second time, their enemies gave up and returned home.

For six days Sinh did not eat nor drink. He only sat before the statue of the goddess, staring at her. On the morning of the seventh day, the beautifully transformed Sinh quietly passed away, and the priests knew that Mun-Ha had passed on into paradise.

With Mun-Ha gone, the priests knew they need to select a new leader. After seven days of discussion, they came together to make the final decision. Before anyone could suggest a candidate, a pattering of hundreds of paws filled the air. The priests looked down in amazement as the 99 remaining temple cats flooded the room—and each and every one had been transformed the way Sinh had, with golden fur, blue eyes, and white paws. Seeing this as a sign from Tsun Kyankse, the priests bowed to the cats and waited quietly as the felines all trotted up to one young priest named Legoa, forming a circle around him. Thus, the new chief priest was chosen.

It was from these cats that the Sacred Cat of Burma—known as the Birman to world—was created.

Sacré_de_Birmanie_240808 by Grez wikimedia commons

Myth Monday: The Cat and The Cradle (Dutch Folklore)

Myth Monday: The Cat and The Cradle (Dutch Folklore)

By Kara Newcastle

You know the Netherlands—you’ve seen the pictures of the bright tulips, the churning windmills, the sharply peaked and tightly nestled houses along the canals. This is a bright and cheery country.

It wasn’t always that way.

There was a time when the Netherlands was pagan and wild. This was long before people tamed the land with the canals and dykes, so nature struck whenever it pleased, frequently flooding the farms and forests, drowning cattle and annihilating crops and orchards. It was one such flood that carried off a baby girl named Honig-je (Little Honey), and the cat that saved her.

Whenever her parents were away, Honig-je was kept company by a beautiful cat with luxurious long, thick fur. This cat raised her kittens alongside Honig-je, and when those kittens grew and moved on, the mother cat would dote on Honig-je like she was one of her own babies. The cat was so affectionate to the little girl that people began to call the cat Dub-belt-je, or Little Double, because she was showered twice as much love on Honig-je as she did on anyone else.

One day while the men were out hunting and the women were gathering crops, Honig-je slept soundly in her cradle with Dub-belt-je snuggled on top of her like the warmest, fluffiest blanket. For days storms had raged, swelling the rivers with rainfall until the waters swamped the banks. A horrific flood roared through the village, tearing through the longhouses there—and sweeping away the cat and the baby in the cradle.

As waves crashed over the cradle, rocking it violently from side to side, Dub-belt-je scrambled out of the sobbing Honig-je’s hands and leapt onto the roof of the cradle. Every time the cradle teetered one way and tipped another, Dub-belt-je ran in the opposite direction, using her weight to balance the floating cradle, keeping it from being overwhelmed and sunk. She continued this, keeping Honig-je safe, until the floodwaters pushed the cradle into the river, and they were swept downstream.

Some time passed before the waters calmed enough for Dub-belt-je to settle. Peeking down into the cradle to check on her beloved human baby, Dub-belt-je would then scan the shoreline, knowing that she had to get Honig-je to safety, and knowing that she couldn’t do that alone. She needed people to help.

The river carried them for miles, passing by fields and forests.  Night fell dark and heavy, the moon and stars smothered by the rainclouds, but Dub-belt-je was a cat, and she could see perfectly fine in the dark. With her incredible glowing eyes, Dub-belt-je began to notice that the land on either side of the river was becoming more developed. There were roads, and bridges and—ahead! She could see a tall, pointed thing … she knew what that was! A church steeple!

Digging her claws into the cradle, Dub-belt-je threw back her head and screamed for all she was worth. She howled and yowled and screeched as the cradle floated down the river, passing the church, houses, shops—all dark, all shuttered. All the humans were asleep!

Taking a deep breath, Dub-belt-je shrieked again, dredging up the most awful noise she could pull out of herself. As she screamed, Dub-belt-je started noticing little points of glittering lights appearing in pairs along the edge of the river, over the bridges, on the rooftops—cats! They were cats!

