Mark Twain observed: ‘If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man but deteriorate the cat.” As I love all animals, perhaps with the exception of poisonous snakes and poisonous spiders, I will write today about the glory of cats. Cats are one of our oldest companions. The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, often represented by the goddess Basted.
During the time of the Old Kingdom, they referred to the sun deity Ra as ‘the Great Cat’. The goddess Basted was worshipped as she protected women and the home, and she was also the goddess of love, fertility, and joy. A whole city Bubastis was dedicated to her, and the people there, 70,000 of them, held annual festivities in her honour, during which a vast amount of grape wine was imbibed. In her temple, there lived many cats that were looked after by specially designated priests. There was also a cemetery exclusively for cats. As a mark of respect and a token of mourning, the owners of a cat that died would shave their eyebrows. The cat’s body would be embalmed at the temple before the burial. To ensure that the cat was not hungry during his journey to the afterlife, embalmed mice were buried with it. The killing of a cat was punishable by death but the killing of a slave required only paying the slave’s worth to the owner.
It was thought that the first domesticated cats were in Nubia, over 5,000 years ago. Recently, archaeologists found on Cyprus a burial ground of a human and a cat. This is the oldest known pet cat, that is 9,500 years old. The domestication of cats started with humans looking for an animal that would protect their crops from mice. ‘A cat’s dreams teem with mice’, says a Lebanese proverb.
In ancient Greece, cats were portrayed on the amphoras of the wealthy. They were smuggled from Egypt in jugs, having previously been given a drink made of poppies to make them sleep. If caught, the smuggler would be executed, and the cat returned to Egypt.
In Japan, cats guarded the nation’s staple food, rice, from greedy mice. In Edo, there is a temple devoted to cats and they have their own cemetery, just like in Egypt. It was built by a samurai who was fleeing from his enemies. He was close to being murdered as there was only a dead-end in front when he spotted a paw beckoning him from the side of a building. The samurai followed it and the cat led him through a secret passage to freedom. In profound gratitude, he built a temple on this very spot.
In Iran, cats are respected as creatures chosen by the Prophet Mohammad himself to have a place in paradise. According to a popular belief, it was the Prophet who taught the cats to fall on all four feet. This is the reason that in the Muslim world he is sometimes spoken of as ‘the Father of Cats’.
According to the chronicled dates, cats arrived in Russia in the 13th century. It is probable that they were brought from the Greek colonies on the Black Sea. They were very much praised and the theft of a cat was punishable by a fine four times greater than that for a cow. Cats are often evident in Russian folk tales. I have a 19th-century book of fables, bought by my great-grandfather, and on the cover, there is the Wise Cat that is tied up with a golden chain under an oak tree, on the seashore, at the entrance to the magic land. Alexander Pushkin who wrote a poem about this cat says: ‘When he turns to the right he sings a song; when he turns to the left, he tells a tale. Krylov wrote about the naughty cat in his fables. My post about Krylov and his fables, ‘The Tale of the Monkey and her Spectacles’, is one of the most popular ones, read from Malaysia to Nigeria. The fable about the cat has profound meaning, especially today.
Catherine the Great, the longest-ruling empress in Russian history, brought enlightenment to Russia, among many reforms. She also founded the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. This exquisitely beautiful palace contains famous works of art, among them many portraits of cats.
When I researched for this post, I was pleased to find how many writers, poets. painters, composers, and statesmen have loved cats and looked at them as cherished family members. The writers wrote about them, the painters painted them, poets extolled their beauty and wisdom, composers wrote music, while statesmen praised their civilizing influence on humanity. Here are some examples:
Among many writers who loved cats and always had their company was Charles Dickens – “What greater gift than the love of a cat?” He adopted a deaf kitten and the cat loved him so much that he wrote a story of the title above about Bob the cat. For the rest of Bob’s life they were inseparable. George Bernard Shaw observed: “Man is civilised to the degree that he understands the cat.” Jules Verne goes further: “I believe cats to be spirits come to earth; a cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.” Jerome K. Jerome pointed to the truth about the cat’s philosophy: “A cat’s got her own opinion of human beings, she don’t say much, but you can tell enough to make you anxious not to hear the whole of it.” Patricia Highsmith extolled the poetry in motion of a cat: “A cat makes a home a home; a writer is not alone with a cat, yet is enough alone to work. More than this, a cat is a walking, sleeping, everchanging work of art.” Saki appreciated his cat in these words: “He seems the incarnation of everything soft and silky and velvety…. a dreamer whose philosophy is sleep and let sleep.” Sir Walter Scott suggested: “Cats are mysterious kind of folk. There is more passing in their minds than we are aware of.” Ernest Hemingway‘s interesting view was: “Cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
Poets were also enchanted by cats; Baudelaire wrote in his poem:
“Come splendid cat,
Lay on my amorous heart;
keep your claws back in your paws,
And let me gaze into
your beautiful eyes,
An alloy metal and agate.”
Pablo Neruda wrote in his “Ode to the Cat”:
“The cat wants nothing more than to be a cat,
and every cat is pure cat, from its whiskers to its tail…
Nothing hangs together quite like a cat.”
Painters of all ages, from prehistoric to contemporary, painted cats in various situations. From Frederico Barocci‘s Annunciation to Andy Warhol and Hockney. Painter Douanier Rousseau produced this picture of Loti in 1891. And here is a comment showing an understanding of the cat’s personality:
Painting of Loti by Douanier Rouseau in 1891
“Cats have skittish little souls, tiny souls full of affection, of pride and whimsy, not easily fathomed, which reveal themselves only to certain, special people, and which are put off by the least insult, sometimes even by the mildest disappointment.”
Renoir painted cats several times, and Matisse painted in his cat’s company even when bedridden. Above and below are Renoir‘s two paintings of ‘Girl with a cat’. Leonardo da Vinci loved cats too, and wrote: “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”
Alberto Giacometti proclaimed: “In a burning building I would save a cat before a Rembrandt.”
Composers also included cats in their work; Andrew Lloyd-Webber even produced a worldwide smash-hit musical “Cats”.
Cartoonists have entertained us for decades with the crazy antics of Tweety and Sylvester and Tom and Jerry, and lately, Garfield. Puss in Boots, a folk hero, was evident in many countries, always fighting for the poor and oppressed.
I have to mention also the famous Isle of Man cat, the Manx cat without a tail.
Another famous cat is a Maneki Neko cat in Japan. According to a legend, this ‘beckoning cat’ portrayed in the souvenir figurines, is always waving his paw as a symbol of happiness. A long, long time ago, the cat saved a samurai by beckoning him over which saved the man’s life, as the place where he had been standing was struck by lightning. In gratitude, the samurai built a temple in that place. Those who are devotees of Zen after years of practice at spiritual perfection, they may even hope to themselves become a cat.
As a storyteller I work every day in my study on my computer, writing; by my side, there is my companion and inspiration, a cat. We often have a silent discussion about my blog. Happiness is a happy cat.