The Russian term Baiyun means “talker”, coming from the verb bayat – “talk”, and thus we arrive at the essence of Кот Баюн– translated variously as Kot Baikun, Kot Bayun or Cat Bayun, all of which mean the cat talker—a gigantic furry black cat who, if allowed to charm you with his magical storytelling, will eventually lull you to sleep, and then proceed to eat you. If, however, you are able to avoid falling asleep to these endless stories, and manage to catch Kot Baikun, he will become your greatest companion and heal every misery you may encounter. Some say he lives with Baba Yaga in her chicken-footed hut in the Ukrainian Thrice Ten Kingdom, others say he sits on a tall iron pole in the Russian Thrice Ninth Land, a land with no animals or plants in it. Kot Baikun’s dualistic nature is reflected over and over throughout Russian folklore whenever cats enter the fray.
The great dark God Veles, who stands in eternal opposition to the great God of Light, Perun, is oftentimes mentioned as being accompanied by a great furry cat (at times said to appear as one himself), resulting in the image of cat and mouse being seen in old Russian folklore as analogous to the never ceasing struggle between good and evil, dark and light, the world and the underworld. To this day, Russian superstition still stands that cats are guides to the underworld, and those who will be shortly passing away will see Death come to them as a cat.
The idea that cats are the guardians of the home would seem to run against this dark view of cats, but it is obviously with regard to Veles and the underworld that the crossing of a new home’s threshold (that magical boundary between ‘worlds’) must first be done by none other than a cat to ensure the safety of all who dwell in it. Furthermore, old Russian superstition dictates that a new home’s bed, that one place in a house where people can be most vulnerable and in the most need of supernatural guardianship while they sleep, is best put where the threshold-crossing cat first laid down.
In keeping with this ‘crossing of worlds’ aspect of traditional Russian folklore, it was held that if a cat jumped over a dead body, that corpse would have to return as a vampire—a thought that would imply that when a soul was rejected by the Guardian of the Underworld (the cat who jumped over it) it must therefore be damned to become one of the unwelcome undead.
Yet both Russian and Slavic lore hold that anyone who dares to kill a cat—no matter what that cat did– will endure seven years of not just bad luck but utter misery, attesting again to the double nature of the complicated regard that cats were held in the folksoul of Russia.
There is a Russian saying that goes: Ночью все кошки серы –all cats are grey in the night–but perhaps we would be better served if we amend that and say “all cats are grey in Russian folklore”—being equal parts light and dark, Veles and Perun, good luck and bad.