Cats in the Ancient World (II)

Cats Ancient World

In the previous article, we looked at cats in ancient Egypt, China, Japan and India. Let’s now see how other civilizations regarded cats. 

Cats in Ancient Persia

Persian folklore says that cats were magically created. One night, the great Persian hero Rustum was out on campaign when he rescued a magician from a band of thieves. Rustum extended his hospitality to the elder man, allowing him to stay in his tent. As they sat in the open around a warm fire with the light of the stars overhead, the magician asked Rustum what he wanted in return for the favor. Rustum replied that he wanted for nothing since he already had everything he desired: the warmth of the fire, the scent of the smoke and the beautiful stars in the night sky above. So the magician took a handful of the smoke, added flame to it and took the two brightest stars, kneading everything together in his hands. When he extended his hands to Rustum, in his palms was a small kitten, grey as the smoke, with eyes bright as the stars and a tongue like a tip of flame. Thus, the first Persian cat was created as a token of gratitude. 

The prophet Muhammed was also said to adore cats. Legend has it that the tabby cat got the “M” design on its forehead when Muhammed blessed his favorite cat, Meuzza, by placing his hand on its head. In another well-known tale, Muhammed once found Meuzza asleep on his arm. However, instead of disturbing the cat, he cut the sleeve from his garment, leaving the cat to sleep in peace. As such, other people began to revere the cat, following the actions of their prophet. 

Cats in Greco-Roman Societies

Cats had a slightly different role in Greece and Rome. The Greeks and Romans used to domesticate weasels to catch household pets, so cats were rarely used as hunters. Instead, cats were kept as pets and regarded as a symbol of independence particularly by the Romans. One of the earliest Roman works featuring a cat is an epitaph of a young girl holding a cat in the first century AD. 

It is suggested that cats were not very popular among the earlier Greek civilizations since they were associated with Hecate, the goddess of death, darkness and witches. Although Hecate was more frequently linked to dogs, there was one myth in particular that describes the cat’s association to the dark goddess. 

This story is probably that of Heracles, also known as Hercules. Legend has it that the god Zeus seduced the princess Alcmene, causing her to become pregnant with Heracles. Zeus’ wife, Hera, was enraged and sought to kill Alcmene and Heracles. However, she was thwarted by the cleverness of Alcmene’s maid-servant, Galinthius. To punish Galinthius, Hera transformed her into a cat and sent her to the underworld to serve Hecate forever. This myth was popularly distributed and read widely till as late as the 16th century AD. It is believed that cats were thus associated with the underworld, transformation, witchcraft and darkness. 

Cats were often featured in the works of the Greek playwright Aristophanes from the 5th to 4th centuries BC, but the society’s low regard for cats probably led to Aristophanes coining the term “the cat did it”, which was used to assign blame. The Greeks probably developed an appreciation for cats later on, when a legend arose that a cat protected the infant Jesus from rodents and snakes. 

A Dark Time for Cats

While cats enjoyed their high status in a number of ancient civilizations, in later years around the turn of the second millennium AD they were associated with demonic forces, particularly the Devil. It was the period of time where the Christian church started to demonize pagan symbols. They drew on the association between cats and witchcraft to link cats to works of evil, some even claiming that cats were a personification of the Devil in earthly form. One particular medieval writer in the 12th century, Walter Map, wrote about the cat being a bearer of demonic powers. Cats were reportedly ritually killed around Cambridge England in the 13th century. However, this was not the worst fate cats would suffer yet. 

In 1233 AD, Pope Gregory IX issued his papal bull known as Vox in Rama. It announced that cats were in league with Satan and therefore evil. This resulted in cats, particularly black cats, being hunted down and killed all across Europe. The widespread belief could have been largely due to the church’s opinion which spread to the common folk, as it was unlikely that most common folk would have read the decree. Some historians believe that this mass slaughter of cats contributed to the build up of rodent populations, in particular the rats on which lived the fleas that brought about the Black Death in the 14th century. People at that time did not know that the plague came from parasites on the rodents, and thus saw no correlation between the thriving rat population and decrease in the number of cats. As such, cats continued to be associated with evil and danger. 

Medieval writers would take the case of cats further, alleging that cats had venomous teeth, poisonous flesh, lethal hair that would cause suffocation if only a few were swallowed and infectious breath that would destroy human lungs. Edward Topsel wrote in 1658 that “the familiars of Witches do most ordinarily appear in the shape of Cats, which is an argument that this beast is dangerous to soul and body”. The European nations’ distaste for cats extended to anyone who seemed overly fond of the animal. This made some women prime targets for being accused of witchcraft simply because they were seen caring for cats. 

The Vindication of Cats

Despite the widespread prejudice, cats were resilient and continued to survive. When the power of the church was broken by the Protestants, people listened more to reason than superstition, being able to have their own opinion instead of the church dictating the popular opinion on any subject. The 18th century saw cats being returned to their previously high status, being regarded as pampered pets. 

In the Victorian era (1837-1901), Queen Victoria brought about attention to the cat when she became interested in cats through the finds of archaeologists regarding how revered cats were in ancient Egypt. The queen came to adopt two Blue Persians, treating them as members of her court. She was a very influential monarch and this led the common folk to also become interested in keeping their own cats. 

Beyond England, the trend of keeping cats spread to the United States and was popularized by Louis Godey, writer of the most popular magazine in the States at the time, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Another writer, Sarah Hale, joined Godey in 1836. She wrote in an 1860 article that cats were for everyone, not just elderly women or monarchs, and that everyone should be able to enjoy the love and virtue of a cat. This helped to increase the popularity of cats in the United States. 

Throughout every era in human history, cats have been living amongst us each step of the way, even if they were mistreated by humans. This humble animal has certainly come a long road to become our treasured companions and house pets these days.