A Brief History of the Cat
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Oh, my aching muscles...

Still Ignoring Us After All These Years
By Diane Dash

Some people argue that the cat has never been domesticated. Technically, a species is considered domesticated if it has been bred and raised by humans for many generations, and has been substantially altered in appearance and/or behavior. Others believe the cat is self-domesticated—implying it saw certain benefits to befriending us and climbed aboard the domestication train by choice. Either way, it appears to have been a great challenge to get felines under our control. Unlike dogs who are pack animals and instinctively aim to please their leader, cats are independent, nocturnal and largely solitary creatures by nature. Domesticating them was apparently about as easy as, well, herding them.

Exalted Grain Police

The first sign of cat domestication dates back about 8,000 years to graves of cats, mice, and humans buried together on the island of Cyprus. Animals were of vital importance as humans moved from primarily nomadic to primarily agrarian lifestyles. Many tasks became quicker and easier with the help of domestic animals who provided protection, assistance with farm work, clothing, and food. As hard as it is for us to imagine with our every-expanding waistlines, throughout most of human history starvation was one bad decision or dry season away. Every available option for success was utilized, including the elusive and sometimes ornery cat.

Growing crops became a way of life for ancient Egyptians, as it did for the tribes of Africa and primitives of southwestern Asia. Since crops could only be harvested once or twice a year, the question became how to store the life-giving grain? The solution for this conundrum brought about another. How to deal with the sudden surplus of vermin who also found the grain delectable and appreciated it being in one big easy-to-access pile? While the humans were scratching their heads on this the local cat population began eating the local rat population that was eating the life-giving grain. This made the local humans as glad about the cats as they were mad about the rats.

These four-legged, non-toxic pest controllers became minor celebrities as they systematically roamed and ridded rodents from each town and village. In much the same way Santa is lured to our houses with milk and cookies, farmers encouraged cats to stick around by leaving out milk soaked bread, fish-heads and other feline-friendly foods. It was most likely at this moment that cats realized they had us in the palm of their paws—we’d do whatever it took in return for them eating all the rats they could catch. Not a bad deal for an animal that finds killing most amusing (and no wonder Sweet Pea expects praise and adulation when she drops her “gift” at our feet!)

Ancient Egyptians owned all kinds of animals, but their relationship with the cat was unique. If a house caught fire, cats were saved first and lowly humans second. If a cat died there was much chanting, pounding of chests, and shaving of eyebrows as a sign of mourning. The body of the cat had to be wrapped in linen and delivered to the priest who inspected it to be certain the death was of natural causes. Cats were held in such high regard that laws were created to protect these protectors of the food supply. During the reign of the Pharaohs, it was considered a capital crime to kill or injure a cat, even accidentally. Punishment was swift in either case. According to scribe Diodorus Siculus, “Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who had accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.”

After the priests’ inspection the cat’s body was embalmed, wrapped again in linen, decorated and either buried in special cemeteries or entombed in temples. Over 300,000 cat mummies were found in a single 19th century excavation. In fact, the mummies were not only often accompanied by mouse mummies to ensure snacks for the afterlife, they far outnumbered the human mummies that were excavated in the region.

Cats were so revered, a religious order of cat worship developed that lasted for more than 2,000 years. The cat goddess Bastet became one of the most honored figures of worship. Bastet, who was associated with fertility, motherhood, grace, and beauty, had the body of a woman and head of a cat. Cats are also represented in ancient artwork, often appearing as protective elements in religious reliefs.

From Gods to Devils

Perhaps the constant worship and exaltation became tiresome as certain adventurous felines chose to climb aboard caravans bringing them east to India, China, and Japan. Others sailed to Greece and Italy, from there moved westward across Europe.

Medieval times brought an end to most anything fun, including feline reverence. The cat was again linked to religion, but this time not in a good way. Instead of incarnations of goddesses, they were thought to be witches and even the devil himself.  Cats were believed to be able to change form from cat to witch and back at will.

The church really got into the swing of things when Pope Gregory IX declared the cat a diabolical creature who was the embodiment of the devil and a symbol of heresy. Thus, being a symbol of Satan, cats were burned, killed and buried alive, walled up in brick buildings, thrown off towers and tortured as part of religious rituals to drive out the devil.

Elizabethan England was no more enlightened. Persons who kept cats were suspected of “wickedness” and were often put to death along with their cats under the authority of the Witchcraft Act of 1563. Agnes Waterhouse, who owned a cat with the unfortunate name of “Sathan,” was the lucky gal to be the first tried and executed as a witch under this law in July of 1566.

Pounced Back into Popularity

Undaunted by their mistreatment, cats and the people who “possessed” them regained favor during the outbreak of the Black Plague. Rats again paved the way for cats to shine. A good example of there always being a silver lining, the plague gave cats the opportunity to once again demonstrate their expert elimination techniques of these rodent disease carriers. This made the people who’d survived the plague reconsider the Satan thing, and feline popularity again began to grow.

Eventually cats again hopped aboard ships heading west, this time arriving in the New World with the Pilgrims, who apparently let them kill their rats in peace. (Although those accused of witchcraft in 1692 Salem were thought to control cats and other animals, it appears only the people were persecuted for this offense.)

By modern times, writers and artists such as Mark Twain, e.e. Cummings, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso were inspired to create works expressing joy over our modern “wild” cats. Ernest Hemingway was also a cat lover. His estate in Key West, FL continues to provide shelter to felines who are the offspring of the polydactyl cats he cared for, many of whom have retained the extra toes inherited from the author’s original brood.

Cats Today

Although some continue to debate whether cats are truly domesticated, or even still worshipped, they have in fact overtaken dogs as the number one pet in the US. Will they always do what you want, come when you call them, or show an ounce of gratitude for their daily care and meal delivery? They answer to all these questions is a resounding no, and anyone who expects otherwise is in for a real shock. But it is exactly because of their independence, their self-respect, their refusal to jump when someone says “jump!” that many of us find them so irresistible. Their self-assurance conveys a confidence in who they are in a way a conformist or “team player” never could. Perhaps those of us drawn to them aspire to possess these qualities in ourselves, and perhaps their real reason for being here is to teach us how to be more like them.

But in the meantime, my guess is they’re pretty proud of the fact they’ve trained us to do their bidding more than we’ve ever trained them to do ours.  NWGN


Diane Dash works to educate the public about animal issues and how they affect human beings. She has many  years shelter experience and as a voice for the voiceless and furry.


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