On the House of Night series

The Divine Cat

By Ellen Steiber

I might as well admit my prejudice up front: I’ve been crazy about cats for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been lucky enough to live with them for most of my life. So one of the things that immediately drew me into the House of Night series was the cats. Cats everywhere, roaming freely, and always welcome in the dorms, cafeteria, stables, and even the classrooms–basically my idea of the perfect school. Then I was completely charmed by Nala, the sneezey, often grumpy, little cat who chooses Zoey for her own. P.C. and Kristin Cast clearly know and love their cats, and it’s a delight to see how they use them in these books. Not only do they create very real felines–sweet, moody, comforting, and impossible to predict or control–but they make creative use of some of the mythic and mystical lore that has been part of feline history for the last 5,000 years. Though the House of Night cats are not, on their own, magical in the traditional sense, they draw on a rich history of cat mythology and folklore.

Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” Cats are incredibly well-designed, beautiful little predators who can live with or without us. With their lithe, muscular bodies, they’re capable of leaping, running, climbing to great heights, and moving almost silently. Compared to humans, they have heightened senses of smell, hearing, vision, and balance. They can sense seismic vibrations long before we do, and they sense magnetic and meteorological changes far more keenly. They clearly know things that we don’t. When provoked or when courting, they are capable of making the most dreadful sounds; listening to one or more cats caterwauling can raise the hair on the back of your neck.

Although domestic cats are fairly small animals who live with us quite peaceably, they’re not all that far removed from their larger cousins, the wild cats. Much like vampyres, cats retain a fierce, savage nature beneath a civilized surface. As the writer Carl Van Vechten put it in the title of his book, the cat is The Tiger in the House. All felines, from house cats to lions, share the same basic body structure, the same supple movements, the same hunting instincts, and a wild, independent nature that never completely disappears no matter how long or closely they live with us.

They’re resilient creatures with a knack for survival that includes an uncanny ability to land on their feet, even when falling from great heights, due to the cat’s agile spine and tail (the tail can whip around and turn the body so that the cat lands feetfirst). Cats have also been known to travel great distances to return to their homes, and to survive many natural disasters, contributing to the belief that cats have nine lives.

Naturally nocturnal, they’re wired to hunt at night. Although cats can’t see in complete darkness, their pupils change size and shape, allowing them to see with very little light. A layer of cells in the cat’s retina, the tapetum, collects and reflects light back into the eye, acting like a mirror and causing a strange effect called “eyeshine” in which the cat’s eyes seem to glow. These extraordinary feline eyes have fascinated and frightened humans for centuries, and we’ve attached many beliefs to this phenomenon: that cats are connected to the moon, which also waxes and wanes in size; that cats–lions in particular–are able to look at the setting sun and keep its light in their eyes; that cats can see the future or see into the spirit world; and that cats can see into our minds and thoughts.

That’s a lot of mystical power for one small creature. Perhaps because of that perceived power, stories about cats throughout history have had a dual nature. We’ve seen them as creatures of light and dark, friends and enemies, demons and saviors. Few people are neutral about cats even today. Humans seem to love them or hate them, and the hatred is almost always intertwined with fear. People fear dogs as well, but that fear is usually simple and physical: they’re afraid of being bitten. The fear of cats, though, seems to go beyond being bitten or scratched to an underlying belief that cats are aloof, devious, and somehow evil creatures who intend to do us harm.

The House of Night vampyres, of course, don’t fear cats. They see them as beloved companions and allies, a connection to their Goddess. In fact, the House of Night cats function a great deal like witches’ familiars. In order to understand cats as familiars–and to understand their ancient connection with magic and the supernatural–it helps to go back to an earlier historical belief about cats: that they were not just animals but gods.

The Cat Goddesses

“Thousands of years ago, cats were worshiped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this.” –Anonymous

Western cat lore seems to officially begin in Ancient Egypt, where for over two thousand years cats were worshiped. The Egyptians had several feline divinities. The most beloved was Bast (also known as Bastet and Pasht), a benevolent goddess who was considered a protector and a healer. Sekhmet was the bloodthirsty, lion-headed goddess of war and destruction. Tefnut, yet another lion-headed divinity, was a goddess of rain and mists who, like Sekhmet, was capable of turning herself into a devouring lion. Mafdet, who was worshiped in very early times, was not only a feline goddess of judicial authority, but a protector against snakes.

