The jaguar was the most feared – and revered – animal in ancient Mesoamerica. Members of pre-Columbian societies like the Maya and Aztec coexisted with jaguars in the jungles, bearing witness to their size, cunning, and aggression and incorporating them into their mythologies. Most of these cultures depicted the big cat in its natural form – for example, Maya kings wore jaguar pelts to signify authority. But the Olmec peoples, whose civilization peaked between 1200 and 400 BC, were true “jaguar psychotics.” The Olmecs went beyond naturalistic depictions to fashion a humanized form of the creature, which modern archeologists call the “were-jaguar.”
The term were-jaguar is analogous with werewolf and broadly describes a human-feline hybrid. Numerous examples of Olmec art and architecture, such as masks, pottery, and wall carvings, portray anthropomorphic figures with human and jaguar characteristics. The Olmec origin myth explains that their ruling class was descended from sexual encounters between male jaguars and female humans, suggesting that those in power felt reinforced by claiming kinship to the animal. Were-jaguars were also a large part of the Olmecs’ spirituality. Many Olmec totems depict the “transformative pose” motif, in which shamans transform into jaguars by assuming feline postures and facial features.
Author Richard Perry coined the term “jaguar psychotics” because he was startled by evidence that some Olmecs deformed themselves to achieve a feline appearance. In 2006, archaeologists uncovered the skeleton of an Olmec male with teeth filed down to resemble jaguar fangs. Another theory suggests that the Olmec attributed human deformities and genetic abnormalities to the influence of their jaguar lineage. Cleft heads, almond eyes, and downturned mouths – all enigmatic characteristics of were-jaguar art – resemble the effects of afflictions like Down Syndrome and spina bifida. For the Olmec, the division between human and feline was not clear-cut.
Thousands and even hundreds of years ago, people like the Olmec lived in close proximity to the sources of their legends. Now, even as habitats shrink and glimpses of wild cats become more and more rare, these animals continue to be common players in modern folklore. Most big cat urban legends center on sightings of real species (with no supernatural characteristics) in places where they are extinct or should not belong – leopards in Delaware, for example. But many other tantalizing folktales follow the Olmec model of anthropomorphic “cryptids” whose existence is unproven – think Bigfoot, but in cat form.
The most widespread anthropomorphic cat legend in the United States concerns the wampus cat: a half-woman, half-cougar whose distinctive high-pitched scream foreshadows death. The legend is most closely associated with rural Appalachia and East Tennessee, but areas as far north as Idaho have taken credit for its creation. At least five high schools scattered across the county have adopted the wampus cat as their mascot, and it is a frequent topic of discussion on online forums for cryptozoologists and monster hunters.
East Tennessee is the most plausible point of origin due to the legend’s similarity with the Ewah story of Cherokee mythology. In the story, a nosy woman shrouds herself under the skin of a cougar to spy on the men in her tribe, who are off on a hunting trip telling secret, sacred stories to one another by firelight. She is discovered, and the medicine man transforms her into a cat-hybrid called Ewah that walks on its hind-legs, doomed to roam the forests for eternity. Its anguished howl signifies to whomever hears it that somebody will die within the next three days.
The wampus cat name doesn’t appear in American newspapers and literature with much regularity until the twentieth century, though the roots of its etymology run deep. “Wampus cat” is an inverse of the peculiar folk-word “catawampus” or “cattywampus.” Merriam-Webster defines the noun form as “an imaginary fierce wild animal,” while its adjectival form carries two meanings: “fierce, savage, destructive;” and “askew, awry, cater-corned.” A 1917 publication called Dialect Notes equated the term “catawampus (or wampus) cat” with “virago,” a word used to describe a domineering, heroic, or aggressive woman. As far back as the 1830s, it was used as an adverb to mean “utterly and completely defeated.” Catawampus is also similar to the term “catamount,” an alternative name for a mountain lion or lynx. All of these variations of the expression evoke a sense of chaos and ferocity, explaining why a bastardization of “catawampus” became a logical choice of name for a wild cat-woman.
According to 1977’s Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, published by HarperCollins, the word “catawampus” in its various forms may have been used for intimidation purposes in the antebellum South. Slaveholders were said to have warned slaves against running away, else they encounter the “catawampus cats” that prowled and yowled in the woods at night. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said an 1857 speech: “There is something cowardly in the idea of disunion. Where is the wealth and power that should make us fourteen millions take to our heels before three hundred thousand slaveholders, for fear of being catawamptiously chawed up?” Douglass uses the word in its adverbial form to mean “utterly defeated,” and hints that this might have been a common idiom employed by slaveholders to enforce submission. The multiple meanings of “catawampus” were compounding into something even more terrifying than the sum of its parts.
