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The cat in History, Legend and Folklore

Updated on June 9, 2013
You are human but I am cat. That makes me the boss. Open the food NOW!!!
You are human but I am cat. That makes me the boss. Open the food NOW!!! | Source

Long ago cats domesticated humans and still keep them as their pets. Some cats own several human families, casually dropping in regularly for tributes of food, warmth, affection and, if the humans are honoured enough, a bed for the night. Psychologists say the cat is as intelligent as the average two year old child, forgetting that children are frequently the only ones who can open child-proof containers.

Cats were sacred in Ancient Egypt, regarded as a zodiacal animal in at least one form of Asian mythology, pulled the chariot of the Norse goddess Freya (I see a possible, non causal link to one of the Tarot trumps here) and were treated as witches familiars in medieval Europe where torture of cats was a regular occurrence – along with the torture of humans who dared to think what the church had decreed heresy. The cat is a night creature, unlike the dog, perhaps because it can see in light one sixth of what humans need to see.

Dogs and cats have both been regarded as psychic but dogs appear more often than cats in those group photos that show a deceased pet. Perhaps more would have appeared if the photographer had included a tin opener or a bowl of fish, for the cat is a practical animal, not a pack animal like the dog. Cats and dogs seem equally gifted with clairvoyance and precognition, and possibly telepathy.

Ancient History

A genetic study in 2007 revealed that all house cats are descended from as few as five female African Wildcats(Felis silvestris lybica) c. 8000 BCE, in the Middle East [1] although the common ancestor of all “domesticated” cats lived in the middle east about 130,000 years ago[2]. By comparison all humans are considered to have been descended from a single female given the name of Lucy by the originators of the theory. It is not clear however whether all life descended from a single proto amoeba.

In 2004 a human and a cat skeleton were found close together in a Neolithic grave, dated around 7500BC, excavated in Shillourokambos, Cyprus. The cat is large and closely resembles the African wildcat(Felis silvestris lybica), rather than present-day domestic cats. This combined with the genetic studies mentioned above suggests that cats were domesticated in the Middle East in the Fertile Crescent around the time of the development of agriculture and then brought to Cyprus and Egypt.

The date at which cats first domesticated humans is still a matter of debate, but house cats were known to the Romans and the Germanic tribes. It seems likely that cats started associating with humans by keeping rodent populations in grain stores down.

Somehow cats became sacred in Ancient Egypt, possibly elsewhere, though we seem only to have evidence of this in Egypt, with the cat headed goddess Bast as the prime example, and some ancient religions believed cats to be exalted souls, companions or guides for humans, rendered mute so they cannot influence human decisions. Which makes them fairly useless for that purpose, though given the way humans have misused the words of their greatest spiritual leaders perhaps it is a good thing.

The ever feminine cat.

The cat seems always to have been associated with the female, herself more deadly than the male. The word “cat” seems to have come from an Afro-asiatic word denoting the female of the African Wildcat. An alternative name is puss or Pussy: a subject of much schoolboy humour, but the origin of this term is unknown.

The female association of the cat is clear in popular culture with terms like cat-house, cat-fight, sex-kitten, and a woman who is delicately and cuttingly rude may be referred to as “catty”. A female cat is called a Molly or Queen ( a term now applied to gay men) and in 18th century Britain a gay brothel was called a Molly House.

The King of the cats in folklore

Folklorists recognise a theme in which a man sees a parade of cats carrying a coffin, and one tells him to tell “Tim Tom that Tom Tim is dead” or a similar phrase. For whatever reason the man does not dismiss this as a hallucination. When the man returns home he tells his wife what he saw at which point, before his wife can hit him with a frying pan for being drunk, their cat, sleeping before the fire says “What, old Tom dead, then I am the King of the Cats” and vanishes up the chimney in a stream of sparks.

In another variant a man kills a cat and before it dies it says to him “be proud for you have killed the King of the Cats”. When the man gets home he again tells his wife and their cat tears his throat out to avenge its king.

There is also a long story from Ireland [3] which has the king of the cats fighting the King of Birds till a third party turns both into stone.

A real king of cats?

In a letter to Fortean Times 51 (winter 1998) Richard Furlong describes descending into a courtyard from the roof of a building he was renovating. The courtyard gave the impression of hardly ever being visited by humans and was occupied by a number of cats, all of whom seemed to be adults.

Six to eight feral cats, skinny and in poor condition were sitting in a semi circle facing a much larger cat, apparently well fed and bigger than any domestic cat Furlong had ever seen, though not dramatically so. Furlong had the impression they had been sitting motionless till he disturbed them.

The feral cats immediately scattered but the central cat just turned and looked at him, not even bothering to get up. Furlong felt the cat's lack of fear meant he was in danger and escaped over a wall into the street.

I have not heard of any similar case either before or after this. It is either totally fabricated or true as stated. Without more such cases speculation is futile.

Psychic Cats

Fortean Times 55 Letters: A reader from Exeter notes that in the second world war the night before an air raid that almost destroyed the city she saw an endless stream of cats padding in orderly fashion out of the city. Perhaps they were psychic, perhaps they heard bombers well before humans could. There are other stores of cats warning their owners an air raid was coming,

A cat called Oscar once frequented a nursing home staying with dying patients, a geriatrician and assistant professor at Brown University, said that five years of records showed Oscar rarely erring, sometimes proving medical staff at the New England nursing home wrong in their predictions over which patients were close to death. Perhaps the cat, generally unsociable, is or was psychic, or was just able to detect a slightly different smell from patients near death. Again without more cases speculation is probably futile.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of the psychic powers of cats but not much real research. To go further would mean eliminating mundane explanations such as strange smells, sounds humans cannot hear etc to reveal a core of unexplainable cases. One thing is sure, there will be no laboratory research for the cat is more independent than humans and would not put up with it. Even for a plate of fish.

The Wrap

There is a saying, attributed I believe to Winston Churchill to the effect that “Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you, but pigs are equals”. Cats domesticated humans and looked after the grain stores their pets accumulated, they managed to become gods in Egypt and now stroll in and out of people's lives. One seems to have become a guide for the dying.

The old legends of the King of the cats seem to be backed up by at least one incident that could be interpreted as supporting it.

In case it interests you I was born in the year of the cat.


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