Cats within History

Statue of Bastet
Statue of Bastet

Through history animals have featured quite heavily for a variety of reasons. From the domestication of livestock circa 15,000 years ago towards the end of the last glacial period, when the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes settled to become sedentary agriculturalists, to the varied domestic pets we know and love today. I felt that a study of cats and their place in history might appeal to both the cat lovers amongst us, and those who have a deeper interest in the legends, purposes and myths that go hand in hand with the mysterious moggy. The first ancestors of the modern cat (Proailurus) appeared around 30 million years ago, although the group that our cats today derive from evolved around 12 million years ago.

It is often taken for granted that domesticated cats were first introduced into Egypt around 5000 years ago, and to some this is borne out by the countless depictions of cats found on temple walls and so on. Ancient Egyptians certainly had a love of cats, and this perhaps stems from worship of the cat-goddess Bastet who represented prosperity and truth. Bastet is mostly shown as a woman’s body, often of a dark colouring, with the head of a cat. In some sources it has been stated that it was bad luck to harm a cat, many Egyptians kept cats to bring good luck, and often had them mummified and buried with them when they died. Egyptians would mourn their cats by shaving off their eyebrows. Other historians cite evidence that harming a cat or taking one away from Egypt was punishable by death. Pet cemeteries have been discovered containing not just the mummified remains of cats but also thousands of mummified mice…. Well they have to eat in the afterlife, right?

Sadly, this respect for dead cats wasn’t shared by other nations. When a large cemetery containing the mummified remains of 300,000 cats (yes – three hundred thousand!) was discovered in 1888, the wrappings and so on were stripped off and the bodies sent to the US and England to be used as fertiliser. However further archaeological work has discovered the remains of cats, pre-dating those of Egypt by several thousand years, in Cyprus. This suggests that during the shift from nomad to sedentary life, crops were at risk from mice and wild cats were observed dealing with the problem and the decision was taken to catch and domesticate these creatures as a deterrent.

Lilith. John Collier 1892
Lilith. John Collier 1892

Hebrew Scriptures and Spanish-Jewish teachings on the Old Testament document not only how Noah introduced cats onto the Ark to take care of the rodent problem, but how Lilith, Adam’s first wife transformed into a black cat “vampire”, after being expelled from the Garden of Eden for refusing to be subservient to Adam and bear his children. In this form Lilith suckled on the blood of infants and it has been theorised that this is the basis of the popular fear of cats smothering babies.

In Celtic folklore there is the legend of Cat Sith, which was a mythical creature that assumed the form of a large black cat with a white spot on its chest. Some believers felt Cat Sith was a fairy in cat clothing, others felt it was a witch in alternative form. It was said that a witch could assume the guise of a black cat nine times. If they chose to use the ninth transformation, they would remain as a cat. This is one of the earliest connections of black cats and witches and could arguably be the origins not only of bad luck for the black cat as a witch’s familiar but where the legend of a cat having nine lives comes from.

Scottish folklore also claims that Cat Sith would steal the souls of the newly dead, preventing their collection by the Gods, if allowed to pass over the corpse before burial. They would organise a Feill Fadalach, in a cold room to keep watch – it was said that warmth attracted Cat Sith. On Samhain, they would leave saucers of milk outside their homes, to please Cat Sith, for which a blessing would be their reward. If they didn’t Cat Sith would curse their cows to dry.

Cat Sith, taken from King of the Cats 'More English Fairy Tales'
Cat Sith, taken from King of the Cats ‘More English Fairy Tales’

In the earliest days of North American Settlers, black cats were also depicted as being a harbinger of bad luck, and having associations with witches, which provides us with a link between pre-Christian and Christian belief. A quirky trick of evolution resulting from the threat to a black cat’s survival, is that they started to be born with a small white patch somewhere on their body, often on the chest, face or paw. This white area, however small, ensures they cannot be classified as a black cat and therefore excludes them from the harm that goes with the label. Nature is neat huh?

This association with witchcraft may have contributed to the demonization of cats during the middle ages in Europe, which led to thousands of cats being captured and killed. Sadly this also led to a massive increase in rats, which in turn directly contributed to the increased spread of plague. As medieval scholars failed to make the connection between plague and rats, the cure, in the form of hungry cats was overlooked completely and the disease was only halted by accident when foreign ships were forced to quarantine outside ports for a period of time before being allowed to unload their cargoes. As a result, the ships rat populations were prevented from disembarking and spreading the fleas which caused the disease.

In Japan, cats are a symbol of good luck, as they are believed to turn into super-spirits when they die. This may be associated with the Buddhist belief that the body of a cat is a temporary resting place of very spiritual people. Shown below are popular examples of images of Bastet, Lilith and Cat Sith.