Cats Throughout History

It is almost certain that companionship between man and the cat (felts domesticus) began in Ancient Egypt. Unlike the dog which sought the comfort and security of ancient man’s camp fires in pre-history, the cat probably accepted domestication with some reluctance. Certainly, if the wild and untameable nature of the British Wildcat (felis catus) is anything to go by, domestication must have been a long and traumatic experience for both man and animal.

Archaeologists digging in sites identified as belonging to the Bronze or Iron Ages have found fossil remains of what were probably wildcats living rough, rather like bombsite cats during the War or wild and country farm cats today. They probably lived by their wits and relied upon their hunting skill and a little stealing of human food during the long, cold winter to stay alive.

The cat is only one of many in the family known as Felidae which includes the lion, tiger, puma, leopard, lynx and ocelot. They are all carnivorous or flesh eaters by choice but the domestic cat has adapted to man’s omnivorous diet and, of course, man’s processed cat food.

Historically, it is believed that the early domestication of the cat began about 5000 years ago in Egypt and there is certainly firm evidence to show that it was established as a member of Egyptian households by about 2000 BG. AS in the case of the dog which sought man’s companionships so that he could share in the spoils of the hunt, the cat probably turned to urban life to benefit from the plentiful supply of wild rodents to be found in households, particularly in food stores and granaries.

How the cat managed the supreme confidence trick of persuading man that despite its unique behaviour and its strong preference for social and psychological independence it was nevertheless worthy of deification, remains a mystery. It is, though, undoubtedly associated with the belief that cats had the power to control human fertility, health and crops. Gat worship lasted for about two thousand years in Egypt and apart from the cat goddess Pashat, who about two thousand years in Egypt and apart from the cat goddess Bast, who was the daughter of Isis and Osiris, there were a number of lesser feline gods during this period. Reference to a splendid temple containing a shrine to Bast at Bubastis is contained in chronicles of the fifth century BC by Herodotus.

Worship extended to ceremonial burial on the death of a cat, and Egyptian archaeologists have discovered many tombs containing thousands of cats embalmed and mummified by their mourning owners. Such was the Egyptians’ respect for cats that they were given full protection in law and punishment by death was enforced if anyone was found to have killed a cat, whether deliberately or accidentally.

Although Egypt was the cradle of cats as domestic companions to man, it was through Greece and Rome that their familiarity spread to Europe. For some time the process was delayed by an Egyptian law prohibiting the export of cats, but eventually the law was relaxed and there is evidence that around iooo BC small numbers of cats came to Greece from Egypt, probably through their use on board the trading ships as rat catchers.

The Romans kept cats in large numbers and they are known to have marched with the imperial legions all over Europe. Evidence of this can be found from cat remains in Roman archaeological digs in Britain – cat footprints have been found impressed on Roman tiles, providing further evidence of their domestication. Being practical people, the Romans had no illusions about the cat as a god or goddess but merely kept them to keep down vermin, a task previously carried out by polecats.

It is hard to tell when the early religious significance associated with the cat turned to fear and superstition. To this day black cats are variously regarded as lucky or unlucky by different cultures – but during the highly superstitious Middle Ages cats around the world found themselves venerated or hated according to the characteristics associated with them. Both Buddhism and Christianity tend to emphasize the evil rather than the good in cats. There is a Buddhist legend stating that Buddha died because a cat had killed the rat which had been sent to fetch his medicine – and then compounded its insult by failing to weep when death occurred. Cats were therefore forbidden to be present at Buddha’s funeral and, to this day, Indian Buddhists exclude the cat from their general belief in the sanctity of life and love for all creatures.

In contrast to Indian Buddhists, Chinese and Japanese Buddhists treated cats as deities. The cat god Li-Shou was worshipped not only because it protected communities from rodents but because it was thought to have a direct influence upon the bounty of the harvest. The cat’s association with fertility led in some cases to its magic being released by burying it, alive, in the ground. In South East Asia, the cat’s ability to act as a rain-maker apparently required total immersion of the animal in water. An eighteenth-century temple in Tokyo, known as Gotokui, is dedicated to the cat and has an altar decorated with cat effigies and surrounded with tombs and burial stones of cats.

The Japanese generally believed that cats were able to cure fits, epilepsy and melancholy and sailors believed that tortoiseshell cats protected them from ghosts and gave warning of storms. At the same time, the Japanese had a natural caution about the cat’s potential for evil. This characteristic, no doubt encouraged in people’s minds by the animal’s preference for moving silently and cautiously, particularly at night, generated fear among many superstitious and insecure people. If it was believed that a cat had become evil its tail would be severed as a cure or even, sometimes, as a prevention.

At one time the Chinese believed that cats had the ability to resurrect the dead and turn the corpse into a sort of zombie. Cats were therefore naturally banned from burial grounds. In other countries, if a cat had the misfortune to jump over a coffin it was immediately killed as this was thought to prevent the dead person’s soul from achieving salvation. Rather more macabre was the Scottish belief that, by eating the eyes of a dead body, a cat could achieve second sight and inflict blindness on the first person over whom it jumped.

Cats were regularly associated with witchcraft and their ritual burning used to be very common. The Hungarians were so concerned about the tendency of cats to turn into witches that they would cut a cross on the cat’s skin to prevent this happening. In France, it was not uncommon to see cats being hurled from church steeples during Lent.

Despite their association with evil, or perhaps because of it, cats have fascinated artists for centuries and evidence of this can be found in early wall paintings in Egyptian tombs and Mycenean shaft-graves. Particularly striking are the beautiful bronze statuettes of stylized cats cast in Ancient Egypt. As is to be expected, the cat was an important symbol in Egyptian art and there are many fine examples to be seen in Egyptian artefact collections throughout the world.

Since those early days, the cat has figured in all forms of art, sometimes as a major source of inspiration, but more often as part of the domestic setting. Cats have often been depicted in Biblical scenes and the great Italian painter, Tintoretto, included a cat in all but two of his series of paintings on the Last Supper. Particularly striking is the beautiful ginger cat to be seen in the middle foreground of his painting in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

One of the most notable painters of cats is the English artist, Louis Wain. His unhappy deterioration in mental stability is almost faithfully chronicled in the increasingly fantastic cat paintings which he produced, from early comic cats to grotesque fantasy cats at the end of his life.

Because the artist must often work in conditions of isolation, cats will often provide quiet companionship, and sometimes stimulus, to the creative talent. They are undemanding and aloof, but they can be faithful and entertaining. Unlike a dog, they do not pester the owner to be taken for long walks, and only require food and occasional attention. It is perhaps their serenity and their unblinking gaze which provides the key to their appeal to the creative artist. They are also graceful and nowadays of course, with the many pedigree varieties available, extremely colourful and attractive. But probably more than anything, it is their total self-composure, their arrogant independence, their intriguing or irritating capacity to demonstrate that they are your companion on their terms, that provokes a response in the creative artist to communicate and identify with them.