Nederlands: Gevelsteen op het Huis te Kinderdijk van het katje op de wieg. By RubenKoman 2010 wikimedia commons

Dub-belt-je wailed to her feline cousins, and, realizing her plight, every cat in the town began to caterwaul at the top of their lungs. The cacophony of their raspy voices rattled through every building until, at long last, a light glowed behind a shuttered window. The shutter banged open, and a young boy leaned out, scowling, rubbing his eyes as he extended a candle out into the darkness.

“What’s gotten into all of you?” he fumed. “Don’t you know that we’re trying to …”

Looking up at him, Dub-belt-je gave her most piteous cry. She felt her voice breaking, going out. She couldn’t keep this up any longer. If he didn’t see them now …

Hearing the saddest meow out of all the noise around him, the boy blinked, then squinted down into the dark river. “What is that?”

All at once, the boy’s eyes focused and he gasped in horror. Jerking his head back into his house, the boy yelled for his mother as he ran out the door. Sliding down the bank, the boy splashed into the river, wading in up to his chest, reaching out and grabbing the edge of the cradle. As he towed the cradle back to shore, Dub-belt-je sank down into a relieved heap.

By then the boy’s mother had reached the edge of the river, and she cried out in shock at the sight of the waterlogged cradle and bedraggled cat. The woman and the boy looked inside, saw the beautiful tiny Honig-je, and swiftly brought both her and her feline savior into their home. It was here that Honig-je grew into a lovely young woman, with Dub-belt-je faithfully at her side. Honig-je married the boy who saved her, named Dirck, and their son became a great healer and banisher of evil fairies. The village where Honig-je was rescued is now called Kinderdijk (the children’s dyke), and a statue of Dub-belt-je stands guard over Honig-je’s tomb in the church. Every year on December sixth, Sinter Klaas Day, Dutch children would place a new collar on the statue of the heroic cat.


Myth Monday: The Colony of Cats (Italian Fairy Tale)

Myth Monday: The Colony of Cats (Italian Fairy Tale)

By Kara Newcastle

Once upon a time, animals could talk. Not just meow or bark or oink, they could actually speak real words. Back in those days the rodents absolutely ran amok, eating every piece of food they could get their nasty little teeth on, so the townsfolk were quite willing to pay someone—human or animal—to deal with the plague. In Sicily, a colony of cats hired themselves out as effective rat catchers, were paid handsomely, and used that money to buy their own villa.

Since they weren’t exactly capable of maintaining a house, the cats employed a human servant to cook and clean for them. When a lady in town found herself in need of a job, she would announce to the world, “I will go and live with the cats,” and then head to their villa to apply for work. The cats would hire her, but the maids who worked there usually became lonely for human company—or exasperated by the cats’ exacting demands—and would not stay long. Therefore, a position was usually available.

On the other side of the town lived a widow and her two daughters. The eldest, Peppina, was pretty, but she was also arrogant and snide. Her younger sister, Lizina, was even fairer and possessed a much more pleasant personality, but she was all too frequently at the receiving end of her mother’s bad temper and her sister’s cruel remarks. Their mother resented Lizina, seeing her as a burden when they had so little money to support themselves. Peppina, jealous of Lizina since the day she was born, did everything she could to humiliate and torture her little sister. If Lizina did anything to defend herself, she was beaten, and her food was taken away and given to Peppina.

Finally, Lizina couldn’t stand another moment of torment and she shouted at her family, “I don’t know why you hate me so much, but if you want me to go, fine! I’ll go live with the cats!”

“Then get going!” her mother howled, raising the broomstick she used to beat her child and chasing the poor girl out of the house. Lizina wasted no time in running away, leaving with only the ragged clothes on her back. Bitter but resolute, the girl traversed through town and over the countryside, hardly pausing for even a moment, until she reached the cats’ home.

Just as Lizina was walking up to the gate, the front door to the villa flew open and an older woman stormed out, angrily knotting her shawl over her head and muttering a thousand curses under her breath. As she stomped by, Lizina could see a dozen bright red scratch marks up and down the woman’s face.

“Mouse cacciatore! Rat stigghiola! Lizard ravioli!” the woman screeched. “Disgusting! I’ll never cook for those cats ever again!”

Watching the woman stomp away, Lizina hesitated for a moment. Mouse cacciatore …? That didn’t sound very appetizing. And those scratches—did the cats do that?

