Everyone knows that cats were revered in Ancient Egypt, but what about in other areas of the African continent? Did the love affair with cats continue elsewhere? African proverbs about cats give us some insight into how the African people viewed them. The Ashanti had plenty of proverbs about the cats they encountered.
Title Photo Credit: GalgenTX via Flickr
Who are the Ashanti people?
The Ashanti people have lived in modern day Ghana for hundreds of years. They began as a small tribe in the jungle but grew to be a large, organized society. The people united under a sacred symbol, the Golden Stool, said to embody the spirit of the Ashanti. At the height of Ashanti power, their territory expanded beyond the borders of Ghana. Today, the Ashanti are still one of the largest cultural groups in Ghana.
The Europeans that came to explore the land were amazed at the decadence of the Ashanti society. There were intricate silk fabrics, elaborate celebrations, and the people were very devoted to their leaders. The land was rich with gold. Their currency was gold dust – even taxes were paid in gold dust. Eventually, Great Britain would conquer the area and rename their new colony the “British Gold Coast.”
Gold was not the only famous export from this area. As the Ashanti empire expanded, they conquered other peoples and traded them as slaves to the Europeans and Americans. Pieces of the Ashanti and neighboring cultures would later reappear in the Carribean Islands and the southern US as a result of this trading.
Traditionally, the Ashanti people believed in one supreme being and thousands of demigods called fetishes. Every town could have their own fetishes and priests specifically dedicated to those fetishes. Their religion incorporated parts of nature (plants, animals, acts of nature, etc) that surrounded them. Ancestral worship was also an important part of their belief system. Today, the Ashanti are mostly Christian, but Islam is also popular in Ghana. Christian worship is often combined with traditional dance, music, and other customs that don’t directly conflict with the religion.
Big Cats Vs. Domestic Cats
Unlike people in the modern United States, the African people have regular interaction with both domestic cats and big cats. The African continent is home to many large cats – lions, cheetah, leopards, etc. Since the area that the Ashanti inhabit is mostly jungle and savannah, lions and leopards were the most common to them.
There is a difference between the way domestic cats and big cats are viewed in African proverbs. Domestic cats are often beloved creatures that are allowed in homes and help with rodent control. In the book, Ashanti Proverbs (The Primitive Ethics of a Savage People) by R. Sutherland Rattay (© 1916), domestic cats were commonly referred to as “okra”, meaning soul. A person would refer to their cat as “me okra” or “my soul”. If a person in the home was very ill and the family cat leaves and doesn’t return, it is a sign that the person will die.
Big cats, on the other hand, are viewed with fear and reverence. After all, out in the jungle, big cats could easily choose humans as their prey. Keeping these big cats away from populated villages was important for survival (and still is in some areas of Africa). In proverbs, big cats are frequently used to represent powerful people.
African Proverbs from the Ashanti
These proverbs give insight to the way that the Ashanti people traditionally viewed both domestic and big cats. All are English language translations copied from Rattay’s Ashanti Proverbs. The words in italics were added by me for clarification.
- Had the cat only some one to help it, it would be sharper even than the dog.
- When the cat walks about the house carrying his bag, the night animal (the mouse) does not put his hand inside.
- When the cat dies, the mice rejoice.
- The cat’s slave is the mouse.
- No one teaches a cat how to steal.
No one teaches a cat how to look into a calabash (a food container made from a hollowed out gourd).
- If the cat has nothing else, it has agility.
- If the cat really thought stretching itself (after a sleep) was a delightful sensation, it would go on stretching and stretching till it reached to Europe.
- Even if the mouse were the size of a cow, he would be the cat’s slave nevertheless.
- If lions were very numerous in ‘ the bush ‘, then man would have no place to stay.
- If you strike a lion, your own head will pain you (you will not do the lion any harm)
- Even when a lion is not a strong lion, it is not called a civet cat.
- When a leopard is hard pressed for food, it chews grass.
- The leopard that prowls about under the thicket causes the thicket to shake greatly.
- When a leopard catches a tortoise it turns it over and over in vain.
- The leopard declares he prowls the bush to no pui*pose, and that the tortoise really owns his jungle kingdom.
- If the leopard could spring upon its prey to the right hand, then no animal would be left alive in the bush. Cats are considered to be left-handed by Ashanti hunters. They always shoot the left shoulder first.
- The animal which the leopard has been unable to kill and eat, the cat is not going to eat its carcass.
- No one teaches a leopard’s cub how to spring.
- When you use a leopard’s skin for practising leather work on, it shows you have mastered your trade.
- When rain beats on a leopard it wets him, but it does not wash out his spots.