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The Symbolism of Cats Throughout History

Updated on May 10, 2012
Depiction of the ancient Egyptian goddess, Bast
Depiction of the ancient Egyptian goddess, Bast | Source
Norse goddess, Freya, on her chariot that is drawn by her cats
Norse goddess, Freya, on her chariot that is drawn by her cats | Source
My cat, 'Stray-Stray', who is anything BUT the devil
My cat, 'Stray-Stray', who is anything BUT the devil | Source

Out of all pets and animals in general, cats have been one of the most intriguing to me. I have had the privilege of growing up with cats, and from observing the grace, cunning, and amazing agility that they possess, they have sometimes appeared as almost supernatural to me.

Throughout history, cats have also been believed to be supernatural beings and have been thought of as gods to being the devil in disguise. The following is a list of what people felt was the cat's true identity.

Cats as gods

The Ancient Egyptians had two cat goddesses, the first one being Mafdet, who had the head of a lion and represented justice. Eventually Bast replaced Mafdet, and over time her image softened to having the appearance of a domestic cat rather than a lion. Bast became the goddess of fertility, protection, and motherhood.

The Ancient Egyptians showed their respect to the cat not only while the animal was living, but even after its death. As they did with people, they mummified cats when they died. The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that after the death of a cat, the family would go into mourning as they would when a human relative died and would usually shave off their eyebrows to show their loss.

Cats were considered so sacred that if someone killed one, even if they did it accidentally, the individual would often be punished with the death penalty.

Cats as spiritual guardians

Particularly the Pagans who existed prior to the Christian age believed that cats were spiritual guardians that were sent to protect people from evil deities and energies. Others who felt similarly about cats were the Vikings as well as the Norse, who often traveled by ship and brought along cats to catch rodents and to bring fortune to those on board. Even Freyja, the Norse goddess of beauty, love, and fertility is depicted as riding a chariot that is drawn by cats.

Cats as the devil

During the medieval ages, cats were thought of in a much more negative light. They were thought to possess evil powers and were believed to really be agents of the devil or witches. People who kept cats were also believed to be witches, and if they were caught, both the individual and the animal would be put to death.

If a village or town came across a cat, the people would often beat or kill it, to the point where cats in Europe were almost at the point of extinction. The Black Plague, which was spread by fleas carried by infected rats, is believed to have occurred because there were no cats to hunt the rats. As a result, their numbers multiplied dramatically.

Once the practice of witch hunting disappeared, the cat population returned, and they once again became loved and popular household pets.

Cats as omens

Throughout time, a variety of superstitions have been created that have been associated with cats, and therefore their presence had been thought to foretell both positive and negative events to come (see also, Feline Legends). Besides the well-known myth of black cats being bad luck, others have included that a sneezing cat will bring good luck to all who hear it and that a white cat that is seen at night is foretelling misfortune.





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    • profile image

      Damon 4 years ago

      I hate cats I'm god not no dam cats u guys are trippen

    • profile image

      Chris Hugh 5 years ago

      My black cat Twitch woke me up when I stopped breathing. He's pretty trustworthy:) I wrote a Hub about him.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      My dad hated cats - he thought they were sneaky and didn't trust them, even though we always had one when I was growing up. Voted up and thanks for the info.

    • natures47friend profile image

      natures47friend 5 years ago from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand.

      I enjoyed this hub. I never like hearing about how naïve medieval folk were. I have grown up with cats too and have two at the moment....opposites, but equally clever.

      Voted up .

    • jennzie profile image
      Author

      jennzie 5 years ago from Lower Bucks County, PA

      Cathleena- I hope your cat did bring you some good luck. I'm glad she was able to be cured of her 'sniffles' though. :-)

      Radhikasree- I'm glad you learned something from this. Thanks for commenting!

      Editorsupremo- Thanks for the additional information. It's amazing how different cultures and countries can interpret and view things differently, including the symbolism of a black cat.

    • editorsupremo profile image

      editorsupremo 5 years ago from London, England

      Fascinating hub. I love cats and also grew up with them. When I read about the negative points about cats, I thought that is so true about witches. They are always depicted in pictures with a magical broom and the obligatory cat as their side.

      So far as black cats being bad luck, did you know that in Scotland, seeing a black cat on New Year's Day was good luck for that year and that a strange black cat's arrival to the home signifies prosperity?

    • radhikasree profile image

      Radhika Sreekanth 5 years ago from Mumbai,India

      I learned the significance of cats in different cultures from this hub. Thanks for sharing.

    • Cathleena Beams profile image

      Cathleena Beams 5 years ago from Lascassas, Tennessee

      I'm very glad to see that a sneezing cat brings good luck to all that hear it since my Jolee does occasionally sneeze. When I first got her as a kitten she had a cold and I joked about her being allergic to me. The vet put her on antibiotics for an upper respiratory infection and that cured her at the time.

      Great hub!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      "I also wrote another hub a while ago about a cat that resided in a nursing home that was able to accurately predict when someone was about to die!"

      Not so strange really. Our pets can detect when we are not feeling well. They are sensitive creatures and often show more empathy than our counterpart humans do.

      Interesting hub about the symbolism of cats. I wrote a hub about Halloween and a Black Cat story for the entire year. It is based upon our personal experience with one that we named Mama Kitty. She had a horrible start in life probably just because of her color and some terrible people.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • jennzie profile image
      Author

      jennzie 5 years ago from Lower Bucks County, PA

      Thanks for commenting, Vampsdes! I agree that even to this day, cats are still sometimes portrayed particularly in movies to possess some supernatural abilities. However, this may actually be a fact as I also wrote another hub a while ago about a cat that resided in a nursing home that was able to accurately predict when someone was about to die!

    • Vampsdes profile image

      Vampsdes 5 years ago from Missouri, US

      You still see many movies where cats are shown as having supernatural detecting abilities. That the cat's image has changed so much over the years, and is still depicted as something that can forewarn it's owner to paranormal activity to this day. There are countless horror movies, where the cat is the first one to note the presence of a ghost or demon by hissing fiercely then fleeing! The death penalty bestowed to those who accidentally killed a cat just shows how revered they were! Voted up, very interesting!