When you hear the word cat, what comes to mind? Is it the Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland, the Jellicle cats of T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, on which the Broadway musical Cats is based, or perhaps that zany Cat in the Hat of Dr. Seuss fame? For many it is the classic black cat that is the witch’s familiar. Whether you relate to Garfield or Mau, the cat has been intertwined with mankind for more than four thousand years, and possibly much longer.
We are first introduced to the witch’s familiar, Graymalkin, in McBeth. Shakespeare was not a fan of cats though he used them often in his plays. His feelings ranged from the mild quote by Shylock in The Tempest, “A harmless, necessary cat,” to Lysander saying in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Hang off, thou cat,” referring to a particularly murderous game practiced by the Dutch in Scotland which involved a hanging cat.
Shakespeare’s sentiments regarding cats were possibly influenced by a knowledge of Pope Gregory IX’s denouncement of black cats as Satanic in his 1233 Papal Bull, Vox in Rama. This was issued in an attempt to destroy a heresy known as Luciferians or Satan worshipers. The Pope’s views led to the slaughter of thousands of cats that some argue, in turn, culminated in the Black Plague because of the explosion in the rat population. Which brings us to the how and why of the domestication of cats.
Science tells us that the cat (felis catus)is part of the genus felis that is a group of seven species of small cats that are found worldwide. Several characteristics of wildcats such as their size, social nature, and high intelligence, may have predisposed them for domestication. How this domestication came about is up for debate but the prevailing theory by historians is that cats were tolerated by people because of the benefit garnered from their hunting vermin found around towns and villages. A strikingly different perspective than that of modern society:
Cats know how to obtain food without labor, shelter without confinement, and love without penalties. (Walter Lionel George, author).
Living in close proximity with people created a symbiotic relationship between cats and humans. It also insured the survival of the food supply of grains necessary for human consumption.
Ancient Egypt is generally credited as the site of cat domestication:
Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy circle; thou art indeed the Great Cat. (Inscribed on the Royal Tombs at Thebes.)
Historians know this history of the cat because the Egyptians depicted the domesticated cat in drawings in their palaces and their tombs. These images show the progression of the cat from domesticated animal and revered pet to the status of deity. One of the most famous monuments of Egypt is the Sphinx that is a combination of the pharaoh’s head on the body of a lion. Egyptian gods and goddesses named for cats include Mau (Ra in cat form), Tefnut, Mafdet, Bastet, and Sekmet. The penalty for killing a cat four thousand years ago in Egypt was death.
There is a caveat to Egypt’s claim as the origination of domesticated cats. Publications by archaeologists and paleontologists from the University of Washington and Chinese Academy of Sciences show evidence of domestic cats in Quanhucun, China 5,300 years ago. During the Song Dynasty cats with yellow and white fur were valued as pets simply for their appearance rather than as mousers.
The evidence of a domesticated cat buried with its owner was found on Cyprus in 2004. This site is dated at approximately 9,500 years old, pushing back the timeline on the domestication of cats. The theory is that domestication began in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and traveled from there to Cyprus and Egypt.
Regardless of the original arena for the domestication of cats, the Egyptians, through their exaltation and veneration of the lowly house cat, win the honor in my view.
Thus far we have painted the cat with a checkered past. How did he go from divine deity to Satanic scourge? Well, that’s a tale for another day. What we do know is that his return to western mankind’s good graces is noted in literature by such writers as Joanna Baillie. Her poem, The Kitten, appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s English Minstrelsy in 1810. Perhaps the debunking of their Satanic reputation began with such tales as Puss in Boots in 1697 or the inclusion by some Renaissance painters of cats in religious scenes. Whatever the cause, I and my fellow writers are here to continue the tales of the Great Cat, avenger of the Gods, and judge of the words.