King Arthur and the Cat
Evidence that cats were a source of fear as well as reverence to the Celts can be found in the Welsh legend of Cath Palug, a monstrous cat (the name “palug” means “clawing”). Its origins are unknown, though it is thought to have been inspired by a leopard kept as a terrifying pet by an early Welsh king. Accounts vary of Cath Palug’s birth: some claim it was the one of the progeny of a white pig named Hên Wen, who was said to have been oracular and able to predict the future. In Arthurian lore, Hên Wen’s offspring were prophesied to bring chaos and havoc to Britain, so Arthur gathered his army to hunt Hên Wen while she was pregnant. However, he was unable to prevent her from giving birth to a number of progeny as she leapt from a cliff into the sea at Penryn Awstin in Cornwall. In other legends, however, Cath Palug is said to have been raised from a kitten by the crone Cerridwen, the dark goddess of prophecy, whose name was sometimes spelled Hênwen as a single word.
Whatever its origins, Cath Palug was feared throughout Britain and other Celtic lands. Rescued from the sea and raised on the island of Anglesey by the sons of Palug (one interpretation is that its name means “Palug’s Cat” rather than “Clawing Cat”), it grew to an enormous size and had a huge appetite, needing 180 warriors to eat at every meal. In the early fragmentary Welsh poem Pa Gur (its dates are disputed – scholars place it between the 8th and 12th centuries), Sir Kay travels to Anglesey to kill lions and to fight Cath Palug, but, unfortunately, because part of the poem is lost, we do not know how Kay eventually defeated the cat.
The legend of Cath Palug continued in the Welsh Triads of the 12th and 13th centuries, and featured in many of the Arthurian legends of Europe, where it became known as Capalu or Kapalu. In the Vulgate Merlin, Arthur fights and slays Capalu, a giant devil cat, on the Mont du Chat (“Mountain of the Cat”) near Lake Lausanne, in the region of Savoie in the French Alps. This huge demonic cat was born when a fisherman broke a promise to God and terrorised the region for years until Arthur defeated it. In another French tale, Romanz des Franceis, Arthur fought Capalu in a swamp but was killed by the cat, which then invaded Britain and took Arthur’s crown for itself, becoming the first – and, so far as we know, only Cat-King and feline ruler of Britain! Who’s to say cats wouldn’t do a better job?