The Egyptians valued cats for reasons that were both practical and mystical. On a practical level, cats kept mice, rats, and even snakes out of homes and the storehouses where grain was kept. Cats were also considered magical creatures, primarily for their ability to see in the dark. The Egyptians feared darkness and believed that since cats’ eyes wax and wane like the moon, cats themselves were a kind of protection against the dark of night. Bast was considered a moon goddess, an enemy of darkness, who held the sun’s light in her eyes at night. Like the moon, cats were believed to have the power to control tides, weather, and the growth of crops. The Egyptians also believed that a cat’s eyes could see into the human mind and soul, and sometimes even predict whether or not someone who was sick would recover. The Egyptian word for cat, mau, meant “to see.”

How exactly did cats become gods? Scholars think the animals were first brought into Egypt by the Ethiopians. We know cats were being worshiped at least 5,000 years ago, because the earliest portrait of Bast was found in a temple built in the Fifth Dynasty, around 3000 b.c. Bast is usually portrayed either as a cat or with a woman’s body and a cat’s head. (There are also statues of her with a lion’s head, which are easily confused with statues of Sekhmet.)

Bast usually wore a long dress and carried an aegis or shield, as well as a sistrum, which was a kind of rattle used in the worship of Isis. Bast was believed to be the daughter of two of the most powerful figures in the Egyptian pantheon: Isis, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and magic, and her husband, Osirus, the sun god who ruled the Underworld and protected the souls of the dead. By 950 b.c., Bast was a goddess in her own right, with the combined powers of her divine parents. Like Isis, she was a goddess of fertility, sexuality, and magic identified with the moon. Like Osirus, she was a sun god and a protector of the dead. As a sun god, Bast was a symbol of life and light, of the warm rays of the sun that make crops grow. She was also a healer.

All cats were considered direct links to Bast, and thus sacred. A cat in the house was believed to bring the goddess’ divine favor and protection against misfortune. Household cats were treated with great respect, often allowed to eat from their masters’ plates. It was forbidden, under the penalty of death, to kill a cat even by accident. If a house cat died, the family went into mourning, shaving their eyebrows and beating their breasts at the funeral. Even the poor were expected to give their cats a proper burial. Temple cats, which were considered actual representations of the goddess, received the most elaborate funerals of all. Their bodies were mummified and placed in sarcophagi, usually with a bowl of milk. It was believed that the priests’ prayers kept these bowls filled in the afterlife.

The lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, whose name means the “Mighty One,” was also a solar god, but she represented fire and the scorching, devouring rays of the sun. Statues of Sekhmet show a female lion or a woman with a lion’s head, often crowned by a solar disk. A fiery glow was said to come from her body, and the hot, desert winds were her breath. Sekhmet came into the world with a dark purpose: to destroy the enemies of Ra. Ra, who was sometimes referred to as the “Great Cat,” was another sun god and king of all the Egyptian gods. It was said he created Sekhmet from the fire in his eye in order to punish humans who had sinned. A warrior goddess known as the “Crusher of Hearts,” Sekhmet spread terror and plagues and was one of the most bloodthirsty deities in any pantheon. When Ra initiated the Slaying of Mankind to punish humans who rebelled against him, Sekhmet killed so eagerly and savagely that even Ra, who had asked for her aid in the slaughter, saw that if she continued, humankind would be wiped out. He had to trick her in order to stop her–he got her drunk.

But that was hardly the end of Sekhmet’s influence. Her image appeared on temple doorways as a guardian of wisdom. In the millennia that followed she was worshipped as a deity of fate, associated with magic and sorcery. Because of her powers of sorcery, she was prayed to as a great healer, a goddess of childbirth, and a patron of bonesetters. Still, she never lost her taste for blood. Her favorite sacrifices were children.