Wondering if she had made a mistake in leaving her mother, Lizina turned to look at the house again—and jumped in surprise. At her feet sat a very pretty little gray striped cat, gazing p at Lizina curiously. Behind the cat were five more, all of different sizes and colors, each spaced out along the walkway with the last one seated just inside the door.

The little gray cat at her feet cocked its head at her. “Hello,” it said. “How can I help you?”

Remember, this was a time when animals and humans could speak to one another, so Lizina was not at all surprised by a talking cat. The girl smiled politely down at the little cat. “Hello. My name is Lizina. I came looking for work?”

The little cat’s tongue flicked out and ran over its lips. “Well! As luck would have it, Papa Gatto just fired our last cook.”

Hearing that, Lizina nervously glanced down the road at the shrinking form of the angry, clawed-up woman. “Did he …?”

“Oh, the scratches?” Chuckling, the little cat quickly licked the tip of one forepaw. “That’s only because she tried to take a broom to him when he told her to leave. You seem like a much nicer human—I don’t think you have to worry at all. Please, follow us.”

Standing up, the gray cat trotted away from Lizina, its tail high in the air. The five other cats all meowed eagerly, falling in step behind the gray cat, trailing it back into the house. Feeling a little more assured, Lizina followed the cats into the villa.

Stepping inside the grand old house, Lizina stopped short and her jaw dropped open. Everywhere inside the house—all over the floor, on the tables and chairs, running up and down the stairs, strutting along the rafters … were cats! Hundreds of cats and kittens, cats that were big and small and skinny and fat, fluffy and slender, some with smushed-in faces, some with bobbed tails or crinkly little ears. They greeted Lizina with a cacophony of meows, many of them rushing to rub their bodies across her legs, some barely acknowledging her from where they lounged, a few bolting away in fear. Looking at them all, Lizina couldn’t help but smile in delight.

Sitting up on its haunches, the little gray cat waved both of its forepaws at Lizina to get her attention. “Follow me!” it shouted over the meowing. Nodding, Lizina shuffled onward, giggling as the cats wound in and out of her legs.

Lizina followed the gray cat into the kitchen, where the first thing she noticed was a large pile of brown wool laid lumped upon a table. Lizina was just started to think about how she could spin the wool into yarn when the pile suddenly yawned enormously, showing off huge white fangs.

The little gray cat sprang up onto the table. “Papa Gatto, look at this! As soon as you told off that rotten old lady, this new girl shows up!”

“Hm?” Lifting his head, the brown cat regarded Lizina through half-lidded eyes. He yawned again, then eased himself up onto all four paws, arching his back in the mightiest stretch he could manage. Lizina couldn’t stop herself from staring at the fluffy brown tabby in shock; all the other cats were relatively cat-sized, but this one, the one they called Father Cat, he was as big as a dog!

Sitting himself down on the corner of the table, Papa Gatto swiped at his incredibly long whiskers with one paw. “Fate works in mysterious ways, I suppose. What is your name, child?”

“L-Lizina, sir.”

“Very polite. Moreso than our previous employee.” Papa Gatto scanned Lizina up and down with calculating yellow eyes. “You’re come seeking work with us, hm? You understand that while we do need a maid, we are cats, and we will be making requests that would seem unusual for a human.”

“I understand, sir.”

Papa Gatto swished his tail as he studied her. His eyes narrowed briefly as he took in her thin body, the dark bruises on her arms. “Hmmm … My dear, as part of your pay, you are welcome to live with us here. I sense that would be best for you.”

Incredible relief washed through Lizina, and she nodded eagerly. “Yes, yes please … I’d like to stay here. I’ll do anything you need me to, and I won’t complain. I’ll work hard. Just let me stay.”

“Very good.” Leaping down from the table and landing with an impressive thump!, Papa Gatto sauntered towards the open back door. “I’m going back to the barn. My family will instruct you on what we need.”

