The History of Cats — Cats in the Ancient World

A calico cat with pyramids and Sphynx in the background.
A calico cat with pyramids and Sphynx in the background. Photography ©Silas Manhood | Alamy Stock Photo.

When you think of ancient history, your head probably fills with images of Greek mathematicians, Roman conquerors and Egyptian pyramids. But our beloved feline friends have also played an important role throughout ancient times, starring in folk tales, assisting goddesses in tricky situations and even persuading the prophet Muhammad to grant them the ability to always land on their feet. Let’s take a look at the history of cats, specifically in the ancient world, in places like ancient Egypt, Japan, India and beyond.

The history of cats in ancient Egypt

Sekhmet. Photography ©Tanys04 | Thinkstock.

The history of cats in ancient Egypt goes back to Bastet, a feline warrior goddess who was depicted as being half cat and half woman. She was entrusted with no lesser duty than to protect her country. This idea of cats as protectors was built on with the legend of Mafdet, who warded off danger by taking out a devious serpent with the use of her claws, while Sekhmet was a fearsome lion-headed goddess whom ancient Egyptians had to appease before she wreaked havoc and destroyed all of humanity. (So, sort of like a cat left alone with a fresh roll of toilet paper.) To this day, the Sphinx in Giza fuses a human head with a big cat body and embraces the idea of guardianship as he decides who can enter sacred temples.

Asked about the history of cats in ancient Egypt, Yekaterina Barbash, who curated the Divine Felines exhibition that ran at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago, told me Egyptians observed the way cats were both “caring toward their young” while maintaining hunter instincts. “Domestic cats were not only cute and cuddly, but they would protect the home by killing mice and hunting snakes,” she says. “They were protecting families. These were the basic qualities the Egyptians wanted to associate with divinities.”

The history of cats in ancient Japan

Guards of Buddhist Scriptures with cats.
Guards of Buddhist Scriptures with cats. Photography ©robertharding | Alamy Stock Photo.

While cats were protecting the homestead in Egypt, over in Japan they were being entrusted with guarding Buddhist scriptures being transported to the country on ships from China. “Cats were basically trying to keep mice and rats away from those important objects,” explains Miwako Tezuka, the curator of the 2015 Life Of Cats art exhibition at the Japan Society in New York City. “So they came to Japan with this revered image.”

Cats quickly became the stars of folk tales during the sixth century — and even appeared in horror stories. In one famous yarn, a cat-shaped stone situated along the 53 Stations in Tokaido represents a woman who was unjustly murdered. Naturally, at night the stone becomes alive and engages in what Tezuka calls “fights between this monster cat lady and warriors who were traveling through that region.”

The history of cats in ancient Europe

Freyja with cats.
Freyja with cats. Photography ©Ivy Close Images | Thinkstock.

Continuing with the daredevil adventures and the history of cats, Nordic mythology features Freya, a multi-tasking character who managed to become the goddess of fertility, love, sex, war, magic and, yep, cats. After Thor woke her up from a catnap one day by tearing around in a chariot pulled by bleating goats, she yelled at him. As Thor continued his cruise at a quieter pace, he chanced across a couple of kittens named Bygul and Trjegul in a tree. He gifted them to Freya, and she used them to pull her own chariot, with local farmers leaving out milk for the cats in a bid to be blessed with a healthy harvest. The felines are considered to be the original Norwegian Forest Cats, and the breed quickly popped up on Viking ships as ratters and garnered a reputation for warding off trolls in fairy tales.

Taking a cue from Freya, Ceridwen was a Welsh goddess who managed to birth a son, Morfran, who looked like a giant black crow. Using a magic cauldron and two white cats who acted as her concierges, she rounded up the necessary ingredients and simmered a potion for a year and a day that would cure Morfran. But things went awry, and a kid called Gwion benefited from the potion. So Ceridwen changed into a Greyhound, an otter, a hawk and a hen to eventually gobble down Gwion once he’d become a grain of corn. As this shape-shifting drama unfolded, the cats simply sat there and watched as if gazing at birds out of a window.

The history of cats in ancient India

A story in the Mahābhārata.
A story in the Mahābhārata. Photography ©Dinodia Photos | Alamy Stock Photos.

Further folklore shenanigans took place in 4th century India. Cats were initially appreciated for their ability to ward off vermin and snakes, but in the Mahābhārata (a famous 100,000-verse epic poem), a feline called Lomasa teams up with a mouse named Palita to both escape from death while philosophizing about the nature of power. The god Indra also donned a feline disguise to escape from the husband of a maid whom he successfully put the moves on.

There’s a theory that the tale Puss in Boots might have been adapted from an ancient Indian folk story.

The history of cats in ancient Arabia

The greatest kitty moment in the history of cats involves felines in Islam, where Muhammad was a prototype cat guy who outlawed the harming and killing of felines. His cat of choice was Muezza, who had a habit of sleeping on his prayer robe. So smitten was Muhammad with Muezza, that he cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than wake the cat when she decided to take a nap on it.

Collectively repaying the favor, a cat belonging to Muhammad’s ally Abu Hurairah intervened and saved Muhammad from a snake’s attack. In return, Muhammad petted the cat along his back while granting him a very special ability — the knack of always landing on his feet. It’s a move that cats are still pulling off to this day.

Phillip Mlynar spends his days writing about cats, hip-hop and food, often while being pestered by his rescue, a mackerel tabby named Mimosa. His work appears in Vice, Pitchfork, the Village Voice, Bandcamp and Catster. He’s won various awards at the Cat Writers’ Association Communication Contests, some of which are proudly on display at his local dive bar in New York City.

Thumbnail: Photography ©Silas Manhood | Alamy Stock Photo. 

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10 thoughts on “The History of Cats — Cats in the Ancient World”

  1. Thanks, Phillip Mlynar, for this wonderful article. Let me add that cats and other felid species possess the same anatomy: a powerful and flexible body, quick reflexes, sharp teeth, and retractable claws for hunting small prey. They also possess an excellent sense of smell and night vision. Communication between cats includes sings and/or purrs, trills, hisses, growls, and grunts as well as cat-specific body language.

  2. The Sphinx was a depiction of Anubis the dog headed God it’s inscribed on the side of the Sphinx and is much older than the pyramids and the human head was originally a dog’s head sorry but your history is grossly outdated!

  3. Pingback: History a'la Carte for International Cat Day 2019 ~ Random Bits of Fascination

  4. Pingback: Himalayan Cat Breed→Size, Appearance & Personality

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  6. I found out that cats domesticated themselves!! They liked the idea that humans rewarded good mousing. Kitties have been with us ever since. Muezza, forever!!!

  7. Sadly, the reality is that in the Egypt’s later period (4th century B.C to 30 A.D.), millions of cats were bred specifically to be sacrificed to the gods. The neck was broken and the body mummified and many were buried underground or placed in catacombs.

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