The wampus cat story is primarily an oral legend, but writers from Ambrose Bierce to Cormac McCarthy have harnessed the unique poeticism of this anthropomorphic creature. In Bierce’s story “The Eyes of the Panther,” a woman gives birth to a girl with eyes of “feline beauty” three months after being scared by a panther (not coincidentally, a jaguar’s gestation period is also three months). When the girl grows up, her lover mistakes her for an intruding beast and kills her. Bierce never uses the term wampus cat in the story, but the similarities with the Ewah legend are acute. Like the doomed Cherokee woman, the feline girl is a voyeur, with Bierce repeatedly placing emphasis on the eye motif.
In Cormac McCarthy’s debut novel, The Orchard Keeper, the character Uncle Ather is haunted by dreams of wampus cats in a small town in Tennessee:
[Wampus cats] troubled the old man’s dreams and he did not sleep well any more. He feared their coming in the night to suck his meager breath. Once he woke and found one looking in the window at him, watching him as he slept… but now he only lay there and listened for them. Very often they would not start until late and he would still be awake, his ears ringing slightly from having listened so long. Then would come a thin quavering yowl from some dark hollow on the mountain.
Like Bierce, McCarthy chooses to bestow the cat with voyeuristic tendencies, but there is an additional layer of complexity. Literary critic William Prather argues that McCarthy’s depiction of the wampus cat taps into an instinctual “animal phobia” that all people have within them. “This aversion,” Prather writes, “whether it be rooted in instinct or cultural construction, is often exploited by writers, like Cormac McCarthy, as they strive to articulate structures of the grotesque.”
H.G. Wells uses a synonym of catawampus, the uncommon word “virago,” to describe a character in his classic novella about vivisection, The Island of Dr. Moreau. The story’s narrator, Prendick, overhears the titular doctor experimenting on a hybrid puma-woman:
So indurated was I at that time to the abomination of the place, that I heard without a touch of emotion the puma victim begin another day of torture. It met its persecutor with a shriek, almost exactly like that of an angry virago.
Seconds after Prendick makes this observation, the puma-woman achieves what none of the other hybrid animals in the novella are able to: she breaks her chains and escapes from Moreau’s compound. Prendick’s empathy for the creatures devolves into raw fear when he sees the puma-woman’s “awful face rushing upon me,—not human, not animal, but hellish, brown, seamed with red branching scars, red drops starting out upon it, and the lidless eyes ablaze.” The narrator escapes the attack with only a broken arm, but Moreau is not so lucky: the characters eventually discover that the puma-woman and the doctor have mutually killed one another. Prendick’s vivid terror is directly linked to the liminality of the puma-woman (“not human, not animal”). He knows that unlike a normal animal, such a creature can be intelligent enough to single out its prey and be driven by human motivations – in this case, it targets its original tormentor for the purpose of revenge.
The act of humans turning into animals, or vice-versa, is one of the most pervasive myths in all of human history. But anthropomorphic creatures are not simply creative expressions of the imagination. There is perhaps nothing more unsettling than imagining what human traits, like as self-awareness and emotional intelligence, could inhabit a powerful animal body. Big cats are frequently the vessel of choice for these kinds of legends, and for good reason. They are apex predators, and their deadly attributes awaken a primitive rivalry – reminding us of ourselves, and the place we want to have in the world.
John Russell Bartlett, A glossary of words and phrases, usually regarded as peculiar to the United States: Dictionary of Americanisms(Little, Brown & Comp., 1859)
John Farmer, Americanisms—Old & New (1889)
William Prather, “’Like something seen through bad glass’: narrative strategies in The Orchard Keeper,” in Myth, Legend, Dust: Critical Responses to Cormac McCarthy, ed. Rick Wallach (Manchester University Press, 2000)
Alan Rabinowitz, An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar, Washington, DC: Island Press, 2015.
Wallis R. Sanborn, III, Animals in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy (McFarland, 2006)
Ellen J. Stockstill, “From Vivisection to Gender Reassignment: Imagining the Feminine in The Island of Dr. Moreau,” in Victorian Medicine and Popular Culture, ed. Louise Penner (Routledge, 2015)