The cat has been a working animal, god, devil and now a treasured companion. How did our favourite feline evolve to become the unofficial mascot of the internet?
And was the cat always more useful as a human support system than as a mousecatcher? Let’s take a look at the History of the beloved cat.
History of the beloved cat: The cat as god
The cat was thought to be first domesticated in ancient Egypt but there may have been beloved cats 9,500 years ago (7,500 BC). Cats as pets are recorded from the 12th Dynasty on, but they didn’t usually get pet names. Typically, they were called “cat”.
The word for cat is ‘mjw’ in ancient Egyptian, pronounced rather adorably as ‘mioo’! Little girls were often fondly called “Miut”, which literally means “female cat”.
There are exceptions such as the cat named “Nedjem” (“sweetie“) and another named “Tai Miuwette” (“the little mewer”) who was the companion of crown prince Thutmose (eldest son of Amenhotep lll and brother of Akhenaten).
By the fifth century B.C. when at least two Egyptian Gods were portrayed as cats, feline popularity was at an all-time high. Hundreds were mummified and placed in special coffins for the journey into the afterlife.
When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows. The cat was mummified and buried along with supplies such as milk, mice and rats.
At Beni Hasan, there were so many cat mummies that at the end of the 19th century, a total of 19 tons of mummified Egyptian cats were shipped to England to be used as fertilizer.
There were strong reactions if cats were killed. At the height of God/cat Bast’s popularity killing a cat, even accidentally, was punishable by death. The classical scholar Diodorus Siculus wrote :
“Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.”
History of the beloved cat: A cat for every ship
In Edward Ill’s reign (1327-1377) it was required by law that every merchant vessel have a cat on board. Many of the ships were transporting wool and grain so probably the cat’s job was to protect these goods from the rodent population.
Even Viking traders in northern Germany around the 8th to 11th century travelled with cats to control rodents.
For the purposes of shipwrecks, the ship cat was considered part of the crew. English common law decreed that the cargo of a wrecked vessel was forfeited to any finders unless a man or cat should escape alive!
Shore dwellers were very tempted to ensure that no man or cat should escape from a wreck alive.
History of the beloved cat: Husband keeps the cat
From the (admittedly scarce) evidence of Medieval times the cat was considered first and foremost a walking mouse trap. However, Howel Dda, a tenth century Prince of south central Wales, issued a law for the protection of the domestic cat. No wonder he was known as “Howell the Good”.
He set out the value of cats :
1. The worth of a kitten from the night it is kittened until it has opened its eyes is a legal penny.
2. And from the time, until it shall kill mice, two legal penny.
3. And after it shall kill mice, four legal pence.
Three animals had the same worth: a filly (young female horse usually under the age of four), a calf and a cat.
There were penalties for stealing or killing a cat. Anyone who stole or killed one of the cats that guarded the prince’s granary had to give up a ewe with its fleece and lamb, or a certain amount of wheat. The quantity of wheat was defined in a rather bizarre way : enough to fully cover the dead cat suspended by its tail with its nose touching the ground.
Further, if a married couple separated and there was a division of goods, including a single cat, it was the husband’s prerogative to keep the cat.
History of the beloved cat: The cat as demon
The medieval times was, in general, a bad time to be a cat. They were set on fire, hurled and battered – and those were the family fun days.
Cats were associated with witches. They featured as ingredients in both witches’ brews and folk medicine. To make yourself invisible, at least in Brittany, you were told to eat the still-warm brain of a just-killed cat. In more than one folktale women who consumed cats in stews gave birth to kittens.
Blame Pope Gregory IX, who may have kicked off centuries of cat-baiting when he decided in the early 13th century that Lucifer was half-cat.
In “Vox in Rama” a black cat is addressed as “master” and the incarnate devil is half-man half-cat.
Even the useful skill of catching mice was turned against cats by medieval writers, often comparing the way cats caught mice with how the devil could catch souls. For example, William Caxton wrote “the devyl playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous”
Medieval cat “sports” included cat-burning, beating the cat out of the barrel and head-butting!
