The wampus cat is a cryptid that features in the folklore of rural Appalachia, including East Tennessee. Descriptions of the beast vary between localities and the narrator.
Some accounts portray it simply as a cat-like creature. Others describe it as a fearsome, scary, ghoulish, or fiendish beast that prowls in the dark, making blood-curdling howls, terrorizing communities, and stealing livestock.
However, a few narrators reference the mythical beast only for humorous effect.
Skeptics generally believe wampus cat stories originated in frightful encounters with big cats, such as panthers or jaguars.
The term “wampus cat” appears to have evolved in popular language from the old slang term “catawampus” or “cattywampus.” People used the word to qualify catastrophic situations or when things go awry.
The origin of the term “wampus cat” reflects its associations with chaotic situations in popular consciousness.
Folklore portrayed the creature as a fierce cat-like beast that terrorized rural districts, causing chaos, panic, and confusion.
Researchers have linked popular ideas about the wampus with cat monsters of Cherokee mythology. Cherokee mythology features malevolent shapeshifting entities, often depicted as ferocious half-cat, half-woman creatures.
The wampus cat in Cherokee mythology
Cherokee mythology tells the story of a woman who wanted to learn about the sacred magical rites that her husband and his colleagues performed in the forest before going on hunting trips. However, tribal elders did not allow women to witness or learn about the rites. So she pestered her husband for information, but he refused.
Determined to satisfy her curiosity, she devised a plan to spy on the men.
The next time the hunters went into the forest, she covered her body in the pelt of a mountain lion and hid behind a rock to observe the rituals. As she crept closer under her disguise for a better view, the men spotted her. Angry that she had broken the tribal taboo, the witch doctor cast a spell on her.
The curse of the spell transformed her into a half-woman, half-cat demon that lurked in the dark forests and remote mountain passes and made people insane by glaring at them with its piercing yellowish eyes.
Standing Bear, Running Deer, and the wampus cat
A different version of the Cherokee story tells about a brave warrior named Standing Bear. The tribal elders chose Standing Bear to go alone into the forest to fight Ewah (wampus cat), a vicious demon terrorizing the tribal communities.
Although the best of the tribe’s shamans and medicine men provided Standing Bear with magical protection and weapons to defeat Ewah, he returned weeks later defeated. The demon’s evil eyes had unhinged his mind.
Standing Bear’s distraught wife, Running Deer, wanted revenge. So she sought the help of a powerful witch doctor.
The witch doctor provided her with a magical spirit mask that empowered her to transform or disguise herself as a fierce cat-like creature.
The witch doctor also prepared a special magical potion that she smeared on her body to conceal her human scent.
Fully prepared, Running Deer went into the woods in search of Ewah. When she found the demon, she crept on it from behind and attacked. Running Deer’s magical mask protected her from the demon’s magic, and she fought and defeated it.
After Running Deer’s victory, she became her clan’s spirit protector.
Non-Cherokee folklore often ascribed monstrous and fiendish traits to the wampus cat. The wampus was a fearsome demon that prowled in the night, making whining noises. It also had hypnotically glowing yellowish, reddish, or greenish eyes that could make victims insane.
In North Carolina, residents described it as having either silver or black fur. There was no consensus about its size: Some claimed it was dog-sized, while others said it was as big as a colt. Wampus cats sometimes had horns while others didn’t. The creature often had big red eyes and webbed feet. The front paws resembled a mountain lion’s, and the hind limbs resembled a bear’s.
Most accounts said it made loud noises in the dark, sometimes like the screech of a woman in agony and sometimes like “an elephant with his head in a rain barrel.”
Some accounts stressed its alleged adaptation to watery environments, claiming it was a powerful swimmer with webbed feet.
Folklorist Vance Randolph (1892-1980), who studied Ozark folklore, wrote that the wampus cat was “a kind of amphibious panther which leaps into the water and swims like a colossal mink.”
Regardless of specifics, the wampus cat was considered feline in nature. However, a few accounts described it as a half-cat, half-dog creature in the same vein as the mythical Mitla.
Many accounts said it as a tan-furred feline similar to a mountain lion or a cougar, but it was also often said to have fur “as black as night.”
Cat with six limbs
The wampus cat could also have fantastical features. It was often a feline creature with six limbs: It walked on hind limbs and used the two in front for fighting.
