Cats as Symbols Throughout the Ages

Cats as Symbols Throughout the Ages
Although doubt remains as to the date when cats first appeared in Egypt, it is thought that around 4000 BC Egyptians domesticated cats and turned them into hunters, fishers and more importantly, ratters, since rats had become a national plague on the harvests. This role allowed the cat to gain respect and admiration and to finally become a guardian god who governed the family.

Cats rose to the ranks of Totem (Myeo). They entered the pantheon of the Egyptian gods, first portrayed as the god Ra (the Sun), who killed Apopis the snake, god of the Night, every morning. They also represented Nafdet, the destructive goddess of snakes. During the XXIIth dynasty in Bubastis, the cat even took over for the lioness as guardian of the sacred Temple in the form of the goddess Bastet. Also called Bast or Pacht, this goddess with the head of a cat was the goddess of love and a symbol of femininity. Priests of this goddess were constantly on the alert for the slightest signs from the sacred "catery," which they considered to be omens. When the cats died, they were embalmed. In the XIXth century, hundreds of thousands of mummies were discovered. Unfortunately, however, they aroused little interest and most were sold off as fertilizer.

A person who accidentally killed a cat could be subject to the death penalty. Contrary to popular belief, cats were killed frequently, but only by priests and the official caregivers of the cats. This was undoubtedly not only a means of selection and curbing overpopulation but especially of offering an ex-voto to the goddess.

Osiris (the god of harvests reminiscent of the sun) was also symbolized by a cat. Cats were therefore the symbol of both the moon and the sun. Herodotus and Plutach offered several explanations: the fact that the variations in the pupil of the cat were assimilated to how high the sun was in the sky; the fact that she-cats loved the moon; their nocturnal activities; their eyes that glowed in the dark and the changes in pupil diameter, which was also similar to the phases of the moon. The symbol of the moon was the one that endured throughout the years.

Cats had become such important members of the family that when they died, all members of the family shaved their eyebrows as a sign of mourning. If a fire broke out, it was more important to try to save a cat than a human. If a person was unable to save the cat, he had to spread cat ashes on himself and parade through the streets mauling himself.

The Persian king, Cambyse II, won the battle of Peluse because his soldiers brandished shields with cats strapped to them and the Egyptians, not wanting to hurt the animals, surrendered. The greatest festivities, the Bubastides, occurred during the second month of the flooding season. Men and women went down the Nile, dancing, laughing, singing and making music. The Temple was open to everyone during this time and the goddess was brought out in procession. The celebration was for the goddess of fertility and the protector of the harvests.

China and India discovered cats shortly after Egypt did. They were perceived as helpful animals because of their hunting abilities. Their beauty gained them acceptance as pets, essentially for women. In China, the rustic god, Li-Shou, had cat-like features and in India, the fertility goddess, Sasti, was the equivalent of Bastet.

The cats that were so jealously guarded by the Egyptians were stolen by the Greeks in Luxor and Thebes during cultural and commercial exchanges and consequently introduced into Europe. Legend has it that the tension between Rome and Egypt stemmed from cats. When Caesar occupied the banks of the Nile in 47 BC, a Roman who had killed a cat was stoned by the people of Alexandria, who rose up against this occupying force. Hostilities ensued and eventually led to the death of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. From then on, cats were outlawed in Roman-held Egypt. Whether legend or reality, this story illustrates the power cats represented at that time. In Greece, the equivalent of Bastet was the goddess Artemis, who created the cat.

As Pline the Ancient attests in his book Histoires naturelles (Natural Stories), the Roman world had come to appreciate cats not only for their hunting abilities, but also for their beauty (numerous frescos and mosaics testify to this) and for their independent nature - freedom incarnate.

Roman colonies therefore spread the worship of Bastet throughout Europe (and even transposed it to the worship of Diane), which is undoubtedly one of the underlying reasons for the superstition linked to this animal in Europe.

