Cats

Cats have been with us for at least 9500 years, long enough for mankind to create numerous legends around them. Since early man first started harvesting and storing grains and other foods, mice have tried to steal it. And where there are mice and other small vermin, the cat was there. Over time, cats and people learned to live together, and Felis silvestris catus – the house cat — was born.

Early civilizations prized the cat for its remarkable abilities. Cats protected the harvest from poisonous snakes, and from mice, which could spread of disease. As silent hunters, cats moved with a deadly grace. It’s no surprise that the cat became a symbol of poise and grace.

To the ancient Egyptians, the cat was widely worshipped. Cats were so important to Egyptian religious beliefs and society as a whole that the penalty for killing one, even accidentally, was death. The Egyptians loved these animals so much that they were mummified after death, and then offered to the goddess Bastet (also known as Bast).

Romans also considered the cat a sacred animal. As the Roman Empire spread across Europe, they brought their cats with them. Other ancient religions saw cats as higher souls, all-knowing guides for humans.

Other religions don’t worship the cat, but still hold it in high regard. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was a cat-lover. According to legend, if a cat was sleeping on his cloak, Muhammad would do without.

The Maneki Neko of Japan is another revered cat. According to tradition, this cat brings good fortune wherever she goes.

Unfortunately for the cat, this streak of good luck was not to last. By the Middle Ages, cats were seen to be the familiars of witches, kept to do the evil bidding of their masters. By the 17th century, cats were still revered in some societies; however, the USA and parts of Europe saw cats, and black cats in particular, as evil.

The persecution of cats (and cat lovers) continued in all areas where the hysteria over witches took hold. The penalties for simply owning a cat could be severe, often used during trials as proof that the owners consorted with the devil. Black cats were especially suspect, because their dark color allowed them to blend perfectly into the shadows. Often, the cat was put to death at the same time (and using the same method) as their humans.

To the Western world, black cats are commonly associated with evil. That is not the case in all parts of the world. To the Scots, a finding a strange black cat sitting on the porch indicates that wealth is on its way. In England, the Wives of fishermen believed that the black cats they kept at home would protect their husbands on the sea.

“The Love Potion” by Evelyn de Morgan: a witch with a black cat familiar at her feet. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Egyptian sculpture at the Louvre. Courtesy Wikipedia.