That perhaps is the greatest appeal for us. Creatures of the night, who always maintain a secretive distance, allowing us to adore them, at a price
How many of you would admit to thinking that the cat is the nation’s number one pet? Can you honestly say that you haven’t felt that twinge of humility when you pass a cat, basking regally on some garden wall? These creatures always manage to make you feel as if they own you, instead of it’s being the other way round. We have a tendency to treat them like gods, at times, and there really isn’t anything new about that!.
You’d think that cats would have to feature in classical mythology, but they don’t. They are relative newcomers to humankind, having first appeared, it’s thought, about 5000 years ago. The Lion was venerated as the living embodiment of solar power in many cultures, but Egypt was the place where the domestic cat first gained a foothold.
It was in the Egyptian city of Memphis that the Lion-headed goddess Sekhmet was worshipped, and it is thought to be there that the wild Caffre cat – a species only slightly bigger than domestic breed today – is thought to have infiltrated human areas. Egyptians favoured them because they were good snake hunters, as well as rodent catchers.
It wasn’t long before these cats found their way into temples ( where it was always cooler), and wormed their way into the affections of the priesthood. The cat was deified, as a cult developed, and the city of Bubastis was built around the temple dedicated to the cat-goddess Bast. Over time, things changed somewhat, and the cats became domestic pets, though their place as gods was secure. When a house cat died, the whole family went into mourning, and the beast was buried, mummified, with great ceremony.
By the time the Romans went to Egypt, the lion-headed Sekhmet had been replaced by the cat as the
‘Eye of Ra’, most powerful of religious icons. It’s almost certain that the Romans took domesticated cats back to Europe with them, and their interbreeding with the local wild variety led to the diversity that we see today among breeds. Not that the cat has always had it as good as she did in Egypt.
By medieval times in Europe, the cat’s preference for people who would make the least demands on it, like the old and the lonely, became its undoing. Gradually, old beliefs in paganism began to associate the nocturnal cats with witchcraft. On the northern plains, cats were known as ‘corn-spirits’, and children were frightened off playing in crop fields by tales if the malevolent creatures living there!
In Picardy, a cat would be offered as a sacrifice at harvest time. The cat became, to the religious beliefs of the time, a creature of the devil, and by the time of the Spanish Inquisition, her fate was well and truly sealed. The first witchcraft trials in Europe took place in the 13th century. Black cats were by know regarded with dread, and many were killed on sight, those being the consorts of ‘witches’ burned alive, like their owners.
It was 1722 before the last trial for witchcraft took place, in Scotland. By that time, the Great Plague had cost many thousands of lives, mainly because there weren’t enough cats to keep down the rats and mice, who spread the disease. Cardinal Wolsey, the most hated man in England for many years, was the architect of bringing the cat back into favour. He took his own to the dinner table, and with him o the cathedral, when officiating at services,
The main things that re-united the public with their affection for cats were the stories of Dick Whittington and his wonderful cat, and the immortal childrens tale ‘Puss-in-boots’, written by Frenchman Perrault. The cat once again began to be regarded with affection by the public, and by 1871, when artist Harrison Weir concieved the idea for the first cat show at Crystal Palace, in London, cat fanciers had started to take a real interest.
Today there are over fifty breeds of pedigree cats, all highly prized by owners and admirers alike. The practice of cat-worship has almost turned full circle. Among the elite of the cat-breeding world, nothing can possibly be more sacred than their expensive, pampered charges, who enjoy all the benefits of being deities, without the trappings of the religion. Statues of Sekhmet and Bast, though, still sell well enough, even today.
So look with a more knowledgable eye, next time your cat demands food, or a stroking. Her family history is every bit as turbulent and varied as that of the humans whom she graces with her prescence! Perhaps there is, amongst cats, some kind of race memory, of a time when they were worshipped on high altars. They certainly retain that regal aloofness to this day, fiercely proud and independent.
That perhaps is the greatest appeal for us. Creatures of the night, who always maintain a secretive distance, allowing us to adore them, at a price. We can’t walk past a basking cat, its eyes closed in supreme indifference, without wanting to pay homage by stroking. Cats need us far less than we need them, but you can console yourself, at least, with the thought that there can’t be many gods in the world who are happy to use cat-flaps!