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How many of you own a cat? For those that do, take this time to consider which of you tends to act more like royalty in your household. Surprisingly, cats tend to be aware of their own history–throughout the centuries, they’ve been symbols of royalty and even worshipped as gods. The history of cats as viewed and treated by humans offers a peek into the domestication of cats over time and an interesting viewpoint on why cats still act like humans are beneath them. With the aid of assorted historical sources, I am presenting this information as an animal shelter worker, cat foster and general cat whisperer of about six years. We’ll be discussing three main periods of feline society, best summed up in the format of “I live, I die, I live again.”
In Egypt, the goddess Bastet was heavily worshipped as the patron goddess of cats, associated with fertility, motherhood and promiscuity in reference to female cats. Cats were considered sacred and used for everything from rodent hunters for royalty to sacrifices of the highest quality to Egyptian gods, commonly buried in tombs as an offering
In the earlier practices of Islam, cats were considered sacred by the prophet Muhammad. A popular story in the Quran details a time in which the prophet’s cat, Muezza, fell asleep on his robes during the call to prayer. Rather than wake the cat, the prophet Muhammad cut off the sleeve on which his cat slept. Here, too, cats reached a sacred status.
In early Celtic practices, cats were seen as spiritual guides in close connection with the gods, and were, for the most part, revered as such, along with being noted as powerful warriors. These traits made them the ideal companions for Celtic shamans and soldiers. However, black cats in particular came to be regarded as omens of misfortune and the hand of evil, a label that did not go unnoticed among witch-fearing Europeans within the next several centuries.
According to Donald Engel’s book Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat, Pope Gregory IX came to power in Europe in the 1200s, bringing with him the first panicking news of black cats in association with the devil. As the infamous heretic-hunt known as The Inquisition began, cats and their owners quickly came under fire. Literally. Black cats were recognized as an incarnation of the devil, and, as a result, executed en masse. With the rise in cat deaths, the rat population surged–a horrible outcome that set the stage for the ravaging of Europe at the hands of the Black Death years later.
Jumping forward several centuries, the Salem Witch Trials of Massachusetts also offered mass cat executions, framing black cats in particular as familiars, or magical partners, of witches and hunting them down en masse as well. While the impact wasn’t as devastating as in Europe, cats were treated with caution even after the trials ended.
Cats slowly settled into a domesticated environment after the 1700s, returning to their roles as exterminators and occupying all roles from house pets to feral beasts. From there, they enjoyed a peaceful existence leading up to the popularization of the internet in the late 1900s. As anyone with wi-fi can tell you, the rise of memes quickly led to an unhealthy internet obsession with cats in all phases of life. According to the internet trend tracking website Know Your Meme, the phenomena is believed to have begun with the 2007 launch of the cat meme site “I Can Has Cheezburger”.
Unfortunately, no amount of memes can eradicate the black cat stigma that has followed cats all the way from medieval times. According to a Time magazine article, while no true statistics are available or tests have been run, it is heavily evidenced that black cats are among the last to be adopted and the first to be euthanized at crowded shelters. As a result, animal shelters, including our own Flagler Humane Society, offer specials regarding black cats in the hopes of speeding up their adoption processes and finding them happy homes.
Author Terry Pratchett once said “in ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” To those that own a cat, this is a painful fact of life. From a life of luxury to a fugitive existence and back again, cats have been through some paws-itively rough scenarios in their nine lives to reach the beloved status they enjoy today. So next time your kitten smacks a glass object off the table or suffocates you at 4 AM by sitting on your face as you sleep, take a moment to remember their heritage and the long road they’ve come since the start of civilization. And then you can shove them back off of the couch.
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