Cats were introduced in Japan around the VIth century. According to custom, every temple owned two cats in order to keep mice away from the manuscripts. Legend has it that emperor Hidijo, a great lover of cats, ordered that cats should be pampered. They were pampered to such an extent that when cats were needed to protect the silkworms against mice, rather than disturb them, pictures of cats were instead painted on doors or else bronze, porcelain or wooden statuettes were set up to trick the mice. Of course, this was not very effective and cats came to personify helpless, evil, selfish devils. In the Middle Ages, the Japanese distinguished good luck cats by their "tortoise shell" fur (white, black and tawny) and malevolent cats by their forked tail and their ability to change themselves into witches. However, cats again saw their hour of glory when it was forbidden to confine adult cats.The Japanese adoration for cats was not cloaked in religion however. Disciples of yoga took a liking to the sleeping position of the cat (lying in a curled up position), which was the ideal position to regulate vital body fluids. A symbol of purity, cats became the intercessor between perfect and unique Buddha and his faithful followers. And yet, when it was time for Buddha to ascend to Nirvana, he is said to have been sleeping and consequently arrived late, which was considered to be most irreverent.

The Arabs of the VIIth century saw a pure spirit in cats, unlike the unclean spirit they saw in dogs. They worshiped the Golden Cat before Islam, and Mohammed also looked favorably on cats. Indeed, according to legend, when Mohammed's cat, Muezza, was sleeping in the prophet's sleeve, Mohammed chose to cut his clothes rather than disturb his companion. The cat was grateful. His master then affectionately stroked the back of the cat with his hand three times, thereby granting the cat seven lives and the ability to always land on his feet when he fell.

As for the introduction of the cat into Europe, there are two theories. The first theory refers to the Roman legionnaires under Julius Caesar who reportedly brought cats into Great Britain via a Roman tribe called the "Friends of Cats" established in the Netherlands. The second theory is that when the Egyptian general, Gosthelos, fled to Portugal, he of course took his cats with him. His descendants later became the monarchs of Scotland, the point from which cats began to conquer the United Kingdom. In the meantime, Egyptian priests landing with their cats were well liked by the Franks and the Celts.

In Gaul, there was very little interest in cats in the IVth and Vth centuries. They were more well liked in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe. Cats were liked in Germania because they had eliminated the rats and in Scandinavia, cats accompanied the goddess of beauty and love, Freja, also known as Freyja in other Nordic countries.

Hordes of barbarians from Asia bringing with them the plague and the brown rat, caused cats to spread throughout all Europe. They were sold for a small fortune and benefited from protective laws so that they could fight the rodents. For example, any person who killed a cat that guarded an attic had to pay a fine in the form of meat, wool, milk or wheat that was equivalent to the length of the body of the victim when held by the end of the tail with its head level to the ground. However, this favorable period for the cat ceased with the arrival of Christianity in the XIth, XIIth and XIIIth centuries, except during the Crusades, when the black rats returned. Cats, considered to be arrogant, slowly faded into obscurity. The Church attributed strange and evil powers to the cat in order to destroy the myths and various forms of pagan worship associated with this animal. It had no choice but to object to this feline symbol of femininity, sensuality and sexuality.

Hundreds of thousands of cats were chased, crucified, skinned alive or thrown into the fire because they were the companions of witches, who would come to the Sabbath disguised as black cats. They shared their fate in this respect. Justice was on the side of the clergy in the fight against debauchery in the name of elevating the Spirit. Judges did not hesitate to directly implicate cats in witch trials. The Inquisition unleashed all kinds of violence against this animal such as the dreadful throwing of cats into the fires of St. Jean or the fairs in Flanders, which were actually cat hunts. Belgium threw its cats off the tops of cathedral towers. Germany forced cat owners to cut off the ears of the cat. Not to be outdone, France had a custom of walling up live cats in the foundation of the house in order to protect the house against evil spirits. Cats were exterminated to such an extent that in Europe they were later itemized as an actual asset on inventories, and in wills and estates.

Thus in the Middle Ages cats were considered to be symbols of evil and Satan. Once again, it was an invasion of rats, this time the gray rat (also called sewer rat) in 1799, that helped clear the good name of cats. A decree in Colbert ordered all ships of the Royal Navy to carry two cats aboard in order to ward off rodents. During the Age of the Enlightenment everything linked to witchcraft was demystified.

Around 1885, the Pasteurian era also contributed to the feline return to grace. The knowledge that diseases could be transmitted by infinitely small beings known as microbes lead to a phobia of animals, which were potential carriers. Cats, however, were a symbol of cleanliness because they spent hours on end cleaning themselves and therefore became the most approachable animal. Thus began another period of glory: sculptors, painters, story-tellers, fable writers, philosophers, poets and writers all lent distinction to the cat, who was often their companion in solitude.