Cat worship continued in Egypt until the time of the Romans. It was against the law to take cats out of Egypt, but Phoenician traders managed to smuggle them into Rome, where they became very popular for their ability to kill mice and rats. But as they became more common throughout the ancient world, they were no longer considered quite so divine. Here’s the thing about gods and goddesses: they’re shape-shifters of a sort. They’ve been around for millennia, and over time, as populations have moved from place to place (by force or by choice), or as the needs of the culture changed, the gods have moved and changed, too. They’re given different names, but the “new” gods or goddesses often take on the powers of the old. One example of this is Bast taking on the powers of Isis and Osiris, as some scholars think Bast is just the feline form of Isis. Sekhmet, too, is believed by some to be just another aspect of Bast, her shadow or dark twin. Scholars believe that in ancient Greece, the cat goddess became known as Artemis, the moon goddess and hunter; and in Rome, she became Diana. Artemis was not a sun god at all–those powers were given to her twin brother, Apollo–but she was a virgin goddess who ruled over the moon, like Bast, and childbirth, like Sekhmet. Though the cat was only one of the animals Artemis was associated with, when the giant Typhon stormed Olympus and the terrified gods fled to Egypt, each of them disguised in animal form, Artemis took the form of a cat.

What we see here is a concept that’s at the heart of the House of Night series–the idea that the Goddess has been with us since the dawn of time, taking on different forms in different cultures. She has been known as Isis and Bast and Sekhmet, Nyx and Artemis and Hecate and Selene, Freya and Hel, and eventually Mary, mother of Christ. From the Egyptians on, cats were connected with many of these forms of the goddess. But as Goddess worship fell out of favor, so did cats.

Cat Familiars

“Ah! cats are a mysterious kind of folk. There is more passing in their minds than we can be aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar with warlocks and witches.”–Sir Walter Scott

During the Middle Ages, the old religions of Ancient Greece and Rome, and of pagan Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany, gave way to Christianity. The church was determined that it be the one and only religion, and so it took over sites sacred to other faiths. Churches were built where shrines, sacred woods, or sacred wells once stood, and many things connected with these earlier religions–especially the worship of the Goddess and nature spirits–were demonized.

 

We can see this clearly in the evolution of Freya, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, fertility, and marriage, a sort of Scandinavian Aphrodite with traces of Bast. Freya was also a warrior goddess. After a battle, she led the god Odin’s handmaidens to the battlefields so they could choose the most valorous among those slain and lead them to Odin’s hall, Valhalla. It was Freya’s right to claim half of those who had died and bring them to her hall, Sessrumnir, a heavenly afterlife where the dead warriors experienced so much pleasure that wives and sisters were said to join them in battle, hoping they’d also wind up in Freya’s hall. (Those chosen for Valhalla would have to get ready to fight all over again in Ragnarok, the great, final battle the Norse believed would result in the destruction of the world. Really, wouldn’t you rather go with the goddess?)

Freya had several ways of traveling, but her best-known was a chariot drawn by two cats. Some sources say these cats were black and others blue– which means gray when you’re talking cat colors. From what I can tell, when she came to take the dead to her hall, Freya always traveled via cat chariot. What fascinates me about this image is that instead of being the goddess herself, cats are now the vehicle of the goddess. They literally bring the divine to you, especially at the time of death. It’s through the cats that we meet the goddess and are taken by her to the heavenly realm. (Apparently, P.C. Cast was also fascinated by Freya’s cat connection. According to The Fledgling Handbook 101, Freya was one of Nyx’s vampyre High Priestesses–I should have known!–and the cats that pulled her chariot were her familiars in the same way Nala is Zoey’s.)

During the Middle Ages, when the church became the preeminent political and religious power throughout Europe, Freya changed. In medieval German stories she was transformed from a beautiful goddess with long golden hair to a wrinkled old hag who was cruel and bloodthirsty. She became known as a witch. And cats, because they were sacred to Freya, became demons or witches’ familiars.

The term “familiar” dates back to the thirteenth century, when it was believed that a spirit–usually a demon–could embody itself in animal form to serve as a protector or companion to a human. The human was usually said to be a witch or a sorcerer who had used magic to summon the evil spirit, and the familiar often took the form of a cat. Familiars were supposedly psychically connected to the witch and helped her work spells. The belief expanded into the idea that witches could change themselves into cats, and any cat might be a witch’s familiar or even the witch herself. In medieval times, when people suspected of witchcraft were being tortured and burned at the stake, these beliefs were not a good thing for cats.