And instruct the cats did, and straightaway. Lizina found her work cut out for her at first, and she discovered that some of the cats were very particular about how things should be done around the house. Other cats insisted on following her everywhere she went, sitting close by and scrutinizing the way Lizina prepared the food, swept the floors, tended the garden, made the beds. Some of the cats were extremely playful and loved to get under Lizina’s feet, scrambling around under the sheets as she made the bed, zipping through doors as she tried to close them, attacking her ankles as she walked by with loads of laundry. Even when Lizina needed a moment to refresh herself, she would hear a chorus of pathetic meowings and see little paws groping under the door. When she went to bed, at least a dozen cats insisted on cuddling with her, though a few couldn’t resist pouncing on her feet every time she rolled over.

As difficult as it was, Lizina didn’t complain, and she didn’t scold. The dread of returning to her mother’s house kept Lizina from losing her temper, but soon she found that she actually enjoyed working with the colony. Lizina began to learn things about the cats, that their purring meant they were happy, that the way they held their tails or moved their ears showed Lizina what they were thinking. She broke up spats and rescued kittens who had gotten caught or climbed too high, and took care of the sick, and of an old tomcat with a bad paw. Once she overcame her squeamishness, Lizina made all the wonderful foods the cats loved—fish and chicken and sparrows and rabbit and lizards and mice and rats—and the cats adored her. Every now and again Papa Gatto would come down from his barn and ask the colony of cats, “Are you happy with this nice girl?” and the cats would happily yowl, “Yes, Papa Gatto, she’s the best servant we ever had!”

Lizina continued to work hard and loved every one of the cats there in the villa, but as time went on, she became lonely. She thought about her mother and sister, and, despite the way they had mistreated her, she still missed them, as they were the only human family she had. She was thinking these thoughts one day and growing tearful when Papa Gatto came down for a visit.

Seeing Lizina crying in the corner of the kitchen, Papa Gatto rushed to her side, alarmed. “What is the matter, my sweet child? Was someone here cruel to you?”

Quickly wiping her face with her apron, Lizina shook her head. “Oh, no, not at all, Papa Gatto. The cats here are so wonderful to me, but I do miss my mother and sister.”

Papa Gatto nodded sagely. “Ah, I understand. This is a problem that has afflicted many of our servants. Lizina, you shall go home to visit your family, and come back whenever you are ready to. But, before you go, I would like to give you a reward for all of your loving services to me and my family. Please, follow me down to the cellar.”

Lizina was surprised by the request; she had never gone down into the cellars before, because Papa Gatto always kept the door locked. She followed Papa Gatto to the door, waiting patiently as he produced a key from somewhere in his luxurious fur and unlocked it. Papa Gatto led her down a short flight of stairs, bringing her up to two enormous earthenware pots. At Papa Gatto’s instruction, Lizina looked into each. One was filled with oil. The other was filled with gold.

Papa Gatto smiled at Lizina. “Child, which pot shall I bathe you in?”

“Bathe? Me?” Lizina looked back at the pots, then shyly back at Papa Gatto. She was too timid to ask for the gold. “W-well … the oil jar.”

Papa Gatto chortled, expecting that answer. “No, no. You deserve better than that.” Picking the startled Lizina up in his massive paws, Papa Gatto quickly dunked the girl into the pot of gold. When Papa Gatto pulled her out and set her upon her feet, Lizina looked down at herself in astonishment; her skin glowed like the sun! She looked like a statue of pure gold.

Pleased, Papa Gatto nodded towards the cellar door. “You may go now,” he purred. “But Lizina, take care—if you hear a cock crow, you must turn towards it. If a donkey brays, you must turn away.”

Overcome with delight, Lizina kissed the happy Papa Gatto and rushed on her way home. As she approached her human family’s shack, Lizina heard a rooster crowing off to her side. Remembering Papa Gatto’s warning, Lizina turned towards it, and immediately a golden star alighted itself in her black hair. A moment later, a donkey brayed, but Lizina resolutely turned her back toward it, and continued home.

As it so happened, Lizina’s mother and sister Peppina were outside their hovel, and when they saw Lizina they both shrieked in disbelief at her appearance. They rushed to her, grabbing at her golden arms, her golden clothing, gasping in astonishment. Lizina, even though she remembered how they had treated her, was overcome with happiness and her eyes filled with tears. As she drew a handkerchief out of her apron pocket, a dozen gold coins spilled out with it. In fact, every time Lizina reached into her pocket for something, more gold coins would miraculously pour out.

