Mythical Monday: The Wampus Cat by Mae Clair

I’ve been a fan of werewolves since I was a kid, and readily admit to having OCD (Obsessive Cat Disorder), so it should come as no surprise that I was instantly intrigued by the myth of the Wampus Cat.

A legend steeped in Appalachian folklore and Native American culture, the Wampus has been sighted mostly in the south. From Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and even West Virginia, this half-human, half-animal creature inspires rumors often shared in hushed whispers. Standing upright with a long tail and glowing eyes, the Wampus is described as a cross between a human woman and a mountain lion or a lynx. It is said to exude an odor so repugnant—an atrocious mix of skunk and wet dog—that those who encounter it are instantly overcome with nausea.

Preying mostly on livestock, this foul-smelling cryptid isn’t above dining on human flesh when the urge arises, particularly should it come across a lone traveler out at night, or a lost child.

Attractive woman with native Indian Cherokee makeup and feathers in her hairThere are several different variations on how the Wampus Cat came into being, but the most common involves a young Cherokee woman who decided to spy on her husband. In one version of the tale, she is a jealous wife who follows his hunting party from a distance. Cloaked in the fur of a mountain lion, she creeps into the men’s encampment at night to listen as they share stories around the fire even though she knows women are forbidden. It is only a matter of time before she is discovered and brought before the village Shaman for justice. He curses her to wear the skin of the lion forever, changing her into a creature that is half cat and half woman.

In another, similar, version of the tale, she follows the men because she desires to learn the secrets of magic, listening to the sacred rites they share around the fire. Her fate is the same in this account—she is discovered and transformed into the Wampus cat by an unforgiving Shaman for her brazen foolishness.

Yet a third tale, set in West Virginia, describes the woman as an aged witch who lives alone. In the dark of night she slips from her home stealing and killing livestock. Suspecting her of witchcraft, the townspeople set a trap for her.

One night as she creeps stealthily through the dark, several follow her to the homestead of a local farmer. There, she transforms into a cat and slips inside the man’s house where she places a spell on the occupants so they sleep throughout the night. Afterward, she heads to the barn, intent on her nefarious business. As she begins the transformation back to human form, the townspeople catch her, interrupting the change. From that moment on, she remains forever trapped between the two forms—human and cat—vanishing into the woods where she remains to this day.

It is said the Wampus cat possess a chilling hiss and an ungodly scream so the next time you go traipsing through the woods don’t dismiss any frightening sounds. Werewolves and vampires aren’t the only creatures who favor the dark!

14 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: The Wampus Cat by Mae Clair

  1. I dearly love the wampus cat, Mae! There was an episode of Twilight Zone set in the hill country where a woman turned into a cat to get her lover. James Best starred in it, and it reminds me of the wampus cat, although that term was not mentioned. I can see where the tale, and other stories from the hill country of West Virginia and Kentucky, goes back to the Celtic lore of Ireland and Scotland.

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    • I used to love watching the Twilight Zone (and later, Night Gallery). I don’t remember that ep, but I’m sure it was spectacular. All of those old shows were brilliant. Have you ever read American Gods by Neil Gaiman? Very cool look at how so many old cultures brought their folklore and legends with them when they came to America.

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  2. Interesting legends, as usual. For the first two version of how things happened, I can only say “Curiosity killed the cat”. While for the third, I don’t know. . . So many times I read in novels how women are compared with cats; they both are considered selfish, spoiled, cold, detached, unreliable,linked to evil magic( most witchcraft being performed by women throughout human history). Not a flattering comparison for us anyway, most certain done by men. Anyway,
    I wouldn’t like to spend a night alone in the woods where all kind of terrifying beings lurk in the dark.

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    • I like your reference to “curiosity killed the cat,” Carmen. So true! And yes, women and cats do get compared frequently, although I’m fine with some of those comparisons, LOL. I have a coffee mug that reads “Women and cats will do whatever they please, and men and dogs should just get used to the idea.” 🙂
      That said, I still won’t go venturing into the woods in the dark of night!

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  3. I love the myths surrounding the wampus! One has to wonder if someone made the story up around a roaring fire and it spread like nobody’s business or did someone see something they just couldn’t explain any other way…and why on earth didn’t we get to see one in Dark Shadows? After all, they had everything else! Great post Mae! Happy Monday!

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  4. Oooh, a Wampus in Dark Shadows would have been great! I guess it just wasn’t as widely known back then to fit in with the more common variety of vampires, werewolves, witches and ghosts :)(That show was SO before it’s time). I do so love how old legends get started and take on a life of their own. What a dull world it would be without myth!

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