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A feline history, from Bastet to royal Persians

In his delightful new book, B.N. Goswamy strays from the world of Indian art to explore the place accorded to cats in our society

‘A Cat With A Stolen Crayfish’. Courtesy: Credit: Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru
‘A Cat With A Stolen Crayfish’. Courtesy: Credit: Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru

As in India, interestingly, there is nothing uniform in the way cats were seen, or regarded, as was the case, one finds, in many other cultures too. This may not be the place to go into the history of the cat everywhere, for the feline having been featured in the history of many nations, and being the subject of legend, its relationship to humans is old and stretches back over 9,500 years. However, a brief, very brief, look at the theme might put things into some kind of perspective.

One naturally begins with ancient Egypt where, according to most accounts, the cat was first domesticated. It was the feline’s predatory habit, which included hunting mice and rats, that came to the rescue of a whole generation of Egyptians who were staring at a famine because their granaries were being destroyed and emptied by attacking rodents. Once the cats took over, things changed drastically and the animal was accorded a god-like status.

Killing a cat there became punishable by death, and men would shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning when their cat died. The cult of Bastet, the goddess with the body of a woman, and the head of a cat, was everywhere. There also grew up the cult of Mafdet who was represented as a snake-killing goddess who protected the Pharaoh in his royal palace, as also the large number of Nile-dwellers whose lives used to be lived in fear of snakes. In the average household in ancient Egypt the cat emerged as both an object of worship and an adored pet, ‘frequently adorned with jewelled necklaces and gold earrings’.

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Things were different in the ancient Hebrew world where the cat was as mistrusted as the Egyptians under whose rule the communities had suffered for interminably long periods of time. Occult practices followed for keeping the cat, linked as she was with ‘demonism’, were kept at bay. In the Bible, there is, intriguingly, no mention of cats even though later traditions speak of Christ’s love of cats, or of cats being impregnated via the ear.

‘The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, Forty Days After His Birth’, Courtesy: Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum, London
‘The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, Forty Days After His Birth’, Courtesy: Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Domestic cats were probably first introduced to Greece in the fifth century BCE by seafaring people, as one reads, and the earliest unmistakable evidence of the Greeks having domestic cats comes from two coins which were discovered not long ago.

Housecats seem to have been extremely rare among the ancient Greeks and Romans, and, unlike in India, they are rarely mentioned in ancient Greek literature. Whatever references are found speak of them with strong reservations. Aristotle remarked somewhere that ‘female cats are naturally lecherous’; Plutarch found them clean as animals; Pliny linked them with lust, and Aesop with deviousness and cunning. Hecate was a Greek goddess whose symbol was the black cat, and she was thought to be an omen of death. Some conflation took place at some point of time and the legends about the goddess Artemis, who was associated with cats, began being grafted on to the Virgin Mary. An Italian folk story asserted that the same night that Mary gave birth to Jesus, a cat in Bethlehem gave birth to a kitten.

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The cat had a harrowing time in medieval France, however, the animal being cast in the satanic image. The witchcraft purges of cats in Europe wiped out vast numbers of cats even as Pope Gregory IX (1227–41) railed against people for ‘kissing Lucifer in the form of a black cat’, these cats being ‘the colour of evil and shame’. A bishop, writing in 1233, said: ‘Lucifer is permitted (by God) to appear to his worshippers and adorers in the form of a black cat or toad and to demand kisses from them: whether as a cat, abominably under the tail, or as a toad, horribly on the mouth.’ It could not have been expressed more strongly and it was this view that was reflected in Germanic and Eastern European lore. Cat was Darkness and the Devil.

But things turned. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century had much to do with the change, reason prevailing over superstition. The power of the Church over people was on the decline and, during the Victorian Age, cats were ‘again elevated close to the previous high standing they had enjoyed in ancient Egypt’. Queen Victoria set a trend by adopting two Blue Persians who became ‘members of the court’. Soon the trend spread to the United States, popular magazines having much to do with it, publishing stories in which cats were loved and loved people in return. There emerged legions of cat lovers and when Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, William Wordsworth and John Keats, Thomas Hardy and Lewis Carroll spoke ecstatically of their cats, everyone knew that the wind had changed.

Legions of people—writers, scientists, public men—belong to the same category: from Mark Twain to Albert Schweitzer, T. S. Eliot to Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau to James Mason. If one were to trust the numbers published, at last count, Japan has 7.25 million cat owners; Germany and UK about the same number, France 9.5 million, Brazil and Russia 12.5 each, USA 76.5 million, and China 53 million.

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Closer to home, things never went out of hand as far as attitudes towards cats go. In Buddhism, in general, and the Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia, cats were viewed with respect, if not exactly loved in each second household. In Tibetan monasteries, cats roam about freely, as noted before; in Burma there always was a temple guarded by one hundred long-haired cats with yellow eyes, for into their bodies, according to belief, passed the souls of dead priests. A Thai legend maintains that Mara, Prince of Demons, sent a plague of rats to devour the Holy Buddhist scriptures, and at that moment the Buddha created the first cat in the world which chased the rats away and saved the scriptures. About the famous Siamese cats, it is said that these cats were kept, in earlier times, to serve as repositories in which to keep the transmigrating souls of Siamese royalty. They resided only in the Royal Palace in Bangkok—hence their earlier name, the Royal Palace Cats—and it is said that they were the product of a union between an albino domestic cat belonging to the king and an Egyptian or, some say, a black temple cat.

Excerpted with permission from The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs by B.N. Goswamy, published by Aleph Book Company.

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