The cat: independent, wise, predictor of weather, thief of a baby’s breath and the subject of many wife’s tales and superstitions. Some of these superstitions are ones that we hear every day: You will have bad luck if a black one should cross your path; or if a cat sneezes three times the family will catch a cold. But how did this creature, once associated with the gods, find itself later a consort to witches? And how did the things which we associate with the cat today come into fruition?
The cat is commonly associated with the moon; however, before its “fall” it was linked to the sun. The popular Egyptian goddess Bastet was the half-feline daughter of the sun-god, Ra. Her annual festival, held in the town of Bubastis, yielded over 700,000 worshipers, most of them coming by boat. The domestic cat was not privy to only those of royalty, for even for those of meager households. However both were inclined to send their deceased cats to Bubastis, where it was mummified and buried in a sacred receptacle. Thousands of cats were interned in said manner in the hopes that they would carry their owner’s message to the goddess more speedily.
The great Egyptian goddess Isis was also associated with the cat. She was often called upon when a child was hurt. An ointment of cat hairs, breast milk and gum was often applied while incantations to the goddess herself were said.
The nine gods that were venerated in Heliopolis, the capital of Lower Egypt, also had ties with the cat. The number nine, ancient Egypt’s Trinity of Trinities, was a sacred number and thereby became associated with the cat. It was after Christianity had taken its stronghold over much of Europe during the Middle Ages, that all gods and goddesses were considered pagan and demonic; this included the cat, which had the serious misfortune of being labeled in kind. It perhaps suffered all the more for it; for while the gods and goddess were merely dismissed or converted into saints, the cat stayed behind and paid an earthly penalty; but not without continuing to be affiliated with the number nine. The cat o’nine tails is a perfect example.
The folk tale “How the Cat Got Nine Lives” by folklorist Zora Neal Hurston was perhaps influenced by the cat’s great fall and its displacement from Heaven. According to her tale, pun intended, the cat was kicked out of Heaven for eating the last nine fish of a poor and starving family. The cat’s selfish act caused the family to eventually perish. And so God, who was very displeased with the cat’s greediness, banished him from Heaven, but not before ruling that the cat will have nine lives before it can be killed; this was payment for the nine lives it took. His descent from Heaven lasted nine days before he landed back on earth.
Like most cats he probably landed on his feet, but before gaining any ground into the hearts of people once again, the cat eventually had to stand trial.
By the time of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, witchcraft was running rampant and by default the cat was accusingly pointed to as being the consummate consort of witches. It was believed that the devil or his helpers would masquerade as a cat or toad in order to convoy with its ever-faithful “mistress.” Sadly many women were accused of witchcraft merely because they may have acted a little strangely and happened to own a cat. The names of many cats, such as Gibb, Inges and Rutterkin have been preserved in the annals of sixteenth and seventeenth’s century “witchcraft” history; for those trying witches in court at the time felt it important to know the name of the demon one was dealing with.
Over time the witch trials ceased and the cat once again fell in man’s good graces. However, many still consider the cat a mystery, as well as, a symbol. The cat is still associated with witches and superstitions but we no longer consider them a threat. We do however still think the cat as “magical” and often our fables and fairy tales symbolize him such a light. He is the perfect example for being wise, witty and clever and according to the Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Cat,” even more clever than the fox.
The wonderful fairy-tale “Puss in Boots” displays in a delightful way a cat’s intelligence, shrewdness, and his ability to be faithfully trusted. For in this tale Puss, the seemingly ill-begotten inheritance of a poor man, produces for his ill-fated master a position of wealth, power and happiness all by prudent sensibility. The man learned to trust in his cat, as well as, gain a faithful companion evermore.
The cat will always be a beloved pet to many and one who is lovingly observed. It is by astute observation of a cat’s behavior that we have not only indications of bad weather but even of illness and death. This quasi magical being will always be revered not only for its acute psychic abilities, but for the supernatural mystery they hold within.