Many of those who were branded witches were originally priestesses of the cults that still worshiped the Goddess and nature spirits. Most were devotees of the moon goddess in one of her many forms and were considered “wise women,” who knew the healing properties of plants and herbs. When the church recast these priests and priestesses as sorcerers and witches, they also recast nature spirits, fairies, and elves as demons. Black cats, in particular, because of their connection with the witchy Freya, were considered omens of death.

To be anything other than Christian was evil. In medieval England, around a.d. 906, a cult called the Daughters of Diana was said to celebrate Sabbats four times a year. These were rituals connected with the moon and designed to bring fertility to humans, animals, and plants. To the Daughters of Diana, the moon was represented by her Egyptian symbol, the cat, and so these “witches” would dress themselves as cats. The church claimed that rather than just dressing as cats, they could change themselves into cats. They also claimed that the witches’ tabby cats would transform into coal-black steeds on which the witches would gallop along the country roads–when not riding broomsticks, of course. This cult of the goddess–along with its cats–was persecuted and wiped out.

The church was exceptionally clever and thorough in stirring up the terror of witches. They convinced people that these women (and occasionally men) had the powers of the moon and could control the tides and planting cycles, and even drive people to lunacy. Cats were said to share these powers, which made them equally evil and dangerous. In 1232, Pope Gregory IX formally decreed domestic cats diabolical.

The Casts touch on this in Untamed, when Aphrodite notes angrily to Sister Mary Angela that the church used to kill off cats for being witches and demons, and the nun replies, “Don’t you think that’s because cats have always been so closely associated with women? Especially those considered wise women by the general public. So naturally, in a predominantly male-dominated society, a certain type of people would see sinister things in them.”

What exactly was the church’s problem with women? It all goes back to Eve. It was Eve, the church literally believed, who tempted Adam to disobey God in the Garden of Eden. Women’s sexuality was considered a tool of the Devil, designed to lead men away from God and into sin. (The church has never been comfortable with sex unless it was sex for reproduction within the bounds of marriage.) You can see why goddesses–especially beautiful, sexual, pleasure-loving goddesses like Freya–were considered threats by the church. She was the embodiment of so many things that the male-dominated clergy hated and feared.

Despite the church’s longstanding antipathy for women and cats, things didn’t really come to a head for a few centuries. In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII wrote the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer for Witches”), which declared that children of Satan tended to turn themselves into animals, just as Satan had turned himself into a serpent in order to tempt Eve. The ecclesiastical courts soon began charging women with having turned themselves into cats. In 1596, in Aberdeen, Scotland, a group of women were accused of being witches who had turned themselves into cats, allegedly to celebrate an orgy at a place called Fish Cross, named for a cross that stood in the middle of a fish market. Somehow, it never occurred to the church authorities that the orgy-seeking “witches” might have been actual cats drawn to the area by the smell of fish.

It was between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, however, that the Christian world became positively obsessed with the fear of witches. Nearly every unfortunate occurrence was blamed on them–lightning, disease, fire, hail, even shipwrecks. In 1607, Isobel Grierson was burned for witchcraft after a man claimed that she entered his house disguised as his own cat, but accompanied by other cats that were all caterwauling, nearly scaring him and his wife to death. (Was it possible his cat was in heat and followed by toms?) Poor Isobel was then accused of visiting another man’s house in cat form and spraying his wife. This woman later died, obviously because she had been sprayed by Isobel. There are, in fact, a remarkable number of accounts of men who saw women change themselves into cats and men who claimed to be wounded by cats. And there are also quite a number of confessions from witches claiming they became cats, but it’s nearly certain that most of these were obtained under torture. One woman in England was hanged because a neighbor saw a cat jump up onto her windowsill, and was convinced it was the devil.

Reading the history of cats in Europe can give you nightmares. As victims of the witch hysteria, cats were put on trial and convicted, whipped, burned, boiled, drowned, and walled-in alive. They had gone from being creatures who were worshiped as gods to creatures that, because they were linked with the Goddess, were feared and destroyed.

