The First Domestic Cats

On an island in the Nile, a large statue in the likeness of Bast, was erected in the temple of Bubastis to which thousands would travel, by boat, on feast days, so that they might worship.

King Osorkon II, of Egypt, built a magnificent hall in Bubastis which he dedicated to the goddess, and a relief, found on the walls, proclaims his allegiance thus: ‘I give thee every land in obeisance, I give thee all power like Ra’ (the sun god).

When cats died, their bodies were mummified and the richer the family of their owners, the more ornate and valuable the coffins would be. Some which have been discovered even contained little mummified mice so that the cats would not hunger on their last journey. Mourning for the cats was real and intense, the bereaved family shaving off their eyebrows to express their grief. And, of course, living cats were zealously guarded; they were not officially allowed out of Egypt though a few did find their way to other parts of the world.

It is thought that the first domestic cat came to Britain in the first or second century AD, brought by the invading Romans, a belief verified by footprints in clay tiles, and bones discovered in the remains of Roman villas.

And, by the tenth century, the Welsh Prince Howel the Wise fixed the price of a new-born kitten at one penny – worth very much more in those days – the price being increased when the ability of the kitten to catch mice had been proved.

Sadly, in the Middle Ages, in Britain, and other parts of the world, cats became feared and even hated, because they were thought to be unlucky (black cats especially) and to be connected with black magic. Poor old men and women were thought to be wizards and witches simply because they owned a pet cat.

One wonders, however, at the gullibility of those who, in 1566, obtained a confession from sixty-four-year-old Agnes Waterhouse of Hatfield Peverell, Essex, whom they later hanged for witchcraft. The confession stated that she had despatched her black cat ‘Satan’ to spoil butter, kill a neighbour’s stock and ‘bewitch’ a man to death. Today if a black cat should chance to cross our path, we believe we are in for a spell of good luck!

The witches were supposed to be able to change themselves into cats, or to ride on broomsticks with their cat familiars as their passengers. Cat owners were reckoned to be in league with the Devil and many innocent people were tried and put to death with their pets. A witch hunt had also become a cat hunt, despite the fact that the cat had proved itself by now as an ally of man in his fight against the rat, the common enemy which had led to the Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, which spread into Europe from Asia in the thirteenth century and eventually wiped out half of London in 1666. Not until the eighteenth century was it realized that the cat was not only an excellent companion but a formidable opponent of the brown rat which invaded warehouses where foodstuffs were stored. The cat became known, probably because it disposed of the ‘dirty rat’, as being essentially a clean animal which might be allowed, and seen, in food shops without fear of disease or contamination.

Slowly, but surely, the cat became recognized as an ideal pet for the old and lonely. Poets, artists and writers began to write about them, and artists began to paint their special favourites; so that by the time Queen Victoria ascended the throne, most houses, shops and farms kept cats as mousers or as pets.

But, forgetting for a moment the cat’s prowess as a destroyer of vermin, its beauty, grace and the care the queen (female cat) lavished on her kittens, seemed, to the Victorians, to represent the most desirable traits of family life; and illustrations abounded of mother cats, with their families, while homes boasted cushions and samplers embroidered with cat designs; porcelain and china cats graced the mantelpiece, and chocolate boxes were adorned with pretty, feline pictures. The most famous cat illustrator of the period was Louis William Wain (1860-1939), whose picture postcard series of cats portraying nursery rhyme characters have now become collectors’ items.

The cat had also become a sought-after pantomime figure, in performances of Puss in Boots and Dick Whittington and his Cat staged at Drury Lane and other big London theatres.

Puss in Boots was the invention of a French poet and critic, Charles Perrault, and was included in a collection of his fairy stories. Later it was translated into English by Robert Samber, and published, in Britain in 1729, under the title Mother Goose’s Tales. Although ‘Puss’ wears boots and talks like a human being, his audacity and cunning are essentially cat characteristics.

Puss in Boots and his beautiful ladylove the White Cat appear in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty, first performed in 1890 in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), Russia. The White Cat enters in the procession of wedding guests, carried on a cushion and serenely washing her face in the midst of all the grand company. Puss in Boots courts her in a delightful dance, accompanied by an oboe, which imitates the cats’ mewing. This ballet is based on the story by Charles Perrault.

The tale of Dick Whittington and his cat is not, likewise, a fairy story, but based on the real-life history of Richard Whittington (circa 1358-1423), the third son of Sir William Whittington of Pauntley, Gloucester.

Whittington was apprenticed, in about 1371, to a member of the Mercer’s Company in London, probably, in fact, the pantomime character, Sir John Fitzwarren, whose daughter Alice he married. Dick Whittington was a great philanthropist who enjoyed enormous wealth and prestige, and did indeed become Lord Mayor of London on no less than four occasions.

The only doubts about the authenticity of the Whittington pantomime centre around Dick’s famous cat companion, and the picture of Dick as a poor boy, seeking his fortune in the cheerless streets of London seeing if they were really made of gold.

These facts do not seem likely when mindful of Dick’s aristocratic birth. However, the cat may not be legendary, for the Reverend Samuel Lyons, an accredited biographer of Whittington, writes of a fifteenth-century figure of a boy with a cat discovered at a house in Gloucester once occupied by the Whittington family; and according to the historian, William Maitland, when the Newgate Prison was rebuilt following the Great Fire of London, there was found, midst the ruins, a figure of a boy with the word ‘Libertas’ carved on his hat, and a companion cat at his feet.

One can to this day visit the Whittington Stone at Holloway, north London, where Dick, in despair, sat pondering when the Bow Bells rang out, urging him: Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.’ And, on nearby Highgate Hill, is the statue of Dick’s cat, posed looking over its shoulder as if it too were listening to the prediction of its beloved master’s future.

