It is a commonly accepted fact that the Egyptians were the first people to domesticate cats 4,000 years ago. However, it has been found that cats have lived among human beings for far longer than that, supported by various archaeological findings including the discovery of a cat skeleton in a tomb that dated back to 9,500 BC on the island of Cyprus. This find was made in 1983 by the archaeologist Alain le Brun and was an important marker to show that early humans lived among cats, because there was no indigenous cat population on Cyprus and it is also unlikely that a wild cat would have come with settlers, by boat, to the island.
In the history of the world, the Egyptians were not the only ancient civilization that domesticated cats. Let’s find out more about how different ancient civilizations showed their reverence for the much-loved animal.
Cats in Ancient Egypt
Of course, the Egyptian culture was well-known for being devoted to cats. In fact, a government was formed specifically for the purpose of prohibiting the exportation of cats out of Egypt. Also, government agents were dispatched to find smuggled cats in other lands and return them to Egypt. By 450 BC, it had been established that killing a cat was punishable by death.
Cats are associated with the Egyptian goddess Bastet, who was usually depicted as a cat or as a woman with a cat’s head. She was not just the goddess of cats, but also of hearth and home, the guardian against evil spirits and disease, and protector of women’s secrets. Bastet had her ritual center at the city of Bubastis, meaning “house of Bastet”, in which a large temple complex was built in her name.
It is said that the Egyptians treasured their cats so much that if a house caught fire, they would prioritize saving the cats over any other living being or material thing. When a household’s cat died, the entire house would shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning. The cat would be taken to Bubastis where it would be embalmed and placed in a sacred receptacle. Archaeologists have uncovered mummies of cats around Bubastis and all over Egypt, sometimes being buried with their owners.
Possibly the greatest demonstration of the Egyptians’ love for cats was in the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BC. Cambyses II of Persia, knowing that the Egyptians considered cats to be sacred animals, had his men round up various animals – including a large number of cats – and marched towards the city of Pelusium, situated on the river Nile. The Persians painted the image of Bastet on their shields and followed behind the throng of animals moving towards the city. The Egyptians feared defending themselves and harming the cats, and surrendered Pelusium as a result. According to the historian Polyaenus, Cambyses II celebrated his victory by riding throughout the city and hurling cats into the faces of the Egyptians.
One interesting fact in etymology is that the Egyptians may have coined the early word from which “cat” was derived. The word “cat” comes from the North African word “quattah”, and the word for cat in most European languages has also evolved from this root word. Additionally, the Egyptians also called Bastet “Pasht”, which the colloquial term “puss” has come from.
Cats in Ancient Asia
Cats were also associated with a deity in ancient China, the goddess Li Shou. She was often depicted in cat form and the people made sacrifices to her for pest control and fertility. One Chinese legend says that when the earth was created, cats were appointed by the gods and given the power of speech to oversee the running of the world. However, the cats were uninterested in running a society and much preferred sleeping under the trees and playing with the cherry blossoms. The gods came to check on the cats three times, but were disappointed each time to find the cats sleeping or playing instead of running the world. The cats explained that they were not interested in this task and suggested that humans be the one to do it. As such, the gods took away the power of speech from the cats and gave it to the humans. However, humans proved incapable of understanding the words of the gods, so cats remained the timekeepers and maintainers of order. One belief from this legend that has been passed down through the years is that one can tell the time of day by looking into the eyes of a cat.
Archaeologists have found a settlement in ancient China dating to around 5,000 BC where people were found to have been living with cats, although they were not domesticated. It is believed that both parties were living in a mutually beneficial relationship, with cats finding their food in the many rodents and other pests living in people’s homes. In return, the people may have taken care of and fed the cats. One particularly old cat was found with a diet consisting of more millet than house pests, suggesting that it had been well cared for in the ancient society.
A legend goes that a cat was sitting outside the Gotoku-ji temple as the emperor was passing by. The cat raised her paw in greeting to the emperor. Intrigued by the gesture, the emperor moved to enter the temple, only to discover that moments later, a bolt of lightning struck exactly where he had just been standing. Thus, the cat was accorded great honors for saving the emperor’s life.
The famous maneki neko (beckoning cat with one raised paw) originates from this myth, representing the Japanese goddess of mercy. This figure is often given as a gift in Japan and is thought to bring the bearer good luck. Cats were also domesticated in early Japan, being considered a guardian of the home due to their ability to catch pests. They were also regarded as the protector of valuable books, mostly Buddhist scriptures that were being transported to Japan from China, although the cats were probably just trying to keep rodents away from the books. Cats were sometimes kept in special pagodas, being considered so valuable that only nobles could afford one, even in the 10th century AD.
Cats have been notably mentioned in two of India’s great literary works, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both dating to around 5th to 4th century BC. The Mahabharata contains a famous passage about the cat Lomasa and the mouse Palita, who helped each other escape from death and end up discussing the nature of relationships, especially when one of the parties involved is stronger or more powerful than the other. Ramayana talks about the god Indra seducing the maid Ahalya and disguising himself as a cat in order to escape from Ahalya’s husband.
In India, cats were not just creatures of utility, but also associated with the Indian cat goddess, Sastht. Domesticated cats helped in controlling pests such as rodents and snakes, but were also revered in Indian literature. In fact, it is said that the story of Puss in Boots originated from an old Indian folk tale in the Panchatantra, going back to the 5th century BC.
In the next article, find out more about the history of cats in other parts of the world.