According to the Washington Post
According to the Washington Post, cats are the most popular pets worldwide, and they outnumber dogs 3-to-1 (Bradshaw, 2013). But despite how popular they are, not many people are familiar with the significance of cats throughout human history. In fact, only around 25 percent of you reported knowing anything about the importance of cats in different cultures. So today I’m going to talk about the cultural significance of cats in several societies, namely ancient Egypt, medieval East Asia, and medieval and Victorian Europe. I’ve done extensive research on this topic from several sources, so using that information, I hope to show you how cats have had similar importance in many cultures throughout history.
First, let’s look at the importance of cats in ancient Egypt. This society is well known for its appreciation of cats, and in fact, forty percent of you reported knowing something about this, which is more than for any of the other societies. Ancient Egyptians were very reverent and respectful towards their cats. This is partly because ancient Egypt had large amounts of mice and snakes which would eat grain harvest. Cats were very helpful in reducing these populations, and cats and humans developed a sort of symbiotic relationship where each of them benefited from the situation, because humans had protection for their crops and cats would have a food supply. In order to attract cats to their homes to get rid of pests, people would leave food outside. This relationship continued to develop until cats started to become domesticated, as in, people would let them into their houses.
There’s another important aspect to how cats were viewed in ancient Egyptian society. Several of you actually mentioned this in the survey, and it’s that cats were associated with the divine in ancient Egypt. In fact, ancient Egyptians worshipped a cat goddess called Bastet (Hill, 2010) VISUAL AID. As you can see, Bastet was usually represented as being “half feline, half woman” (“Welcome to the Temple of Bastet,” n.d.). Bastet was considered to be the fierce protector of Lower Egypt. According to Smithsonian magazine, there was a center of worship dedicated to her in northern Egypt and every year there was a huge festival honoring her (Brogan, 2017). It’s interesting to note that as cats became more domesticated, the image of Bastet became less about being a strong protector and more about “family, fertility, and love” (“Why Did Egyptians Worship Cats?” n.d.). But it’s important to know that individual cats weren’t worshipped as gods; they were considered to be “representatives of gods.” For this reason, anyone who killed a cat, even by accident, was executed (Hill, 2010).
Plenty of artefacts from ancient Egypt show the importance of cats in that society. There was a very common image at the time of a cat sitting under a woman’s chair VISUAL AID. The cat was thought to be protecting the wife in contrast with the dog which would protect the husband. In addition to this, lots of ancient Egyptians mummified their pet cats after they died (Winters, 2015) VISUAL AID and buried them with jewelry, so they treated them the same way they would treat a family member. Finally, you can see measuring weights shaped like cats VISUAL AID. You can see the importance of cats to ancient Egyptians even in such a simple thing.
Now, we’re going to go further east and look at the importance of cats in medieval China and Japan. This seems not as well-known, as only twenty percent of you were familiar with this compared with forty percent for ancient Egypt. Similarly to ancient Egypt, the medieval Chinese used cats as a way to get rid of mice. But the relationship evolved beyond that and cats became seen as a status symbol (Mark, 2012). In fact, the Chinese would selectively breed cats to look a certain way, and they preferred cats that were white and yellow in color.
Much like the ancient Egyptians, the medieval Chinese also associated cats with the divine. They had the goddess Li Shou VISUAL AID who was portrayed as a cat. People would make offerings to her for “pest control and fertility” (Mark, 2012). Li Shou was thought to “embody the importance of cats in the early days of creation,” because there was an ancient Chinese myth that said that cats are the keepers of time and order in the world (Mark, 2012).
The medieval Japanese similarly placed importance on cats. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Buddhist manuscripts at the time were made out of a type of material that mice liked to eat, so cats were seen as guardians and “protectors of valuable books” (Mark 2012). Just like in China, cats were seen as a status symbol, and at one point they actually got so expensive that only the nobility could afford them. Cats were also seen as a symbol of luck, which is based on the tale of maneki-neko, or ‘Beckoning Cat.’ In this story, the Japanese emperor sees a cat on a rainy day and the cat waves its paw at him. When he moves closer to the cat, lightning strikes in the place where he was previously standing, so the cat ‘saved’ him (Mark, 2012). Here is a modern depiction of a Beckoning Cat VISUAL AID. Some Japanese shop owners put it in their shops because they think it will bring them luck.
Finally, let’s discuss the significance of cats in medieval Europe and Victorian Europe. Again, around 20 percent of you reported knowing something about this. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, in medieval Europe, the way people thought about cats was partially based on the ancient Greek myth where Hera transforms Galinthius into a cat and “sends her to the underworld” forever. Due to this, cats became associated with “darkness, transformation, the underworld, and witchcraft,” (Mark, 2012) and this carried on to the medieval era. In addition to this, the Catholic Church at the time wanted to Christianize Europe and remove any pagan symbols from society, so they claimed that cats are satanic and evil. All of this resulted in hatred and wariness of cats to the point that there was widespread killing of cats in Europe. Ironically, this may have helped in the spread of the Bubonic plague because the plague was spread by mice (Mark, 2012).
So that’s how society viewed cats in medieval Europe, but it was a different story a few hundred years later in Victorian Europe. During this period, Queen Victoria kept cats as pets, which was very unusual (Mark, 2012). This improved how people viewed cats in society. In addition to this, at the time Napoleon Bonaparte’s expeditions to Egypt were revealing ancient Egyptian artefacts, many of which showed reverence and respect for cats. This may have influenced how Victorian-era Europeans thought about cats (Mark, 2012). Someone in the survey said that cats were a status symbol in Victorian society, and this is completely true. In fact, taming cats and keeping them as pets was especially popular among the bourgeoisie, or the upper classes. According to author and researcher Laura Vocelle, this might be because the upper classes felt like they couldn’t control the “dangerous” lower classes, so they compensated for this by controlling “animals and nature” (Vocelle, 2014).
These drawings VISUAL AID are both from the medieval era. You can see from the way they’re drawn that cats are depicted as something wicked and dark. They’re portrayed in a frightening and evil way. Here, VISUAL AID cats are shown to be helping witches cast spells. Again, there’s the association to witchcraft and paganism. However, in the Victorian era, they’re portrayed in a much more positive light. In these paintings VISUAL AID they’re portrayed as playful house pets. They’re drawn in a much softer way compared to the medieval times. Over here VISUAL AID is actually a painting of a woman grieving at her cat’s funeral. Similarly to ancient Egypt, some Victorians would arrange a funeral for their cat like they would for a family member. And here VISUAL AID are some popular cartoons from the Victorian era. These cartoons are lighthearted and portray cats as something harmless and sweet. You can see how the society’s views on cats manifest in the art it creates.
To wrap this up, cats have had real cultural significance in ancient Egypt, medieval East Asia, and medieval and Victorian Europe. This significance often has something to do with the usefulness of cats as pest control, religious associations, or cats as a status symbol. Although the societies we discussed are very much distinct, they had something in common: one way or another, cats played an important role in each of these societies. Thank you.