What finally put an end to the persecution of cats in the West–and it took centuries–was the realization that cats were essential in stopping the waves of bubonic plague that were devastating Europe. It wasn’t understood then that rats and mice carried fleas, which spread the plague. Gradually, though, people began to notice that there weren’t as many deaths in households with cats, and they finally made the rat-flea-disease connection. After that, cats were considered invaluable in the fight against the plague. Even the church had to acknowledge this and finally put an end to burning them.

Yet even throughout these times when cats were so widely feared, beliefs in cats as beneficent creatures with mystical powers that allowed them to predict the future or bring good luck remained. Throughout the British Isles, a cat sneezing or washing itself behind its ears with a wet forepaw was a sign of rain; a cat sitting with its back to the fire, a sign of coming frost. It was also said that a black cat would bring a maiden her lover, and that a cat sneezing on a wedding day was a good omen for the bride. Traces of beliefs in magical “helper” cats can still be found in the European fairy tales. Check out Charles Perrault’s “Puss in Boots” or Madame d’Aulnoy’s “Queen Cat” (also known as “White Cat”) in which courtly, elegant cats are not only lucky but save the people they love from misfortune. In the South of France, people believed in Matagot, or “magician” cats that would bring prosperity into a house where they were loved and wellcared for (though according to one French fairy tale, “The Black Cat,” all cats are magicians). Some stories claim that the Matagot were enemies of the demonic fairy cats, the Marcaou, but more typical are good-luck stories, like the popular tale of “Dick Whittington and His Cat.”

Magical Cats in Other Cultures

“Who can believe that there is no soul behind those luminous eyes?”

–Theophile Gautier

It wasn’t only the medieval Europeans who believed that cats were magical. In Islamic lore, the djinn were supernatural creatures who could take the form of animals, and frequently appeared as–or lived inside of–cats. Having free will, djinn could be good or bad. Sometimes they brought their humans wealth and good fortune; other times, they tormented them. Humans seemed to gain a djinn’s help either by making offerings to them or enslaving them. (The “genie” in the story of Aladdin’s Lamp is an example of a djinn.) However, treating a djinn badly could result in the djinn taking revenge. The ancient Persians were reluctant to kill cats, fearing there might be a djinn inside. If they killed the cat and freed the djinn, the djinn were likely to spend eternity avenging themselves on the one who’d destroyed their habitat. An old Egyptian legend warns that a djnn takes the form of a cat in order to a haunt a house.

In Mesoamerica and South America, jaguars are believed to able to travel easily between our realm and the spirit realm. Because of this, the jaguar is considered a kind of familiar, a spirit companion of great strength known as a nagual. During shamanic rituals, when the shaman enters the spirit realm– usually to heal others–he calls on his nagual to protect him from evil spirits and to fight any evil that might threaten him or those he’s trying to help. During these spirit journeys, the shaman shape-shifts, taking the form of the jaguar in order to cross over into the spirit realm.

In medieval China and Japan, cats were also accorded mystical powers. Cats are believed to have been smuggled into China from Egypt as early as the third century. It took another 600 years for them to show up in Japan, where they were imported from China and Korea. Cats got mixed reviews in these countries. It seems most of the folklore about them depicts them as demons–stealing from humans, shape-shifting from cat to woman and back again, wielding dancing balls of fire, and frightening people by walking two-legged across their roofs. There were also spectre-cats–the ghosts of cats– that delighted in haunting humans (though in Japan, tortoiseshell cats were believed to keep ghosts away. Go figure!). In China it was believed that after death humans turned into cats. Carl VanVechten tells of the Empress Wu, who decreed that no cats could enter her palace after she executed a court lady who had “threatened to turn the empress into a rat and tease her as a spectre-cat” (a story that can be found in Carl Van Vechten’s The Tiger in the House).

In Japan, some cats were believed to be goblins and others, protectors against goblins. The famous story “The Boy Who Drew Cats” tells of cats painted on temple screens who came to life to defeat a giant rat goblin. Japanese cats also had a reputation for turning into beautiful women, who sometimes helped their owners–one story tells of a cat who turned into a geisha to earn money for the impoverished old couple who owned her–and sometimes turned out to be demons. Long-tailed cats, in particular, were considered capable of turning into demons, and one Japanese demon, the nekomata, was said to be an enormous cat with a forked tail.