With all this good fortune and new money, Lizina’s mother was more than happy to have her youngest daughter back. Peppina was happy too—really, more for the magic money Lizina spilled than for Lizina’s return. As their mother fussed over Lizina, Peppina tried to pull the gold clothes and the golden star off the girl, but they would not budge.

Lizina stayed with her mother and sister for several days, using her magic money to fix their house, and buy them food and clothes. When she had a little time to herself, Lizina would sit in the front window and do some little chore. It was one of these times that Prince Cristoforo was passing by, and his eye was caught by Lizina’s glittering gold skin. The prince was so amazed by the sight, that he went straight up to the house and insisted that he meet the golden girl. Lizina’s sweet nature delighted Prince Cristoforo even more than her golden skin and magic coins, and, after visiting her two more times, he asked her to marry him, and Lizina agreed.

Now, this was just too much for Peppina to take. Deciding that Lizina’s good luck had come from working for the colony of cats, Peppina rose early one morning and marched over to the villa. Without bothering to knock, Peppina burst straight through the front door, sending twenty terrified felines scattering in every direction.

“My name is Peppina,” the older sister announced as she let herself in, stepping on two fluff tails, causing their owners to yowl in pain. “My sister is Lizina. She worked for you before, and I want to work for you now.”

Hearing that she was Lizina’s sister sent elation through the colony of cats, as they all missed Lizina terribly. But as Peppina stood there boldly before the slit-eyed Papa Gatto, the kittens looked at one another and whispered, “She doesn’t seem anything like Lizina.”

The older cats hushed the kittens. “Let’s give her a chance and see.”

Well, the cats didn’t have to wait long; Peppina was the absolute worst servant they ever had, the utter opposite of Lizina. Peppina refused to clean anything, wouldn’t make the cats’ favorite meals, chased the inspecting cats out of the kitchen, and even whacked one young tomcat with a rolling pin as he tried to jump in through the window!

The moment Papa Gatto returned to check on his household, the colony of cats swarmed him, all crying out in fury and horror. They told him how Peppina had hurt them, shouted insults and abuse and threats, how their home was filthy and the kittens were starving.

“Please get rid of her, Papa Gatto!” the cats begged.

His fur standing on end, Papa Gatto stalked into the kitchen where he found Peppina lounging in a chair, filing her nails. She barely spared him a glance.

“Get up,” Papa Gatto snarled, “and follow me to the cellar.”

Ecstatic, Peppina leapt to her feet and hurried after the huge cat. The cellar! Lizina had told the about how the big cat had brought her down to the cellar and gave her those wonderful gifts. Now Peppina would get them too!

Leading Peppina up to the earthenware jars, Papa Gatto growled deep in his throat, swishing his tail and laying his ears back. “In which jar should I dip yo—?”

Peppina immediately pointed to the jar of gold. “That one.”

Outraged, Papa Gatto bared all his teeth. “You don’t deserve it!” he roared. Latching his claws into Peppina’s backside, he lifted her up and dunked her repeatedly into the jar of oil. When Peppina was well soaked and sputtering, Papa Gatto threw her into the ash heap, batting her around until she was thoroughly filthy from head to toe. He then chased her out of the villa, shouting, “Begone from my sight! And when you hear a donkey bray, be sure to look in its direction!”

Beside herself with fury, Peppina staggered home, screeching curses at the cats the entire way. Just as she came into sight of her mother’s house, Peppina heard their donkey braying out in the field. Remembering what the huge tomcat had told her, Peppina turned to face the donkey and—poof!—instead of a golden star upon her brow, a donkey’s tail sprouted from the middle of her forehead!

Peppina ran the rest of the way home in hysterics, and it took Lizina two hours with two cakes of soap and extremely hot water to scrub her sister clean. When they couldn’t pull the donkey tail off of Peppina’s head, their mother went insane with rage. Picking up the old broomstick, the old woman beat Lizina within an inch of her life, then picked up the poor girl and threw her down an old well.

The next morning, Prince Cristoforo arrived to take Lizina away to be wed. He barely approached the door when it flew open, and Lizina’s mother pushed a girl, well wrapped in white veils, out to the prince.