Cats in legend and literature

The first verses a child utters may be those concerning our friend, the cat: ‘I love little pussy, her coat is so warm, And if I don’t hurt her, she’ll do me no harm.’

Tussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to see the Queen. Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.’

We must not forget ‘Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon’; and, of course, ‘Ding, dong, bell, Pussy’s in the well’; and ‘Three little kittens they lost their mittens’.

In later years, the child is introduced to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland becoming acquainted with the Cheshire cat who, on hearing the command, ‘Off with his head’ has the ability to vanish at will, barring its grin. ‘This time it vanished,’ wrote Carroll, ‘beginning with the end of the tail and ending with the grin.’ Actually, the famous Cheshire cheeses were once marked with the face of a cat and the saying ‘to grin like a Cheshire cat’ was in use long before Lewis Carroll put pen to paper. The saying may derive from the open-mouthed wolf heads on the arms of the eleventh century Earl of Chester and not from the Cheshire cat at all. Still, who, even in adulthood, could forget the argument put forth by the cat in ‘Alice’to confirm its insanity? ‘Unlike the dog,’ it said, ‘who growls when it is angry and wags its tail when it is pleased, I growl when I am pleased and wag my tail when I am angry.’

But next come Edward Lear’s wonderful nonsense poems, like ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat ;

Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Tom Kitten; and the cats which appear in Aesop’s fables, mostly as the villains of the piece.

Older children enjoy Old Possum’s book of Practical Cats with T. S. Eliot’s amusing verses about cats with such splendid names as Mungo-Jerrie and Rumpelteazer; Macavity, the ginger cat who was a master criminal, and the perverse, capricious Rum Turn Tugger.

On then to the classics, and our scholar will find that Swinburne, Wordsworth and Tennyson all wrote poems about cats; and that the American, Mark Twain, author of Huckleberry Finn, declared that ‘A home without a cat, and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat, may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove its title?’

In Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories we find The Cat that Walked by Himself. There is also the sad tale of Selima, written by Thomas Gray, ‘Ode on the death of a favourite cat drowned in a tub of gold fishes,’ in verses as elegant as the lamented cat herself.

More recently, Paul Gallico’s book Jennie, Doreen Tovey’s Cats in the Belfry, and Derek Tangye’s A Cat at the Window have proved very popular with both young and old.

And a study of the works of the great masters will also reveal cats, for they have been included in paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Durer, Hogarth, the Swiss painter Mind, Reynolds, Toulouse-Lautrec and, more recently, Picasso.

Despite the cat’s association with the Devil, which I will shortly touch on, it has also been much favoured by men of God. Indeed, the prophet, Mohammed was a cat lover and the story has often been told of how, when his pet cat Muezza fell asleep in the sleeve of his garment, he had the sleeve cut off rather than disturb his feline friend.

The dog, apart from the fleet-footed Saluki, is, in Arab countries, an outcast of Allah; but the cat, beloved of the prophet, is to this day treated kindly by Moslems and is allowed access into a mosque.

Pope Gregory I had a pet cat, as did Pope Gregory III; and Cardinal Wolsey owned a cat, which was his constant companion and accompanied him to many religious meetings and services. Cardinal Richelieu of France also loved cats and particularly liked to have kittens around him.

There was also a welcome for puss in many an austere monastery where he became friend and dispeller of vermin. There is on record a verse written long ago by an Irish monk, about a cat with the unlikely name of Pangur Ban; the modern translation, by Robin Flower, would be:

‘I and Pangur Ban, my cat, ‘Tis a like task we are at; Hunting mice is his delight, Hunting words I sit all night.’

But still it is with the mysterious, the supernatural, that cats have been linked for centuries.

It was thought in particular that the Black Cat, a creature of darkness, who moved with stealth and had gleaming green eyes, must be in league, with the Devil. And when the Order of Knights Templar was quashed by Pope Clement V in the fourteenth, century, its members admitted, under torture, that they were indeed Devil worshippers and had worshipped their deity in the form of a black torn cat. Doubtless the pain inflicted would have caused the victims to admit to anything, but thereafter cat lovers were viewed with suspicion.

Mythologically the suspicion is sound because the Egyptian cat goddess, Bast, was linked with Diana the moon goddess, or goddess of darkness, who later was to become Hecate, the Queen of all the Witches. Now Diana had a brother Lucifer, a god of light, whom she greatly desired, but who did not return her affections, choosing instead to sleep with a beautiful white cat. One night Diana persuaded the cat to change places with her, lay with Lucifer and bore, from the union, a daughter Aradia. She was later sent to earth by Diana to teach humans the art of witchcraft and, indeed, the beginnings of black magic, all because Diana had changed places with a beautiful white fairy cat.

Sailors, particularly, lay great store by a cat’s supernatural powers and the word ‘cat’ enters many nautical expressions. A cat’s paw is a light breeze, a cat-boat, a single masted vessel, a cat-head the beam for carrying the anchor; the cat-boat’s rigging is known as the cat-rig and the act of hanging the anchor on the cat-head is talked about as ‘catting the anchor’. The Slavs believe that, during thunderstorms, the bodies of cats are taken over by devils; and in Scotland when a cat indulges itself in scratching the furniture it is said to be raising the wind.

Cats have always been credited with the ability not only to foretell, but change the weather at will; and in Ireland, storm-raising cats would be gathered and held down until, in bad weather, they used their magic powers to bring about a calm. They are animals which seem throughout time to have been feared and revered. Happily, cats are treasured as much by people today as they were in the days of the Ancient Egyptians.