Despite the apparent risks, oriental cats were kept for their hunting ability and their beauty. When cats were introduced to Japan sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries, they were first kept as exotic pets that only the wealthy could afford, but they soon began to earn their keep. Silk was one of Japan’s most important industries, and mice were eating the silk worms, as well as the grain stores. Cats were the solution to both problems. Oriental cats were also believed to bring luck.

An old Buddhist superstition says that there will be silver in the house of a light cat, gold in the house of a dark one. The belief in cats as agents of luck and prosperity can still be seen in Japan in the Maneki Neko, or the Beckoning Cat, a white cat with a raised paw that’s displayed in many business establishments. There are at least three legends of how the Maneki Neko came into being, and all of them involve cats that brought luck or protection to their owners; one cat even killed a snake to save its geisha-mistress after the cat was beheaded. (You can find some of these legends at www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maneki_Neko.)

All of which brings us, finally, to the cats of the House of Night series.

 

The Cats of the House of Night

“Cats choose us; we don’t own them.”

Marked

The cats of the House of Night resonate with all of these traditions, but– though they are never referred to as such–their role is most like that of the familiar. Familiars are usually associated with witches, and vampyres aren’t exactly witches, though their worship of the Goddess and their rituals are very closely aligned with Pagan and Wiccan beliefs. The whole time I was reading the books, I couldn’t help thinking how much these cats were like familiars. And in The Fledgling Handbook 101, the ritual for saying good-bye to a deceased cat is called “Release of a Familiar.” But, as with the other mythical influences in the series, the idea of cats as familiars has been creatively modified to fit with the House of Night universe.

Familiars are exactly what their name implies–creatures who are familiar to you, as if, long before you first meet, you already know each other. Cats that are familiars are attuned to you on a psychic, possibly magical, level. It’s as if you and the cat are friends for all time, before this lifetime, in this lifetime, and in lifetimes still to come. The Casts nail this perfectly.

In Marked, before Zoey and Nala find each other, Zoey dreams of a little orange tabby who’s yelling at her in an old lady’s voice, asking what had taken her so long to get there. Then, when Zoey meets Nala–or, more precisely, when Nala finds her–Zoey recognizes the cat from her dream. They are already familiar to each other, because they share a psychic link.

Many people who have cats will tell you that cats are exquisitely tuned to their humans’ emotions, comforting their owners when they’re upset, making them laugh when they’re blue, giving them reproachful looks when they’re not doing what they should. Nala fits all of this to a tee. She’s the one who’s always there to comfort Zoey. After Zoey first drinks her first drop of Heath’s blood and is badly shaken by how much she craves it, Nala materializes and presses her face against Zoey’s wet cheek. After Zoey realizes that Loren and Neferet are lovers and that she, Zoey, has been set up and played for a fool, she runs to the old oak tree where she breaks down crying. Unsurprisingly, it’s Nala who appears, wet nose poking against Zoey’s cheek, putting a paw on her shoulder and “purring furiously.” Nala, who loves Zoey unconditionally, is the only one whom Zoey can tell just how badly she messed up. Later, as Zoey is reviewing all the pluses and minus in her life, Nala jumps into her arms to comfort her–and sneezes directly into Zoey’s face, giving Zoey a great last line for the book: “As usual, Nala summed up my life perfectly: kinda funny, kinda gross, and more than kinda messy” (Chosen).

To which I’d add, “And kinda magical.” Because even now the idea of a familiar goes far beyond pet and companion. Today, there are many people who openly practice Wiccan and Pagan rituals, and many of them consider their cats to be their familiars–equals who help perform magic and spells. Marion Weinstein (1939—2009), who was a priestess and a practicing witch in New York City, explained that cats make wonderful companions for witches because they’re not afraid of the unseen world or spirits, and they’re very good at knowing when the spirits are present and will often welcome them into a ceremony, making the witch’s task easier. Cats are also good at psychic work, able to communicate directly with their human, mind-to-mind.

