The old humorous saying goes that cats were worship as gods and they haven’t forgotten that. But were cats really worshipped as gods, and what exactly made them into the furry companions we keep now?
Still the Most Popular Pet
According to statistics gathered by the American Pet Products Association, about 45.3 million households own at least one cat. The total number of cats owned by people is somewhere around 95.6 million cats. That doesn’t even count the number of ferals and cats given up to shelters. So, cats are huge part of pet owner lives. How we developed that special bond is a fascinating bit of history.
The First Domesticated Felines
When felines were domesticated is debatable. However, we know that wild cats lived in Mesopotamia around people for at least 100,000 years. Originally, it was thought that the Egyptians domesticated the cat around 4,000 years ago, but newer evidence suggests maybe the Chinese domesticated cats in the stone age village of Quanhucan that are more than 5,000 years old. Archeologists have also found kitten burials in Egypt that may go back as far as 3800 BCE. Add to the mix that there is a grave site on the island of Cyprus with a cat buried with a human at somewhere around 9500 BCE, and you may be closing in on when the cat was domesticated. One source suggests that cats were domesticated in Mesopotamia around 12,000 BCE.
Regardless of what you believe, the domesticated feline comes from the Near Eastern wild cat, Felis silvestris lybica, a cat that still lives in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. These cats are so closely related to today’s house cat that they can breed with and produce offspring with our domesticated felines.
Cats became domesticated as people moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. One problem with becoming a farmer was that you were producing grains and other foods that would naturally attract rodents. The wild cat, normally a recluse, knew a good thing when he saw it, and figured out that hanging around humans was a sure way of getting yummy food, i.e. mice and rats. Soon, people figured out those cats were extremely helpful, and cute. So, people decided to keep cats.
Walk Like an Egyptian
If the Egyptians weren’t the first to domesticate cats, they were the first to elevate the cat to god status. An extremely favorite goddess among the Egyptians was Bastet, the goddess of cats, the home, hearth, women’s secrets, and protector against disease and evil spirits. She was often depicted as a woman with a cat’s head or a cat.
Cats in Egypt were so important that it was against the law to export a cat. The Egyptians had secret agents who searched out exported cats and brought them back to Egypt. It was also against the law to kill a cat. When a cat died, the family went into mourning. In fact, cats were so important, a family would try to save the cat from a burning house before anything else, and people would block off the home to keep cats from getting near a burning house.
Bastet’s city was Bubastis (“Home of Bastet”) and had a large temple. Cats were frequently mummified with their owners so they could enjoy the afterlife. Our word “cat” comes from the Egyptian word for cat, “quattah.” In fact, nearly every European’s word for cat is a derivative of the Egyptian word.
But Egypt wasn’t the only place where cats were loved and worshipped. In China, the goddess Li Shou was a popular cat goddess who was a goddess of fertility, and not surprisingly, pest control. The Vikings, Germans, and Scandinavian people who worshipped the fertility goddess, Freyja, knew that Freyja’s chariot was pulled by cats. Even around the first century, one Irish god had a cat’s head.
In Japan, the summoning cat, or Maneki Neko, is very important even today. Maneki Neko is the cat of fortune and luck. One story depicts how a wealthy nobleman was taking shelter under a tree when he saw a cat in a poor temple making a beckoning gesture. The nobleman followed him, and as he entered the temple, the tree he had been seeking shelter under was hit by lightning. Because the cat saved his life, he donated generously to the temple.
A Chinese myth about cats is particularly endearing. The gods made the cats as custodians of the new world they created. But cats being cats, they didn’t do a good job. Instead, they laid around and chased the cherry blossoms as they fell from the trees. So after checking up on them three times, the gods asked the cats what they wanted. The cats told them to give the job to humans (typical) because they didn’t want to oversee the world. So, cats lost their ability to speak, and the gods gave humans the gift of speech. For some reason, though, humans couldn’t understand the gods. So, the gods allowed cats to maintain order and time.
Medieval Europe and Cats
Cats made their way into southern Europe with the Romans in 500 BCE, who emulated the Egyptians. Cats made it to Great Britain and northern Europe through the Phoenician traders who had cats aboard their ships.
When Christianity took hold, so did the demonization of cats. Stories abounded how cats sucked the breaths from babies and caused disease and death. Cats were regularly killed because people were made to think cats were in league with witchcraft and the devil. Because cats were routinely slaughtered, there’s a theory that the decrease in cats led to the rise of the Black Death. It’s likely that the reduction of cats caused rodents and fleas to flourish, thus making the spread of disease across Europe easier.
If it hadn’t been for Queen Victoria and the archeological digs in Egypt, the cat may have still be considered in a negative light. Luckily, Victoria’s interest in cats sparked when statues of Bastet and other cat items were unearthed. Victoria acquired two blue Persians, and her interest in cats ignited an interest in both England and America. People began learning about these wondrous creatures and brought cats into their homes again.
So, now you know about the cat as it was both revered and reviled throughout the ages. If the numbers of cats in households is any indication, you can see that cats are now loved almost as much as when they were deities in Egypt.
View more articles written by Maggie Bonham.