We’ve Got History – Humans and Cats through the Ages

Dr Caity Venniker

Right now, in this strange and strained time of our lives, cats find themselves in a pretty good position; relative to the lengthy and volatile relationship they have shared with us since their domestication. It has been a long and winding road to reach this place - in the hearts and on the sofas of humankind. Whilst dogs have enjoyed a fairly stable position as “man’s best friend”; cats have been both worshipped as gods and ostracized as demons. If they are a little sceptical about our affection sometimes, perhaps it is no more than we deserve!
These days, the internet is bursting with cat videos and memes. Japan, arguably one of the countries most obsessed with cats, has not only “cat cafes” where cats act as a draw card to attract customers; but also a Japanese Cat Day, where cats are celebrated by the public wearing cat outfits and eating feline decorated food. This day falls on the 22nd of February because the numbers 2/22 are pronounced “ni ni ni,” which sounds similar to “nyan nyan nyan” – the Japanese phonetic description of how cats vocalise.
(Call me crazy but I had a long lockdown moment here, staring into the distance repeating, “Miaow, miaow, miaow… … Nyan, nyan, nyan…
Is it possible we have been misrepresenting our cats all this time? Do we even know them?)
In the grand scheme of things, the social media hype of modern times is very modest compared to the feline fame of years gone by. Whilst remnants of the ancestors of domestic cats were found in Mesopotamia, from over 10 000 years ago, where they played an important role controlling pests; Ancient Egypt was where cats truly had their fifteen minutes of fame (and by  fifteen minutes I really mean about 3000 years). Cat memes would certainly have flourished, if only papyrus manuscripts had an Instagram feature. 

During the First Dynasty (2920-2770 BC) certain gods and goddesses were depicted as part cat and part human; and cats were regarded as sacred. Very sacred. Sacred enough to make Hindu cows blush. The export of cats was strictly prohibited, and the penalty for killing a cat was death(3). When cats died, they were embalmed and buried in holy receptacles,  or mummified; and the human members of the house shaved off their eyebrows as a sign of their grief(3). (I wonder what cutting your own bangs counted as? Asking for a friend).
All in all, things were going pretty well for cats. Then in 525 BC, the Battle of Pelusium effectively transferred the throne of the Pharaohs to Cambyses II of Persia. According to ancient historians, the Persian soldiers engaged in psychological warfare by painting images of cats on their shields and holding cats in their arms as they marched towards the city of Pelusium(3). Apparently, they also drove animals, mainly cats, before the troops; but at this point even my own vivid imagination starts to falter. (Had these historians in fact ever met a cat? It sounds great in theory anyway.)

The Egyptians, reluctant to defend themselves under these circumstances, surrendered; and the Persians rode through city, hurling cats at the defeated. (I’m just trying to picture any warrior getting my cat, Gorbachev, onto a horse and hurling him anywhere, but let’s continue).
Even with this fall from grace, cats continued to hold a place of reverence in many cultures and religions; and were valued for their help in controlling rodents. They were welcomed onto Phoenician and Viking ships to kill rats that could chew through ropes and endanger the crew; and so spread to the far corners of the world.

Cats were present in a religious context in the Indian cat goddess, Sastht; as well as the Chinese goddess, Li  Shou; and old legends claim that the M sign on a tabby’s forehead comes from when the prophet Muhammed placed his hand there in blessing. In Japan, cats symbolised guardians of the home, and were so highly valued that by the 10th century CE only nobility could afford to own one(5). Cats were kept as valued pets by both Greeks and Romans; but in Greek mythology, after a godly squabble, Hera transformed a servant into a cat and banished her to the underworld – possibly forming a negative association which cast a far-reaching shadow.

As Christianity grew in Medieval times, the representations of cats as magical beings or related to past deities, did not work in their favour. With this shift they became pagan symbols (I’m sure they were surprised too). The 13th century marked the beginning of a few very unpleasant centuries for cats - a chapter of history which is difficult for the cat lovers of today to reflect on too deeply. There are records of ritual killings of cats in Cambridge(2) which progressed across Europe after Pope Gregory IX (not a cat person) associated our feline friends with Satan(1). Just as their abstract reputation in mythology affected feline lives in the real world; so it also rippled outwards to influence the human world and history.

The mass killing of cats is thought to have contributed to the spread of the Black Plague, as it was carried by the fleas of a growing population of mice and rats. This link was not realised until much later, so cats, especially black cats, continued to suffer stigma and violence. Even in the 16th century, being fond of cats was a dangerous attribute. Today you may hear a jokey reference to a “crazy cat lady”, but then it was no laughing matter, with thousands of eccentric or elderly ladies who owned cats being accused of witchery and burned alive(4) across Europe.

The Protestant Reformation and Age of Enlightenment gave new insight so that the power of reason could triumph over superstition. Cats had survived their darkest hour. In the Victorian age they rose again in popularity as pets, especially after Queen Victoria took an interest in cats and adopted her own(3). After that cats charmed their way forward, lounging on the desks of Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth, John Keats and Thomas Hardy.
What a turbulent journey they have made through the ages, their evolution entwined with ours. It is no wonder that sometimes they treat us with disdain - they were once revered as gods. And no wonder they can be wary of us – we have not always been kind to them. Worshipped as deities and shunned as demons, they have known royalty and disdain perhaps more than any other animal. They have travelled far to reach their place by the fire and onto our laps - they are our cats.

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  1. Gaskill,M. (2019). The Vicious Battle Between the Vatican and Cats. Retrieved from: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2019/04/02/the-vatican-and-cats
  1. Luff, R.M. & Garcia, M.M. (1995). Killing Cats In The Medieval Period. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/1061079/LUFF_R._M._MORENO-GARC%C3%8DA_M_1995-._Killing_cats_in_the_Medieval_Period._An_unusual_episode_in_the_history_of_Cambridge_England_Archaeofauna_4_93-114
  1. Mark, J. (2012). Cats in the Ancient World. Retrieved from: https://www.ancient.eu/articel466/cats-in-the-ancient-world
  1. Morris,D. (2017). Why Medieval Cats Approved of the Plague. Retrieved from: http://m.nautil.us/blog/why-medieval-cats-approved-of-the-plague
  1. Vocelle, L.A. (2013). History of the Cat in the Dark Ages. Retrieved from: https://www.thegreatcat.org/history-of-the-cat-in-the-dark-ages-part-10

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