Many cultures have believed cats could perceive things invisible to humans and even see into the future. As Van Vechten writes (in The Tiger in the House), people in the East “are aware that this animal wavers on the borderland between the natural and the supernatural, the conscious and the subconscious”–a description that makes me think of the vampyres, who are of the human world and also worlds beyond it. So it seems quite fitting that their chosen companions are cats, which also share this ability to walk in two worlds. And though the House of Night cats don’t turn into people or ghosts–at least not in the first seven books–their ability to perceive the supernatural realm allows them to warn their people of danger.

It’s easiest to see this in Nala, who, long before Stark becomes Zoey’s Warrior, is Zoey’s protector. When the first two dead fledglings reappear, it’s Nala who sees them first–who sees into the realm of the supernatural and perceives what Zoey’s still mostly human eyes can’t. Nala sees Elizabeth, the first of the undead vamps, and immediately hisses and spits. She even attacks Elliot, fighting to protect Zoey. It’s Nala launching herself at Elliot that makes Zoey realize that she’s not seeing a ghost; that these dead fledglings are somehow not dead. Even though Nala knows Stevie Rae well, when Stevie Rae returns from the dead, Nala yowls and spits and starts to hurl herself at her, which should warn Zoey that maybe this new incarnation of Stevie Rae is not completely trustworthy. Nala even seems to understand that Kalona is able to enter Zoey’s dreams. After dreaming of the fallen angel, Zoey wakes to find Nala growling at his dream presence. There’s no doubt that Nala can see into the spirit world.

As for the House of Night cats seeing the future, there’s that very cool moment in Marked when, soon after Nala finds her, Zoey returns to her room and essentially finds a cat starter kit, complete with cat food, litter box, litter, and a little pink collar. When Zoey asks Stevie Rae where the gift came from, Stevie Rae hands her a note. It reads: “Skylar told me she was coming. It was signed with a single letter: N.” In this case, not only does Skylar, Neferet’s cat, know that Nala has found and will move in with Zoey, but he’s able to communicate this to Neferet, who has an affinity for cats.

One thing I love about the cats in House of Night is that though the Casts clearly adore cats, they don’t sentimentalize them. These cats are not perfect mythic goddesses. Rather, Nala is often described as grumpy and complaining at Zoey like an old woman, and she is forever sneezing in Zoey’s face. Maleficent, the bad-tempered Persian Aphrodite rescues from Street Cats in Untamed, is often described by Zoey as Aphrodite’s snobby, “furry clone.” Beelzebub, the suitably named sleek gray cat who shares the “twins,” Shaunie and Erin, is forever chasing and terrorizing the other House of Night felines. The Casts know that cats are as individual as we are, and some of them have bad moods, wicked tempers, and a talent for holding grudges.

But the cats always come through, warning their vampyres of danger, even gathering together in Zoey’s room to let her know who her allies are. When Kalona and Neferet take over the House of Night and most of its population, Zoey finds Dragon Lankford’s Maine Coon and Professor Lenobia’s Siamese in her room and knows that the two professors can be trusted. The cats even provide a surprisingly coordinated distraction so that Jack can sit with Stark’s body in the morgue. When Zoey and her friends leave campus to stay in the tunnels with the red vampyres, the cats accompany them. And in one of the most touching scenes of the series, when Dragon sits by the funeral pyre for his wife, Anastasia, he has to stop Anastasia’s grieving white cat from hurling itself into the fire.

Cats seem to touch us on a deep, subconscious level. We have worshiped them as gods and burned them as witches. We have considered them symbols of healing and fertility, as well as incarnations of Satan. We’ve even convinced ourselves that they’re responsible for good and bad luck. Honestly, if you read enough cat lore what you get is that humans are capable of believing just about anything about any creature. We have a bizarre ability to demonize or deify, and cats have been the objects of our best and worst impulses. And yet, through all the human extremes, cats have remained very much the same, true to themselves and their own unique, inscrutable nature.

The seventh book of the House of Night series, Burned, is oddly catless. This is because Zoey and her friends travel to Venice and beyond and simply can’t take the cats with them. I enjoyed the book completely. It’s a terrific story that draws on Celtic folklore and is quite different from all the others in the series. But much as I love it, I missed the cats.

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