“Here is your beautiful bride, Lizina!” the old woman said breathlessly. “Yes, this is Lizina, the girl you want to marry, this is her, this is Lizina.”

Eager to see his bride’s face, Prince Cristoforo reached for the edge of the veil. The old mother squawked and rushed out, swatting the prince’s hands away. “No! What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know it’s bad luck to see the bride before you’re married?”

Not knowing how to answer that, Prince Cristoforo agreed to wait, then helped the bride and her mother into his carriage, and away they went to be married.

Regrettably for the “bride,” the carriage’s path to the cathedral brought them straight past the colony of cats. Having heard the news that Lizina would marry the prince, every single cat gathered outside on the walls, in the yard, in the trees and on the roof, to see her pass and cheer for her. One whiff of the air told the cats everything, and all together they all burst out,

“Mew, mew, mew!

Prince, look back behind you!

In the well is fair Lizina,

And you’ve got nothing but Peppina!”

Startled, the prince rounded on the cringing bride, and before the mother could do anything about it, Prince Cristoforo ripped the veil off the girl—and screeched at the sight of a donkey tail flapping around Peppina’s face.

Enraged at the deception and fearful for Lizina’s safety, Prince Cristoforo ordered the carriage to be turned around. Reaching the hovel, Prince Cristoforo shoved Peppina and her mother out of the carriage and drew his sword, threatening them with horrible fates if they didn’t bring Lizina out that instant. Lizina’s mother was so terrified of the prince’s anger that she ran to the well and pulled Lizina out.

With Lizina freed and safe, the prince took her home to his father’s palace. The next morning they were wed, and every member of the colony of cats was in attendance.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Myth Monday: Why the Cheetah is So Fast (African Bushman Mythology)

Myth Monday: Why the Cheetah is So Fast (African Bushman Mythology)

By Kara Newcastle

Cheetah Running by Malene Thyssen (

Happy International Cat Day!!

This happened a long time ago. Almost at the beginning of time, but not quite. At the beginning of time, the Creator had made the land and the sky and the water and all the animals that live in those places, so it was a little bit after all that when this happened. It’s when the Creator was figuring out what each animal is best at.

One morning, the Creator was looking at all the animals, and he began to wonder which animal was the fastest of them all; should it be Tsessebe the Antelope, or Cheetah the Big Cat? Both could run very, very fast … but which one was the fastest?


After pondering this for a while, the Creator decided that there was only one way to be absolutely sure: Cheetah and Tsessebe would run a race. They would start at the base of the great baobab tree and run across a huge plain, with the finish line being the big hill far on the other side. The Creator presented this to Tesessebe and Cheetah, and both animals quickly agreed, for they both enjoyed a challenge.

The race was set for the next morning, but as the day wore on, Cheetah began to doubt himself; he knew he was fast, but the plain the Creator had chosen was so big, and riddled with thorn bushes. As he walked through the savannah with his friend, Wild Dog, Cheetah looked down at his own paws.

“I don’t know, Wild Dog,” Cheetah sighed. “My paws aren’t tough enough to run that far. Tsessebe has those sharp hooves that can dig into the dirt. I don’t think I can compete.”

Wild Dog yipped. “No worries, bud. I have a pair of paws I can lend you, if you want. The pads are tough and the claws stick out all the time, so it’ll give you better traction on the dirt.”

Cheetah’s round ears perked up. “Really? You’d lend me your paws, Wild Dog?”

“Heck yeah! Come on over to my house and we’ll set you up.”

Wild Dog

“But … would I be cheating if I did that?”

“Cheating? Pfft. It’s more like evening the playing field. Come on over.”

Cheetah went over to Wild Dog’s hut, and, just as promised, Wild Dog lent him a set of tough padded, bare-clawed paws. After trying them on and testing them out, Cheetah thanked Wild Dog and happily trotted off back home to rest before the big race.

At sunup the next morning, both Cheetah and Tsessebe arrived promptly at the baobab tree where the Creator waited. The Creator welcomed the two competitors with a grin, and reminded them of the rules: they were each to run their fastest across the field, starting from the baobab tree and ending at the big hill. Whoever reached the hill first would be deemed the fastest of all animals.

