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Mark Olly is a Cheshire writer and archaeologist who runs the Celtic Warrington Project Archaeological Unit. You can read about Mark's work in the 'Celtic Warrington & Other Mysteries' volumes.




Mark Olly

  The Cheshire Cat

On the lower part of the west face of the tower at St. Wilfrid's Church, Grappenhall, above the main window, is plainly sited a long carving of a crouching cat ready to spring probably placed there during the Tudor building phases of 1529 AD or 1539 AD but dating from an earlier period. There are several possible reasons for it being there which lead us nicely into an important voyage of Celtic discovery again inescapably tied to the River Mersey. The most local reason for the cat being at Grappenhall states that it was a Medieval stone mason's joke, a pun on the name 'Caterick' relating to Robert De Boydell of Caterick, one of three sons of Sir John De Boydell. Robert owned a property in the parish called 'Caterich' and there is a lane close by called 'Cartridge Lane' which has been suggested was once 'Catridge Lane' or 'Caterich Lane' as it passes the site of the Boydell's Medieval moated residence. 

Grappenhall Village
Grappenhall Village
Local Celtic sacred sites
Grappenhall church towerOne of the illustrations in the original 'Alice In Wonderland' appears to be an exact copy of the cat on Grappenhall church tower in outline but a great many more 'Cheshire cat' connections abound and which are equally important in the discussion of local Celtic sacred sites. "Cats born in May bring snakes into the house" Is an old north Wales proverb taken from Elias Owen's 1896 book 'Welsh Folk-Lore' and, while on the surface relates a belief in the nature of May kittens, may hide a mystery about the journey of the Welsh Gawain (Hawk Of May) down a 'road of cats' to face the Green Knight and return to King Arthur's house with tales or even Saxon followers (snakes) from the region of the 'serpent river' ! If you are mystified then read on: Over on the Wirral exists a very important image of a cat carved into the rocks on Bidston Hill, close to the Observatory. Here can be found a collection of rock carvings thought to date from the second century (100 AD to 200 AD) and to be of Romano-Celtic origin. The one of interest to us is that of a goddess with the moon at her feet and the face of a cat.
Above: Grappenhall Church tower - the carving is situated as indicated 
Egyptian connections

She is known as the 'Moon Goddess' and may be related to the Egyptian lion-headed sun goddess 'Tefnut' of Heliopolis who represented the moisture in the air, clouds, mist, dew, rain and later possibly the rivers of Britain (and nowadays, probably the weather in Manchester !). She was the partner of 'Shu', God of the air, son of 'Atum' (or the great creator sun God 'Ra'), personification of the "Breath of Life" who held up the sky goddess 'Nut' from the earth god 'Geb'. In form this would make 'Tefnut' a perfect female equivalent or partner to the male Creator-God of the early Christians and Celts.
The moon symbol is undoubtably a later Celtic addition, possibly added to indicate that this version of the middle eastern goddess 'Tefnut' is associated with the river 'Belisama' (Mersey) who's original Egyptian/Phoenician name was 'Rhebelisama', goddess of moon and heaven. While there is nothing to say a river can not be represented by both the sun and moon, this might explain why cats and cat goddesses of the moon are associated with the distinctly 'solar boat' shaped river Mersey. The Egyptians and Phoenicians also tied their major solar and lunar dieties to rivers such as the famous Ra and the River Nile association. While they are renowned for trading tin from Cornwall, a Phoenician ship has been found as far north as Scotland raising the possibility that the Phoenicians first gave the name 'Rhebelisama' to the Mersey as long ago as 650 BC, well before the Romans used the name.

The Cheshire Grin
Grappenhall church tower
Above: A close-up of the carving on Grappenhall church tower
One of the ancient Celtic tribes living in the region during the Roman occupation were the Cornovii of Cheshire and Staffordshire whose symbol has always been thought to have been a cat, which may explain the presence of many cats in Cheshire and Staffordshire. They were known as the 'People Of The Cat' and it is said that some Celtic tribes like the Cattraighe (cat folk) worshipped the goddess 'Catha' or 'Cata'. In his book 'Earth Mysteries Of The Three Shires' Doug Pickford is of the opinion that a tribe worshipping Catha centred their worship on a rock feature known as the 'Cat Stones' which are part of 'The Cloud', a dramatic hill on the way into Leek from Macclesfield. It is said locally that sacrificial victims were thrown down this sheer rock face to be dashed to pieces on an altar somewhere below at the spring equinox (Easter time) and the rock face does indeed have a natural image of a giant cat's face formed from time-etched cracks and curves. As Doug says: "The cat's face comes and the cat's face goes. Now you see it, now you don't. Surely a magical and mysterious sign to the worshippers of the cat goddess ?"
In a similar sacrificial vein the 'Cheshire Smile' or 'Cheshire Grin' was a term once widely used in the area for death by the cutting of the throat from ear to ear or by hanging. The first instance of the 'smile' surviving in Cheshire is probably represented by the garrotted remains of Lindow Man or 'Pete Marsh', the Celtic sacrificial peat bog body thought to have been sacrificed in about 61 AD by local Druids in an attempt to avert the impending Roman attack on Anglesey (which came in 63 AD). Two other bodies have also been recovered, one on Lindow moss and a head on Worsley moss, both killed in the same way at about the same time. However, the term, as it survives today, comes entirely from the days of capital punishment and execution by hanging. 

43 Bath Street, Leek, Staffs. (01538) 399033.

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