Cast a Spell on Me – Is the Cat a God or the Devil? (Part 1 of 2)

Jun 20, 2013 by     No Comments    Posted under: Personal Opinion

Sinister, malevolent, mysterious, spooky—these are all adjectives used to describe the cat.  That image of the self-sufficient, inscrutable feline has been the persistent stereotype, and has led to the tangled history we humans have with America’s favorite pet.

The relationship people have with their dogs is much more straightforward…but there is something about a cat that defies easy acceptance, and that ambivalence can be traced back to when cats and humans first began to interact.

Cats were domesticated more than 10,000 years ago, when wild cats in the Nile Delta and Mesopotamian marshlands began frequenting human encampments and villages, attracted to the easy supply of rodents that were seeking out the humans’ grain stores.  These cats grew more and more habituated to people, and soon began to, as every cat lover knows, domesticate themselves.  These friendlier cats eventually became part of normal village life.  We know they were intimately associated with humans back then thanks to the discovery of a cat skeleton buried with a human in a 12,000-year-old archeological gravesite.

Because cats had a very distinct role in this relationship—consuming mice—and that trait also came naturally to cats, the typical exploitation of certain behaviors did not occur as it normally would during the domestication process.  Most domesticated species go through different steps of fine-tuning a trait that humans found desirable.  Cats, however, have come through the years basically unchanged.

They were looking for food, not friendship, although the friendlier and less fearful cats were able to capitalize on their increased comfort with humans by having greater access to food and shelter.

It’s basically a thousand-year-old variation on that timeless theme of humans doing the bidding of cats and not vice versa.  First we provided an easy supply of mice, now we’re opening those cans of cat food.  This ambivalence cats have about pleasing people has caused our wildly up and down feelings about our favorite species.

In ancient Egypt, cats might have hit their own personal high on the human interaction scale when they were worshipped as gods.  Over time, the cat’s image evolved from the warlike deification of justice and execution into the more feminine deity representing protection, motherhood and fertility.  The respect for cats was so extreme that many were mummified after death, just like their human supplicants.  In fact, there was a discovery in Egypt of more than 300,000 cat mummies, all located in one cemetery devoted exclusively to cats.  Cats were so revered that if a person was convicted of killing a cat, even accidentally, it often meant a death sentence.

When a cat died, Egyptian households would go into mourning just like when a human relative had died, and they’d mark their grief by the same tradition of shaving their eyebrows.

Those were certainly heady days for the cat!  Ancient Romans also held the cat in great reverence.  Cats in the Roman Empire were seen as symbols of liberty.  The Roman army traveled with cats, which were originally imported from Egypt.  In the Far East, cats were once again valued for their mousing skills, rather than being worshipped as gods, but here the value was less for the protection of grain stores but more from stopping rodents from burrowing into the pages of treasured manuscripts.

Fast forward now into the Middle Ages, when cats suffered a serious decline in status and became demonized throughout Europe.  The belief was that cats were in an alliance with witches and the devil.  Cats were enthusiastically hunted and killed in an attempt to ward off the evil that they were believed to embody.

Ironically, many scholars believe that eliminating cats helped to spread the plague, or the Black Death, since the fleas that transmitted the pathogen had many more hosts in the escalating rat population.  This was one more instance where cat’s rodent hunting had a directly positive benefit on the health of humans, just like what happened when cats protected the human grain stores and manuscripts from marauding mice.

And let’s not forget witches and paganism and the pivotal role that black cats, the classical witch’s familiar, played.  A familiar was an animal traditionally given to witches by the devil.  Familiars were small demons that were sent out to do the witch’s bidding.  Many cats—and other animals—were killed during the witch trials because of this association.  Witches were said to be able to shape-change into a cat no more than nine times, and this is probably where the saying that a cat has nine lives came from.

Cats were believed to be clairvoyant, and their body parts, particularly their tails, were used in potions to give humans those powers.  Cats were also thought to be able to forecast and affect the weather.  A sneezing cat meant rain was on the way and a cat who sharpened its claws on furniture meant that the weather was going to change.  Throwing a cat overboard from a boat was believed to cause storms.  There are also quite a few nautical superstitions involving cats, and boating expressions that use “cat” are numerous and range from cat-o-nine tails, catboats and the catwalk.

Public opinion didn’t begin to shift back in favor of the cat until the 1600s, but Old Wives’ Tales about cats were commonplace and consistently anti-cat.  We’ll look at a selection of those next month and see where the truth lies!

Dr Cathy Lund

Cathy Lund, DVM, owns and operates City Kitty Veterinary Care for Cats, a cat practice located in Providence, RI. She is also the board president and founder of the Companion Animal Foundation, a statewide, veterinary-based nonprofit organization that helps low-income pet owners afford essential veterinary care. She lives in Providence, and serves on several architectural and preservation commissions in the city, and is on the board of directors of WRNI, RI’s own NPR station. But her favorite activity is to promote the countless virtues of the “purr-fect” pet, the cat!

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