“Remember,” the Creator said as Tsessebe and Cheetah took their places, “no cheating. I want an honest race. I expect the best out of each of you.”

“The best?” Arching an eyebrow, Tsessebe swiveled his head round to glare at Cheetah’s new paws. “What about Cheetah? Those don’t look like his normal feet. Those look like Wild Dog’s feet. Isn’t that cheating?”

Ferdinand Reuss, wikimedia commons

Cheetah winced at the Creator’s questioning gaze. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just wanted the best chance. Tsessebe has those sharp hooves and can run over anything. My old paws were too soft.”

“Hmmm …” The Creator tapped his chin as he considered Cheetah’s reasons. Glancing back at the raceway ahead of them, the Creator paused, then nodded. “Cheetah has a fair point, Tsessebe—if he were to catch a thorn in one of his real paws, he could be badly hurt and it would ruin the race. You have hard hooves that won’t feel a thing. Since I want to see your best efforts, I’ll allow it, but he’ll have to return the paws to Wild Dog afterward.”

Smiling, Tsessebe proudly shook his antlers. “No worries, sir.”

Working his new paws into the dirt, Cheetah nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

“Great.” Rubbing his palms together excitedly, the Creator took his place before the two animals. He held out his arms above his head. “Ready …?”

Drawing in a breath, Cheetah set his stance. Tsessebe snorted and pawed the earth.

The Creator snapped both his arms down. “Go!”

Tsessebe shot ahead, flying like lightning over the tall grasses. Cheetah was a heartbeat behind the antelope, his new claws digging into the earth and propelling him forward. Tsessebe was already far ahead, but Cheetah paced himself, focused on his breathing, letting himself build up speed.

Within seconds they were halfway across the plain and Cheetah was catching up to Tsessebe’s heels. The other animals who had gathered to watch cheered as Cheetah and Tsessebe reached the first of the thorn bushes, shouting warnings and encouragement.

Snorting, Tsessebe narrowly dodged the thorns, his flanks slicing to ribbons on the sharp spines. Seeing the bushes, Cheetah ducked and wove around them, his tough paw pads barely noticing the smaller, fallen thorns, but his caution cost him speed. He began to fall back more and more as the bushes grew more densely together. His heart began to fall. He was going to lose!

Seeing the hill in the distance, Tsessebe put on the speed, his long legs thundering through the brush. Panting, he swung his head around, looking for the Cheetah, finding the lithe cat fading into the dust behind him. Thrilled, Tsessebe plunged forward—

Pain flew up his leg as Tsessebe’s dainty cloven hoof came down on top of a rock hidden in the thorns and grasses. Skidding out, Tsessebe’s leg twisted gruesomely beneath him and he slammed into the earth, rolling head over tail, crying out in agony.

“Oh!” Horrified, Cheetah jammed his new paws into the dirt, sliding a distance over the grass past the fallen, wailing Tsessebe. Whipping around, Cheetah ran as fast as he could back to his rival. “Tsessebe! What happened? Are you hurt?”

“My leg!” Tsessebe gasped. “I twisted it—I think it’s broken!”

Urging the antelope to lay still, Cheetah sat beside him and comforted him until the Creator, having seen the crash, rushed to their sides. Cheetah explained what he had witnessed as the Creator examined Tsessebe’s broken leg.

As he used his powers to heal Tsessebe, the Creator looked at Cheetah curiously. “Cheetah, you could have kept running and won the race. Why did you stop?”

“Why? But, how could I keep going?” Cheetah glanced down at Tsessebe as the antelope flexed his repaired leg. “Tsessebe was hurt. I wanted to make sure he was all right.”

“You were concerned for him?”

“Yes sir.”

“And you never thought about finishing the race?”

“That wouldn’t have been fair if I did.”

Delighted, the Creator laughed and reached over, ruffling the fluff of Cheetah’s neck. “Cheetah, you are very considerate and honorable. Because of that, I’m going to award you the title of Fastest of All Animals—and I’ll let you keep Wild Dog’s feet so you always stay the fastest.”

And that’s why the Cheetah is so fast.

Mark Durmont wikimedia commons