“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman
Leslie Wu of Forbes Magazine beat my tagline today in wishing you a Happy New Year: Says Wu: “Although we’ll be ringing in the year of the fire monkey for Chinese New Year in February, it could be said that 2016 will be the year of the cat…Cat cafes are springing up across Canada, where those lacking feline companionship can reserve time with these most reserved of creatures. From Vancouver to Montreal, the stressed, lonely or just plain cat deprived can cuddle their woes away with adoptable new friends (in partnership with the local SPCA or Humane Society). Although cat cafes have been popping up globally, Canada’s entry into the market has been relatively recent.”
The domestic cat hasn’t always been in this position in society. In fact, the cat has had a complicated history with humanity since it first stepped into some Natufian’s rice granary and slammed its paw on a mouse. It hasn’t been easy for Felis silvestris sybica…
From Bastet to a witch’s familiar… from the Chesire Cat to Schrödinger’s Cat … from Japan’s Beckoning Cat to Hello Kitty … from Aristophanes’ “the cat did it” to That Darn Cat’s wily DC … from Pokemon’s Meowth to A Cat in Paris … from Puss in Boots and Tom Kitten to Grumpy Cat … Humanity has deified, vilified, coddled and persecuted the domestic cat. Both icon and sacrifice, the domestic cat has lived in paradox alongside humanity for centuries. Perhaps because it is itself a paradox.
When I observe my cat friend, furled out languidly, yet poised to leap, I recognize the unfettered wildcat deep in his soul. I recognize the anima mundi in his reflective eyes. The domestic cat embraces paradox: relaxed and alert; fierce and calm; tame and savage; mysterious and comforting. He embodies yin and yang.
The story of the domestic house cat’s evolving journey is subtle, complex and rife with contradiction. The domestic cat has evolved from wild hunter to opportunist predator and as partner alongside humanity as companion and symbol.
It began about 11 million years ago when the Pseudaelurus, a medium-sized catlike animal, roamed the steppes of central Asia. Although it went extinct in Asia, receding sea levels permitted the Pseudaelurus to migrate across what is now the Red Sea into Africa, where it gave rise to the caracal and the serval. The Pseudaelurus also crossed the Bering land bridge into North America and gave rise to the lynx, bobcat and puma. Isolated migrants to South America created the ocelot and Geoffroy’s cat. The big cats—lions, tigers, jaquars and leopards—evolved in Asia then spread to other parts of the world.
John Bradshaw, author of “Cat Sense”, writes that today’s domestic cat evolved some 8 million years ago in North America then migrated into Asia about 2 million years later. About 3 million years ago, they evolved into the species we know today, including the wildcat, the jungle cat and the sand cat—whose feet pads are covered in thick fur to protect them from the hot sand.
The first signs of integration with human communities occurred some 10,000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Widely regarded as the inventors of agriculture, the Natufians of 11,000 to 8,000 BCE inhabited the once highly productive Fertile Crescent that encompassed what is now known as Israel-Palestine, Jordan, southwestern Syria and southern Lebanon. Initially hunter-gatherers, the Natufians
started growing crops such as wild
cereals. When the climate changed perceptibly around 10,000 BCE, they adopted
intensive farming practices that required extensive storage. Attracted to the
bountiful harvested grain, the house mouse moved in. And right behind it came
the small wildcat. As agriculture spread, so did the “domesticated” wildcat,
exploiting a plentiful food source.
|A Cat in Paris|
Although several wildcats were associated with humanity, such as the fishing cat (Felis viverrina), the manul, and jaguarondi; the Arabian wildcat, Felis silvestris sybica, was identified through DNA testing as the “mother” cat of the domesticated cat we know today. Once so plentiful that it was considered a pest and hunted for food, this wildcat can still be found in remote areas of Europe, Africa, central and western Asia (where it may have first evolved). Felis silvestris comprises four subspecies: sylvestris (in Europe), lybica (Arabia), cafra (southern Africa), and ornata (Indian desert).
A cat was found buried alongside a human in a Neolithic grave in Cyprus from around 7,500 BCE. No burials of cats were recorded from the Middle East until thousands of years later. Was this an anomaly? Bradshaw thinks so: “a very special human and his prized tame wildcat.” In middle Egypt some 6,500 years ago a craftsman was buried with a gazelle (probably placed there for food in the afterlife) and a cat. Perhaps a pet? In Abydos, a tomb dating about 4,000 years ago, was uncovered that contained seventeen cat skeletons accompanied by seventeen pots—of milk? Egyptians began to paint and carve pet cats around then. A set of hieroglyphs—called “miw”—were created just for the domestic cat. Miw was adopted as a name for girls, suggesting how integrated the domestic cat had become in Egyptian society. Cats were depicted sitting in baskets or under a person’s chair (usually a female), and sometimes with a fish.
