Cats in History and Mythology

Mythology is essentially the ancient religion or belief system of a group of people and throughout history the cat has featured prominently. Members of the cat family are native to most parts of the world except Australia, Madagascar and a few isolated islands. Humans tend to either love or hate cats. Whilst we are unable to establish the exact origin of the domestic cat, it has managed to fill a unique socio-ecological niche since humans began to develop an agriculturally based way of life. The ancestors of the domestic cat are most likely the African wildcat, tamed and honoured by the ancient Egyptians, and named mau.
The Egyptians considered black cats to be lucky and symbols of black cats were used as emblems by Egyptian physicians to advertise their services. The ancient Egyptians forbade the export of cats, and killing a cat was considered to be a crime in this society, punishable by death. The cat was probably chosen as a symbol of power due to its incredible hunting ability, a skill that was useful to Egyptian society where cats could be used to protect the granaries from rodents. When male dominated Christianity became the state religion across the Roman Empire, the worship of the female cat goddess, Bastet in Egypt, became outlawed. The usurped religions were demoted to cults and their gods and goddesses relegated to demons and devils.

It is also interesting to note, that when Christianity became the dominant belief system, references to and involvement with the cats, radically diminished, and there is only one cat species mentioned in the Bible - the lion. Early Christians believed that the lion slept with its eyes open and was always alert. It was thus not unusual to find lion motifs on the doors of old churches. It has also been said that when Christianity replaced the ancient religions, certain attributes of the Egyptian goddesses were incorporated into the imagery and associations of the Virgin Mary. When she gave birth to Jesus in the stable, a mother cat also gave birth to a kitten, and this is portrayed in many paintings, which depict baby Jesus playing with a kitten. The mother cat was apparently a tabby, and legend has it that all tabby cats carry the "mark of the Madonna", the characteristic "M" on the brow. Since the Middle Ages in Europe, cats have been associated with witchcraft and paganism and are credited with special powers,
second sight and magical abilities. The mass destruction of thousands of cats at this time played a role in the rat epidemic and corresponding Black Death, which plagued Europe.

Hindu mythology associates cats with fertility and the goddess of birth, Shasti, rides a cat or tiger. Unlike the Christian Church, Islam approves of the cat. Moslems also consider cats to be good creatures, given by Allah to help humans. In Japan, the cat is seen as a positive animal and is still held in high esteem. Cats symbolise peace and transformation and were popular with Japanese soldiers, who believed they had power over the dead and could thus repel the evil spirits dwelling in the ocean. Many Japanese continue to keep small statues of "Fortune Cats" in their homes for luck and the "Hello Kitty" brand developed in Japan is popular all over the world.

In the Celtic tradition, cats are associated with the underworld and the dead, and are often portrayed as being evil. Norse mythology, prior to Christianity, depicted the goddess Freya's chariot as being drawn by two white cats. Legend had it that if farmers left out a saucer of milk for the goddess' cats, she would ensure that their soil was fertile and crops would be plentiful.
But after their conversion to Christianity, Freya was seen as a witch and her cats became black horses that were possessed by the devil. This is possibly where the myth / superstition about black cats being unlucky originated.

The Chinese view cats as a yin animal, which is connected with evil, shape-shifting and the night. A black cat symbolises sickness or misfortune. During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao stated that it did not matter whether a cat was black or white – as long as it caught a mouse it was a good cat.

Traditional Africans have always kept cats, as they believe they have the power to protect people from rats, mice and snakes. Some believe that if a cat sees the tokoloshe it will howl and this will chase the demon away. It is also believed that no tokoloshe will go where a cat has washed its face. Unfortunately there is also still a tendency for many Africans to view the cat with suspicion and even fear, mostly due to its association with witchcraft.

The status and role of cats today

The present plight of the cat is accurately summed up by the author Olivia Manning, who in her book "Extraordinary Cats", sets out the history of the cat. She writes of the "tough, unbiddable little animal that, once worshipped as a god, later harassed as an agent of the devil, tortured as a symbol of wickedness and burnt as a consort of witches, has had to suffer more than its share of human stupidity".

Cats continue to be the most abused and vilified species in many parts of the world. The origins of this perception can be traced to the Judeo-Christian religion, which continues to view cats as demonic and evil. There is also a rapidly emerging environmental Witch-Hunt" being waged at cats, based on the belief that they are responsible for decimating certain species of birds and other types of wildlife.

All cats are opportunistic and prefer feeding on food provided by humans and failing that, scavenged scraps and rodents. Rodents are easier to catch and they often sharing living space (drains) with feral cats. Of course cats catch birds, but far less prolifically than conservationists claim. Numerous scientific studies conducted on the diets of feral cats indicate that their impact on bird populations is negligible. Cats are not the only culprits in dwindling bird populations and the World Watch Institute and other environmental research groups verify that the decline of bird and other populations is directly linked to the loss of
natural habitat. Urban sprawl, deforestation, the construction of shopping malls and housing developments, golf courses and squatter camps as well as the increased use of pesticides and pollution are all to blame. Other bird species like crows, starlings and mynahs display inter-species aggression and in so doing repel many of the smaller songbirds, favoured by gardeners and bird enthusiasts.

The anti-cat lobby uses the existence of zoonosis (diseases transmittable from animals to humans) as an indicator of the so-called health hazards posed by cats. But research indicates that cats are not a vector for rabies although they can carry the disease for the short time it takes them to die from it themselves. Since rabies is transmitted by saliva (bites) and not claws (scratches), feral cats are a minor player in the rabies chain. However, recent global developments such as bird flu have also affected cats and there is even one recently reported case of a cat dying after eating an infected bird in Germany.

Cat enthusiasts and cat owners everywhere need to do their bit to ensure they do not exacerbate the problem. They can do this by sterilising their pets and by supporting welfare initiatives aimed at assisting cats. This is especially critical when failing to do so, could result in further demonising a species that was once so revered.

Did you know? Cat mascots are widely used for sports teams because they symbolise prowess, cunning, speed, strength and agility. Felines are also the subject of more athletic logos than any other species of animal and teams often have cat names like, The Panthers, Tigers, Lions, Pumas, Wildcats, Cheetahs or simply just The Cats!
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