Folktales: The Cat Fae, Girl Power, and the Shapeshifting Motif

Cat image used under Creative Commons license

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, one of Avery’s secrets is that she is a Cat Fae. A Cat Fae is a creature I made up – someone who is part cat and part human. Avery has a tail, and many of the special characteristics of a cat, such as being able to see in the dark, and being very agile. Ideas don’t generally appear out of thin air and neither did my idea for the Cat Fae. It was partly inspired by my own life experiences (I talk about this in some of my events and workshops) and partly inspired by the Scottish folklore of the Cat Sith. According to the old stories the Cat Sith were supernatural, black, big-as-a-dog, cats from the Scottish Highlands. Avery was even originally called a Cat Sith, but we had to come up with something different in case the Star Wars ‘Sith’ caused confusion. We didn’t want readers thinking of Darth Vader every time they read the word ‘Sith’! Given that the word Sith is strongly associated with faeries, and Avery is a magical creature with magical abilities, we decided to change Sith to Fae, and so Avery became a Cat Fae.

The moment of inspiration from the Cat Sith mythology came when I read a version of the stories in which the cat begins life as a witch. This witch would turn herself into a cat whenever she saw trouble coming, but on the ninth time she got stuck. For those of you who have already read The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, you’ll know the number nine is very important, but I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read it yet! In one of my early drafts of the book Avery met the first ever Cat Fae, a young witch called Catriona, and learned how the Cat Fae came into being. 

This ability to change into an animal or bird is called Shapeshifting. Folklore and mythology is full of women who shapeshift like the Cat Sith witch, sometimes because they want to and often, even though they don’t! Arachne was a weaver in Greek mythology who was shapeshifted against her will. Her tapestries depicting the gods’ bad behaviour angered the goddess Athena, who turned her into a spider. Another example is the mythical Scottish selkies who can shed their sealskin to become human and live on land. Though both male and female selkies can do this, the stories are usually about a female selkie, trapped by a human man who won’t give her skin back. 

When something occurs many times in lots of different stories but slightly varied, it is called a Motif, and the purpose of motifs is to convey larger meanings. It’s good to watch out for motifs in old stories because they are usually trying to tell you something deeper. A good example of this is the Lady in the Lake. This character occurs repeatedly in different ways within British folklore, and is usually a symbol for mystery and magic. In the selkie stories, the selkie is a symbol for the ‘wild soul’ who can be over-powered for good or ill.

The shapeshifting motif of women in folklore tends to be trying to tell the reader one of two deeper meanings. The first meaning is Punishment, as in the case of Arachne, teaching women that they should know their place or they will be punished. The second purpose is Release, teaching women they can use their talents or take control of their lives, but only if they take a different form. This is usually because the woman’s abilities are not seen as being appropriate for women, and this challenges accepted social structures. I feel there is an element of both meanings in the old story of the witch and the Cat Sith. By turning into a cat the witch escapes persecution or danger, and historically witches were persecuted. Nowadays we know that many of the women who were tried for being witches in the past were actually bright, outspoken women who stood up to the existing authorities when they felt they were wrong, or were simply women with disfigurements or disabilities. In other words they had abilities that were not seen as being appropriate for women. It would have been very handy for a woman like that to be able to escape from unjust treatment by turning into a cat. If you would like to find out more about the persecution of ‘witches’ in the UK, there is a great educational resource from the National Archives here.

The meaning of motifs can change and evolve over time as ideas within human society change. In the past, the selkie story might have been taken as a warning to young men that they shouldn’t marry a wild sort of girl because she wouldn’t make a good wife, but now we might see it differently, and think that perhaps the young man should have tried to adapt to the selkie’s ways instead of trapping her in a human idea of marriage. Perhaps he should have gone to live with her in the sea instead? In the work of modern authors like Sharon Blackie, the motif of the Cat Sith has evolved to take on new meanings. 

Even though we’ve come a long way, there is still a bias against women using their abilities in socially “unacceptable” ways in society. A brilliant study by Moss-Racusin et al., (2012) (which you can read here) found that when an identical job application was submitted by ‘Jennifer’ and then by ‘John’, ‘Jennifer’ was described as less competent than ‘John’ by the people (both men and women) reviewing the application. It is especially difficult for women to speak out and get a fair hearing in the UK if they have strong feminine characteristics, such as a high voice. Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the UK, famously employed a vocal coach to help her lower her voice so that she would be taken more seriously by the other male politicians. So, when I use the Cat Sith motif in my story for my female character Avery, I’m trying to tell you, the reader, something deeper. I’m drawing on all the history and stories that link into the shapeshifting motif, and I’m encouraging you to ask questions…

How do we treat those whose talents lie outside of the stereotypical roles we assign to women in our society? Do we steal their sealskin and make them fit the model of the ‘good-wife’ like in the selkie story? Or do we just find other models to squash them into? Make them lower their voices to be heard? Or do we throw the models out of the window, and let them be the ‘wild-souls’ they are – not wrong just different? For every child reading Avery or Low, I hope they will be inspired to find their own way of expressing their talents and their voice, without squashing themselves into existing frameworks or stereotypes if they don’t fit. And maybe then we’ll need less shape-shifting stories as time goes on, because all voices will be welcomed and celebrated for who they are. In the mean time, keep an eye out for those motifs! Here’s one to start you off – The Sword of Power – and then think about the character of Cindy in the book 😉

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