|Miss Pussy Cat's Tea Party|
Egypt doted on cats and worshipped them as god-animals. Bradshaw writes that the sun god, Ra, was occasionally depicted with the head of a cat and referred to as “Miuty.” Cat deities include: Pakhet, a lioness deity; and Sekhmet. Bastet was most associated with the domestic cat. She was the keeper of hearth and home, protector of women’s secrets, guardian against evil spirits and disease, and the goddess of cats. Bastet was commonly depicted as a woman with a lion’s head and carrying a serpent on her forehead. Later versions of Bastet more closely resembled a domestic cat as she became associated more with playfulness, fertility, motherhood, and female sexuality. Bastet or Bast was often associated with Isis (Ba-Ast translates to “soul of Isis”) and cats commonly found refuge in the temples of Isis. Fierceness and calm describes the goddess Isis as well as the cat. One theory of domestic cat distribution suggests that they followed the spread of temples of Isis. It was illegal to harm an Egyptian cat or to take it out of Egypt.
Joshua J. Mark, professor of philosophy at Marist College, New York, recounts how the Egyptian’s devotion to the cat was exploited by the Persians during the Battle of Pelusium (525 BCE) in which Cambyses II of Persia defeated the forces of the Egyptian Pharoah Psametik III to conquer Egypt. “Knowing of the Egyptian’s love for cats,” writes Mark, “Cambyses had his men round up various animals, cats chiefly among them, and drive the animals before the invading forces toward the fortified city of Pelusium on the Nile. The Persian soldiers painted images of cats on their shields, and may have held cats in their arms, as they marched behind the wall of animals. The Egyptians, reluctant to defend themselves for fear of harming the cats (and perhaps incurring the death penalty should they kill one), and demoralized at seeing the image of Bastet on the enemy’s shields, surrendered the city and let Egypt fall to the Persians.”
|Van Gogh cat by Susan Herbert|
The Egyptians are also responsible for the name “cat”, which comes from the North African word for the animal, quattah. Most Europeans use variations on this word: French, chat; Swedish, katt; German, katze; Italian, gatto; Spanish, gato. The colloquial word for a cat, “puss” or “pussy”, is also associated with Egypt in that it derives from the word Pasht, another name for Bastet.
The Indian cat goddess, Sastht, was greatly revered much in the same way as Bastet.
According to Mark, a Persian tale claims that the cat was created magically: “The great Persian hero Rustum, out on campaign, one night saved a magician from a band of thieves. Rustum offered the older man the hospitality of his tent and, as they sat outside under the stars, enjoying the warmth of a fire, the magician asked Rustum what he wished for as a gift in repayment for saving the man’s life. Rustum told him that there was nothing he desired since everything he could want, he already had before him in the warmth and comfort of the fire, the scent of the smoke and the beauty of
the stars overhead. The magician then took a handful of
smoke, added flame, and brought down two of the brightest stars, kneading them
together in his hands and blowing on them. When he opened his hands toward
Rustum, the warrior saw a small, smoke-grey kitten with eyes bright as the
stars and a tiny tongue, which darted like the tip of flame. In this way, the
first Persian cat came to be created as a token of gratitude to Rustum. The
prophet Muhammed was also very fond of cats. According to legend, the `M’
design on the forehead of the tabby cat was made when the prophet blessed his
favourite cat by placing his hand on its head.”
|Van Gogh cat "after" by Susan Herbert|
Cats are thought to have been brought to Europe by Phoenician traders who smuggled them out of Egypt. By about 2,400 years ago, domestic cats became popular in other parts of the world such as Greece and Italy. Paintings typically showed cats unleashed and relaxing in the presence of people. They also appeared on gravestones, obviously as the pets of the people buried there. Greeks called them aielouros or “waving tail.” The same occurred in Rome, where cats typically appeared with women (men more commonly appeared with a dog). Felicula (little kitten) became a common name for girls.
As in Egypt, the domesticated cat became associated with goddesses in Greece and Italy, particularly Artemis or Diana. Ovid’s tale of mythical war between gods and giants, recounts how Diana escaped to Egypt and changed into a cat to escape capture. The cat was associated with Hecate, the goddess of death, darkness and witches. In the myth, Hera, enraged by the behaviour of a maidservant, transformed her into a cat and sent her to the underworld to serve Hecate.
|Freya and chariot cats|
In early Europe cats were not yet persecuted. Norse mythology depicted feral cats pulling the chariot of Freya, the goddess of fertile life and Nature. In Ireland and Scotland cats were deemed magical—in a good way.
