Wherever the leopard is known, it has moved the hearts and spirits of those who’ve seen it. With its grace and power, its ability to adapt to every element, this gorgeous beast has developed a following of fervent admirers around the world. There are leopards at home in the desert heat and in the snowy mountains, swimming in jungle rivers and resting high in trees.
The leopard is a breathtaking beauty in all its variations: the golden glow of the Amur leopard in Russia and China; the glacial grey of the snow leopard in Nepal and Afghanistan; the near-geometric rosettes of the clouded leopard of the Himalayas; and the most numerous, the one we know best, the glorious ochre, black, and cream of the African leopard, roaming across the continent from savannah to rainforest. In the Americas, the leopard’s beauty is echoed in the patterns of lynxes, ocelots, and jaguars.
Cats, especially big cats, have been admired and revered throughout history, and leopards in particular. A figurine from Catalhoyuk, one of the oldest archeological digs in Anatolia, depicts a marvelously curvy goddess seated on a throne with each of her hands on the head of a leopard. The city of Catalhoyuk, founded in approximately 6700 BC, is known for its art that frequently depicted leopards as important figures in the social and spiritual lives of its inhabitants. The city was preliterate, meaning they have no written history, but their murals, figurines, and other artifacts show how much the great cats meant to them. From our earliest records of human art, we see the relevance of leopards.
Ancient Egyptian writing and art also shows a special fascination with leopards. While many animals were featured in Egyptian iconography and temples were built to the domestic house cat, it was the leopard skin that was associated with priests and royalty. Sashet was the leopard-clad goddess of learning and writing, disseminating important intellectual and spiritual teachings. A stele of Princess Nefertiabet (c. 2550 BC) shows her in her leopard priestess robe. A piece of linen shaped and painted to resemble a leopard skin was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, who reigned from 1334 to 1325 BC. Hatshepsut, one of Ancient Egypt’s most powerful and influential pharaohs, chose the leopard as one of her symbols. The association evoked the power of the leopard, which can climb a tree carrying three times its weight. It can hunt in the night and be productive when others sleep. It can hide in grasses and jungles thanks to its spots. In more southern regions of Africa, for millennia, the leopard has been a symbol of power and spirituality, now known as representative of the Zulu and Shembe cultures, among others.
In ancient Greece the leopard was associated with Dionysus, the god of vegetation, wine, and pleasure. The association may come from the nocturnal nature of big cats, as well as their great beauty. Dionysus wore them, rode them, and had them as companions, evoking both their danger and their playfulness. The female leopard is also a single mother, a vivid source of maternal ferocity. Throughout the centuries, leopards were associated with European wealth, power, and royalty. In England, Henry VIII forbade commoners from wearing the leopard’s fur or patterns, reserving those associations for royalty only. In the late 18th century, fashionable young men known as macaronis helped make leopard print popular in the European courts; Marie Antoinette was often pictured with a leopard skin and once even as a leopard in the 18th century equivalent of a meme.
Throughout Europe cats became associated with femininity and women’s domains. The domestic cat in medieval Europe was not only a pet but a kitchen worker, keeping the area clean of mice. The classic image of the witch with her broom, cauldron, and cat can be imagined as an adaptation of the all-seeing, all-knowing domestic behind the scenes, who ran the house and had the power to control all household members in invisible ways. The cat as familiar makes sense, as something the witch could become and not be noticed, or as a witch’s faithful companion watching out for the unwanted.
Now we wear our own familiar when we don leopard print. We are inspired, and we aspire. We take on its power and grace, evoke its warm-bloodedness and nocturnal drives. What the leopard wears to blend in, we wear to stand out. We are saying not that we are hunters but that we are not prey.
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