The late author, Terry Pratchett, is often quoted as saying, “In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” While dogs are more than happy to serve their masters, cats like to behave as though they are the masters of their household.
Cats have been living with humans for many millennia, since the beginning of human civilisation. Cats were important members of the household as they hunted down vermin. This important role would propel them to such a high status that some ancient civilisations even viewed them as gods.
From Egypt to China, there’s no shortage of myths and legends to be told about these furry felines.
The worship of cats in ancient Egypt is particularly well known, with temples and shrines dedicated to cats. Bast was a popular Egyptian goddess, often depicted as a cat or a cat-headed woman, who protected the family against disease and demons.
Egyptians took their religion seriously and harming a cat could result in execution. And according to the Greek historian Herodotus, if the house was on fire, Egyptians were more concerned about saving their cats than their other belongings.
When a cat died, a mourning period was observed and, in some cases, the deceased cat would be mummified.
However, this devotion to cats would be used against the Egyptians during an invasion by the Persian King Cambyses II.
During the siege of Pelusium, the Persians painted cats onto their shields and are said to have carried cats as they marched against the Egyptians.
The Egyptians were fearful of harming the animals and eventually surrendered the city to the Persians.
Cambyses is believed to have gloated about his victory by flinging cats into the faces of his vanquished foes afterwards.
The Persians themselves had some stories about the cat, particularly the Persian cat that is said to have been made with stars.
A Persian hero named Rustum rescued a magician from some bandits and the grateful man wished to reward his rescuer. Rustum said he desired nothing as he was already surrounded by the beauty of nature itself.
In response, the magician plucked two of the brightest stars in the sky and combined them with smoke and fire to gift Rustum with the first Persian cat.
The Prophet Muhammad was also particularly fond of cats, which he admired for their cleanliness. He had a favourite cat named Muezza that was said to have sat on his lap as the Prophet preached.
One story of Muezza saw the cat saving the Prophet from a venomous snake, while another tells of how Muhammad cut off a piece of his robe to avoid disturbing the cat snoozing on it.
In Islam, deliberately harming an animal is seen as a particularly severe crime.
Ancient China and Japan
In some local Chinese shops, you can find an adorable figurine of a cat waving its paw. While some people call it a “fortune cat”, it is actually called a “maneki-neko” in its native Japan, meaning “beckoning cat”.
In Japan, a popular legend centred around Tokyo’s Gotoku-ji temple is told about the cat. A feudal lord was riding through a thunderstorm when he saw the temple’s resident cat raising its paw as though beckoning him inside.
Curious, he went in and, sure enough, lightning struck the spot he had been standing on a few seconds earlier. In gratitude, the lord became the patron of the temple and, to this day, the temple is filled to the brim with cat figurines.
The fortune cat is believed to bring prosperity and good luck, and cats themselves were often kept by the nobility only. In neighbouring China, the cat goddess Li Shou was worshipped for her intervention in the pest control and fertility department.
There is a myth that tells of how cats were appointed by heaven to oversee the earth and were given the power of speech. Much to the annoyance of the heavenly authorities, however, the cats were less interested in managing the earth than they were in snoozing and playing with flowers.
The cats eventually suggested that humans take up the role instead of them, and so humans got the job instead.
Ancient Greece and Rome
Cats were kept as pets by the Greeks and Romans and were admired for their independent nature.
The Greeks also associated the cat with Hecate, the goddess of magic. According to myth, a maidservant named Galinthius foiled an attempt by Hera, the Queen Goddess, to kill the woman who was pregnant with the future Greek hero Hercules.
Enraged, Hera turned Galinthius into a cat and exiled her to the Underworld where she would serve the goddess Hecate as a servant. This was the foundation of the belief in medieval Europe that cats were the servants of witches.