The Pheonician traders may also have introduced to the rest of Europe the Greek association of the cat with Hecate. The association of cats with darkness, transformation, the underworld and witchcraft—and paganism in general—would lead to their persecution in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Negative consequences of deification occurred both in Egypt and in Greece: in the form of cat sacrifice (and mummification). The ancient Celtic tradition of burying or killing cats to bring good luck also spread across Europe. European cities celebrated a Festival of Cats in which cats were thrown into a sac and suspended over a fire; their screams supposedly warded off evil spirits. In Ypres during Kattenstoet, cats were thrown from the top of a tower to save the town. The last time a live cat was thrown off the bell tower at Ypres, Belgium was as recent as 1817. The cat festival still occurs in Ypres using plush cats and a mock witch burning.
As the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages and Christianity established itself in Europe
in the 12th
and 13th centuries, cats suffered from their affiliation with pagan beliefs, which
were considered cults and connected with Satan. The Catholic Church tried to
extirpate domestic cats in continental Europe. On June 13th of 1233,
Pope Gregory published his Vox in Rama
wherein cats—particularly black cats—were demonized. Millions were tortured and
killed, along with their female owners, who were considered witches. Some
historians argue—though this has been disputed—that the aggressive killing of
cats allowed the urban rodent and associated flea populations to thrive, which brought
in the Bubonic Plague of the 1300s. Although also susceptible to the plague,
enough cats must have survived both plague and human abuse to enjoy a better
|Katentoet 2015 in Ypres, Belgium|
Elsewhere, the cats faired better. Bradshaw writes of the Sultan Baibars, ruler of Egypt and Syria, who founded the first sanctuary for homeless cats in Cairo in 1280.
|Cat lounging on a park bench|
Today, in North America and Europe and other parts of the world, the domestic and feral cat seem to enjoy a renaissance existence in which they are generally treated well or at least left alone.
In Japan, a cat may find itself doted on to the point of “torture”. “Hello Kitty, arguably Japan’s most famous export, is only the tip of the iceberg,” wrote La Carmina in her blog post of 2013. “Take a walk around Tokyo, and you’ll see cat faces on every product imaginable...” from bowler hats with pointy ears, kitty petting zoos and Chesire cat pizza. Japanese folklore give cats a protective power that symbolize good fortune.
Marks writes about Japan’s “Beckoning Cat” (the maneki neko figure of the cat with one
raised paw), which represents the goddess of mercy. According to legend, a
cat sitting outside of the temple of Gotoku-ji raised her paw to acknowledge
the emperor who was passing by. Attracted by the cat’s gesture, the emperor
entered the temple just as lightning struck the very spot where he had been
standing; the cat had saved his life and was accorded great honours. The
Beckoning Cat image is thought to bring good luck when given as a gift and
remains a very popular present in Japan. Several islands off Japan have been
called “Cat Island”. On Tashirojima
Island in Ishinomaki City, cats come to welcome the boats at the port. Many
wait patiently around the fishing port for fishermen to return. Neko-jinja located in the central area
of the island enshrines a “cat god” in hope of a good catch and safety of the
fishermen. Aoshima Island in the Shikoku area is also known as “Cat Island”.
The catch-phrase of this island is “15 residents and 100 cats.”
|Cat Island, Japan|
In Toronto, where I presently live, TOT the Cat Café, a coffee house, lounge and place to see and play with cats, has opened in November 2015 on College Street. The café has a lounge where patrons may interact with up to ten cats from the Toronto Humane Society (who are obviously up for adoption!). Friends and business partners, Kenneth Chai and Scott Tan are the cat fans behind the new café. The duo quit their jobs in Saskatoon and moved to Toronto, investing all their own money to realize their vision — a place that would offer both lattes and friendly felines. TOT is the first cat café in Toronto but not in Canada. There are several in Quebec, including Le Café Des Chats in Montreal (opened in 2014) and one in Chelsea, Quebec (Siberian Cat Café in late 2015) and Vancouver’s Catfé on West Pender, which opened in mid-December of 2015. Toronto’s Kitty Cat Café—self-professed “Purr Therapy and Coffee Lounge” in addition to pet adoption—will open soon.
|Cat sleeping in a pot|
On the West Coast cat cafés exist in Portland, Oregon, San José, California, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The idea was born in Taiwan in 1998, and spread to Japan, where it's estimated there are now nearly 150 cat cafés, and Europe (e.g., Vienna).
Bradshaw, John. 2013. “Cat Sense”. Basic Books, New York, NY. 307pp.
Mark, Joshua J. 2012. “Cats in the Ancient World”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia, 17 November, 2012. Online: http://www.ancient.eu/article/466/
Wu, Leslie. 2016. "Cat Cafes Prowl Across Canada". Forbes Magazine. Online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/lesliewu/2015/12/31/cat-cafes-prowl-across-canada/