Wampus cat stories geared toward satire or humor imbued the mysterious beast with features for comical effect. Some suggested it could walk or stand on its hindlegs like the legendary Dewayo.
In Fearsome Critters (1939), Henry Harrington Tryon depicted the cryptid with tufted ears. The animal appears in an illustration standing on its hind legs and reaching out with its “amazing right forearm… [that]… works like a folding pruning hook” to catch an eagle flying overhead.
Sightings and Tales
Newspapers first reported sightings of the wampus cat in the late 1800s. The earliest stories claimed that the beast harassed rural communities and caused losses to livestock farmers.
The Statesville Landmark reported the first sightings in Iredell County, North Carolina, in 1890 (O. C. Stonestreet III, 2006). However, researchers suspected that the newspaper editor, Joseph P. Caldwell, invented the stories to shore up dwindling newspaper sales.
Local newspapers, such as The Greeneville Daily Sun, reported sightings around Greeneville, Tennessee, on December 7, 1918. Locals claimed multiple sightings of the mythical beast and alleged it killed livestock.
There were several other reported sightings in the 1920s and 1930s, according to The Greeneville Sun. The sightings occurred in a wide area covering North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia., and Georgia.
For instance, on February 15, 1923, Greeneville Democrat Sun reported that a “mysterious monster” believed to be a wampus was “raiding” and causing terror in Virginia. The beast reportedly killed and ate dogs, pigs, and other livestock.
The report went on to note that due to the presence of the monster, parents were experiencing less trouble keeping their children in after dark.
Iredell County sightings
Most of the alleged North Carolina sightings in the early 1930s came from Iredell and nearby counties. On September 8, 1931, The Statesville Landmark reported the wampus “wandering thru South Iredell.”
The Mooresville Enterprise also reported sightings earlier in April.
Locals organized into vigilante groups, but no wampus cat was ever captured or killed. But many people claimed to have sighted one.
However, skeptics believe that livestock losses ascribed to the cryptid were more likely due to various animal predators, such as coyotes, cougars, jaguars, or mountain lions.
The lack of evidence and consensus on what it looked like probably inspired the American Dialect Society to describe the wampus cat as an “undefined imaginary animal.”
[Note: See videos below for more tales of wampus cat sightings: Cumberland Gap Wampus Cat True Story of the Unexplained.]
|Other Name/s||Wampus Beast, Wampus, Wampa, Cherokee Death Cat, Gallywampus, Whistling Wampus, Catawampus, Aquilamappreluendens forcipe|
|Type||Big Cat, Hybrid, Monster|
|Habitat||Countryside, Farmland, Mountains|
Where to find
Top image courtesy of U458625 used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0.
http://www.lib.lumberwoods.com/fc/wampuscat.html, “Fearsome Critters” by Henry Harrington Tryon, 1939, accessed on January 30, 2023.
We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks, Randolph Vance, 1951.
https://www.appalachianhistory.net/2017/10/story-of-wampus-cat.html, “The Wampus Cat, by Dave Tabler,” accessed on January 30, 2023.
https://northcarolinaghosts.com/mountains/wampus-cat/, “North Carolina Ghosts: The Wampus Cat,” accessed on January 30, 2023.
https://www.southernthing.com/what-is-a-wampus-cat-2651119362.html, “What is a wampus cat, one of the South’s popular school mascots?” accessed on January 30, 2023.
https://www.greenevillesun.com/news/local_news/did-a-wampus-cat-stalk-greene-county-in-1918/article_85c990b5-a00d-5137-a760-c25b1bf24eff.html, “Did A Wampus Cat Stalk Greene County In 1918? accessed on January 30, 2023.
https://compendium216.rssing.com/chan-7170514/all_p4.html, “The Demon Hunter’s Compendium: The Wampus Cat,” accessed on January 30, 2023.
https://www.thv11.com/article/sports/tackling-traditions-what-is-a-wampus-cat/91-591301002, “Tackling Traditions: What is a Wampus Cat?” accessed on January 30, 2023.
https://www.ncpedia.org/wampus, “Wampus,” by O. C. Stonestreet III, 2006, accessed on January 30, 2023.
Last modified on April 5th, 2023 at 6:45 pm