Leopards - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


Leopards still roam through parts of Africa and Asia, although their range is seriously curtailed because of habitat loss and hunting. Leopards once lived in Europe as well although they are extinct there now. Large, beautiful, solitary wild cats, leopards are fierce, stealthy, nocturnal hunters who are, in theory at least, not averse to hunting a lone human.

Leopards physically resemble jaguars although they are smaller and their spots are really spots, not rosettes. Like jaguars, there are two varieties: golden with black spots and pure black. A pure black leopard would be almost impossible to see at night without illumination, except for its burning, glowing eyes. Author Bruce Chatwin posits that it’s the leopard who lurks as the primordial human fear, the animal power who once scared us most.

Images dating from c. 5700 BCE from Anatolia show goddesses riding leopards. Leopards are integral to the myth of the Anatolian deity, Kybele, the Mountain Mother. Leopards raised her when she was an infant left exposed to die in the forest. Suckled on leopard’s milk, she grew up to be the first root-worker and witch, a queen and great goddess. Leopards flank her throne. (See DIVINE WITCH: Kybele.)

The leopard was sacred to Dionysus, Kybele’s sometime compatriot. Dionysus appears in the form of a leopard; panthers draw his chariot and appear in his entourage. As the word “panther” was also used as a synonym for Dionysus’ female followers, the Maenads—it’s tempting to wonder whether those panthers in his midst were intended to imply women transformed into huge black cats.

Leopards are associated with royalty throughout Africa. Many royal clans count leopards as their primeval ancestors. In some regions, wearing a leopard skin was reserved exclusively for royalty or for the most elite spiritual societies. Artifacts recovered from Tutankhamun’s grave show King Tut riding on the back of a panther. Leopards are also considered ancestors and spiritual sponsors of various African shamanic societies. Leopards were identified with Kenya’s Mau-Mau. Belief that the Mau-Mau could transform into leopard-men contributed to their fearsome reputation.

In Mali, the Bamana/Bambara witch-goddess Muso Koroni manifests as a black panther or as a many-breasted woman. (Some believe that the many-breasted deity from Anatolian Ephesus, commonly identified as either Artemis or Diana, is really that other leopard woman, Kybele.) Muso Koroni oversees initiations: it was believed that she stimulates menstruation by scratching girls with her leopard’s claws. A nocturnal spirit, like a leopard, she rules the boundaries between civilization and wilderness, straddling the balance between chaos and order.

See CREATIVE ARTS: Films: Cat People; DICTIONARY: Maenad; DIVINE WITCH: Dionysus; Muso Koroni.