History of the beloved cat: In a bottle like a cat
Motif for the former Cat and Fiddle inn on Lombard Street, City of London. Photograph: Londonstills.com / Alamy/Alamy
At country fairs a popular sport was shooting at a cat suspended in a basket. Shakespeare in his play Much Ado About Nothing refers to a practice similar to this:
If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me.
Basically, the unfortunate cat was shoved in a bag, basket or leather bottle, and hung to the branch of a tree as a mark for bowmen to shoot at.
Interestingly, cats suspended in baskets evolved by the eighteenth century into a merchants sign. This particular sign was popular with booths on the Thames when that river froze over in 1739/40 and in 1789 when the river froze over again.
Some of these signs breathed – including cats in baskets, rats and parrots in cages and vultures tethered to wine shacks, often with bells around their necks.
When these “live signs” expired, they were sometimes stuffed to ensure brand continuity.
History of the beloved cat: Obituaries for cats
Daniel Defoe noted that by 1665 there was hardly a home in urban London that did not have one cat and many had five or six! These remarks, written at the beginning of the eighteenth century, show us the change in attitude toward the cat.
Revealingly, epitaphs for cats started making their way into the magazines of the times. One of the earliest, from the 1733 edition of the London Magazine, was written by a poet lamenting the loss of his cat :
Oppressed with grief,
In heavy strains I mourn
The partner of my studies from me torn
How shall I sing?
What numbers shall I choose?
For in my favorite cat I’ve lost my muse …
In acts obscene she never took delight
No catterwawls disturbed our sleep by night. ..
She never thirsted for the chicken’s blood;
Her teeth she only used to chew her food;
Harmless as satires which her master writes,
A foe to scratching,
and unused to bites.
She in the study was my constantinate;
There we together many evenings sat.
Whene’er I felt my towering fancy fail,
I stroked her head, her ears, her back and tail;
And, as I stroked, improved my dying song
From the sweet notes of her melodious tongue.
Her purrs and mews so evenly kept time,
She purred in metre and she mewed in rhyme…
My cat is gone, ab!
Never to return
Now in my study all the tedious night,
Alone I sit, and unassisted write;
Look often around
And view the numerous labors ..;
Those quires of words arrayed in pompous rhyme;
Which brav’d the jaws of all devouring time
Now undefended and unwatched by cats,
Are doomed a victim to the teeth of rats.
Beware the Cat
“I knewe these things wil seem mervelous to many men, that Cats should understand and speak, have a governour among themselves, and be obedient to their Lawes…” (Beware the Cat by William Baldwin, 1570.)
Cat lovers may not be surprised to learn that the first novel written in English features cats as the main characters. “Beware The Cat” was written by the printer’s assistant and poet William Baldwin (sometimes called Gulielmus Baldwin) in early 1553.
The novel was actually a subtle but pervasive anti-Catholic satire.
The story is based on the premise that cats are capable of speech and reasoning, and that some men can learn to understand them. Sadly, we need a complicated magic spell.
You can read the entire novel here.
History of the beloved cat: Lolcat
Harry Whittier Frees – Found by Tracy Angulo in a Seattle antique store., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7633416
As early as the 1870’s, photographers were posing cats in weird and cute situations, often adding amusing text.
The first recorded use of the term “lolcat”, a mash-up of “laugh out loud” (LOL) and the word “cat”, is from the anonymous imageboard 4chan. Anecdotal evidence puts the origin of “Caturday” and many of the images now known as “lolcats” back in early 2005.
In December 2014, it became official with the word lolcat entered the Oxford English Dictionary, appearing in its online version.
While the word might be new, the concept is certainly not. Even in the bad old days,Medieval manuscripts are chock-full of cats preening, grooming, playing and basically acting all Lolcat.
We can neber haz enuf of deez capshioned pics of cuddlie kittehs.
Main Source for this article and a great read : A Most Convenient Relationship: The Rise of the Cat as a Valued Companion Animal
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.