If you´re a cat lover, it must have occurred to you a few times to goggle about the history of the common house cat. After all, it´s interesting to know how cats became cats, and how they ended up as best friends to humans when they´re down lines of the wild cats, the tigers.
Unfortunately, little is known about the history of cats. There´s an Arab myth that claims that the cat came into being on Noah’s Ark when one of the two lions sneezed and the first feline leaped out of his nose. Of course, people who know the Bible very well, or even those who don´t believe the Bible but are on their right mind, find this myth more of a joke.
But the very first tame cats ever recorded were from Egypt around the time 3000 B.C. They´re said to have descended from an African wild cat and were very much like today’s house cat in size and proportion – short-haired and gray in color, with black stripes and spots on the body and legs. The Egyptians adored them and took care of them very well.
The cats initially gained popularity among the farmers because of their capability to guard the storehouses and protect them from rats and mice. The Egyptians realized how valuable cats´ services are that they elevated the cat to Egypt’s large family of deities. She became Pasht, the Goddess of Light, and was worshipped at temples built in her honor. (The Egyptian word “mau” meant both “cat” and “light.”)
Cat holidays were celebrated with parades and revelry in the streets. Household cats were adorned with jeweled collars and earrings. Killing a cat became a crime punishable by death.
When a cat died it was embalmed, wrapped in burial cloths and buried in a special cat cemetery. Solicitous cat owners even embalmed a few mice so that Mau would not go hungry on her journey to the afterworld.
Cemeteries discovered by archeologists in the nineteenth century were found to contain hundreds of thousands of cat mummies. People were practical during this era so they sold the tons of cat mummies to use as fertilizer.
According to stories, Egyptians’ excessive admiration for the cat played an important role in Egypt’s downfall. When the Persian king, Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, was besieging Pelusium in his classic invasion of Egypt, he threw live cats over the wall of the city.
This heartless hailstorm of sacred mousers sent the Egyptians into panic, and while they were distracted and unnerved their stronghold was overrun.
But conquerors were never fond of cats. Cambyses was especially a tyrant to cats. Mighty monarchs can’t stand the cat’s bland refusal to take any sort of loyalty or fealty oath. You know, a cat will easily leave you at a single hint of dislike. It wouldn´t come to you or cuddle with you when you call it unless it´s on the mood and it suits its interest. Thus the great people hated cats. Alexander the Great and Napoleon were cat-haters and Louis XVI of France took part in celebrations which high point was the torturing of cats by burning.
How and when cats spread around the world remains a puzzle. Apparently, however, their emigration from Egypt began shortly after the Egyptians made it illegal to export them.
Phoenician traders are sometimes credited with introducing cats to Italy. And undoubtedly pioneering cats began to jump ship at various ports as soon as their now-traditional friendship with sailors was established.
In any event, the cat was known in Greece and Rome before the Christian era. Once on the continent of Europe the Egyptian tabbies mated with the European wild cat, and then started the progress of cat race.
The remains of cats have been found at Roman villas in Great Britain. By the fifth century A.D. the cat was comfortably situated in China, and in Scotland and the Netherlands.
By the seventh century, the Prophet Mohammed was renowned, among other things, for his fondness for cats, and the legend persists that he once cut the sleeve off a gown he wished to wear rather than disturb the cat sleeping on it.
By the tenth century the cat was everywhere and greatly adored. In Saxony, Henry the Fowler ruled that anyone who injured a cat should pay a heavy fine. An early Prince of Wales, Howel Dda, enacted laws in 936 which set rates and values for cats of various ages and rat-catching abilities.
In the Far East Japanese started importing cats from China. Mao, as the Chinese called her, was so rare and so expensive at first that the Japanese decided that a cat-killer and his family would live under a curse for seven generations.
For a while the peaceful, hard-working cat found its place as man’s ally in his endless battle against the marauding mouse and rat.
On my next post I´ll cover how the cat fell from being an adored god to a persecuted evil witch.