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The Cat In History

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Diabolical Cats

Those were the Golden Days in the history of catdom. Everybody wanted his own cat, if not cats, to keep vermin at bay. Cats rapidly spread throughout the cities and villages, becoming an essential part of everyday life. This was to be their downfall.

The tendency of cats to be so useful in eliminating vermin made them desirable to the farmer, the merchant, and the homeowner. The tendency of cats to become cats made them desirable to people in general. The tendency of cats to do their own thing made them mysterious. People being what they are, cats soon became a part of the everyday ritual, then a part of the religious ritual, then the center of various cat cults. Cats were again worshiped, though not to the same degree they had been in Egypt, and certainly not by everybody.

During the early middle ages, the Norse goddess Freya was the closest thing to a cat goddess among the Europeans. She had two huge cats pulling her wain, and was constantly surrounded by cats. She became irrevocably linked with our furry friends, and her worship contained many cat-oriented rituals. Her day of worship was Friday (Friday means Freya's Day): when Christendom barred her worship, Freya became a demon, Friday became the Black Sabbath, and the cat became a manifestation of the devil, hence persona non grata.

Thus began a low point in both human and cat history: the over 1000- year persecution of the cat, sort of a feline inquisition. (If it's any consolation to us cat people, the Church was also sponsoring the Grand Inquisition at the time, and was busy killing people as well as cats.)

During this period, literally hundreds of thousands of cats were tortured, hung, burned at the stake, roasted alive, or killed outright on sight. So great was this persecution that the population of European cats dwindled to less than ten per cent of its pre- inquisitional number, in spite of the cats doing all they could to make more cats (something cats are very good at).

There was a brief respite during the years of the Black Death. With people dying all over, they had neither the time nor the inclination to persecute the cats. The cats responded to this absence of persecution by rapidly multiplying and attacking the plentiful food supply around them: the plague-carrying rats. There is some evidence that the plague ended because of three interlocking factors: so many people died that the fields couldn't be planted; the lack of food in the surrounding countryside drove the rats into the cities (rats are scavengers, like vultures, and are always the last to starve to death); the sudden increase in the number of cats killing rats broke the chain necessary to perpetuate the plague.

Man, of course, promptly rewarded the cat for helping to save mankind by resuming the feline inquisition right where it had left off. This persecution didn't end until well into the twentieth century, when the various Christian churches finally stopped emphasizing witches and their familiars, which were almost always cats.

Even in the darkest of dark ages, there were those who loved and cherished their cats. The numbers of cats painted by the masters over the centuries clearly shows the cat's place in society never completely disappeared. From a purely practical point of view, it is awfully hard to convince a miller whose loved cat kills the vermin that eat his grain that said loved cat is a manifestation of the devil. He just won't buy it: he can see the good it does, but the supposed evil is intangible. The loved cat, of course, knows nothing except that rat and mouse are funny human names for food: good and evil have no relevance to a cat.

Before leaving the middle ages, mention should be made of the special relationship between witches and cats, perpetuated to this day in our Halloween decorations. In the Church-oriented society of the middle ages life was hard (especially for the serfs). Few people lived past forty or fifty, and those that did were far older than their years. Hygiene and medicine then being what they were (or weren't), life took its toll in the form of various skin problems, loss of teeth, receding gums, bent backs, arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, and a score of other things. An old man or woman was not the handsome or pretty thing they were as teenagers.

Since this was a male-oriented society, an old man was often revered for his acquired knowledge, but an old woman was a useless thing. She could no longer bear children, carry wood, plow the field, or do any of the other little fun things of life. Couple this uselessness with the fact that everybody else was out working all day long, and the poor crone had nothing to do but sit in a corner of the hovel, muttering to herself and stroking the cat (who thought this was great).

Now along comes some idiot who fouls the woman's front yard (sanitation was also somewhat lacking), which elicits a glare and a mumbled epithet from her, as she sits there stroking her cat. The idiot then stumbles over a stool the next day and breaks his arm.

Since, according to the times, evil befell one as a punishment for sin or as the result of a curse, obviously the old woman gave him the Evil Eye and placed a curse upon him, because the idiot is a good God- fearing man. Elementary! She is a witch and the cat is her familiar. Many an innocent old woman and her equally innocent cat died because of just such idiots.

Marvelous Cats

Cats and sailors have a special and unbroken bond stretching back to the days of the pharoahs. Sailors being the practical men they are, cats were usually to be found aboard ship. The ship's cat is a respected and important member of the crew, charged with rat control, and not a pet. So respected is the ship's cat that mutinies have occurred because the captain kicked the cat.

Because sea voyages could take weeks, months or even years, the sailor seldom saw a priest or minister, and developed his own version of the Faith, which tended to exclude the small details, such as avoiding profanity, sex, and cats. Cats proliferated at sea, and thus spread to every seaport in the world, in spite of the Church's proscription.

In the Far East, the cat arrived twice, via the overland trade routes and via the sea, and was immediately appreciated for its anti-vermin qualities.

It was also appreciated for its food value (Moo-goo-gai-kitty with fried rice!) This was a mixed blessing, for while it meant the cat had to contend with another cat-eater, it also meant that catmaking would be an encouraged activity (beef cattle are not an endangered species).

The cat spread rapidly throughout the world, attaining many local varieties under the intentional or accidental influence of man, and through possible interbreeding with local wild cats.

In many areas, away from the influence of the Church, the cat obtained mystical and religious significance. Because of its ability to survive disaster, the cat is often said to have nine lives -- nine is a mystical number, a trinity of trinities -- and is associated with good luck. The Japanese have the Mi-ke (Three-Fur), or good fortune cat, a calico, statues of which are all over Japan. The British have the superstition that if a cat, especially a black cat, crosses your path, good luck will follow. Our own black cat superstition comes from the Salem witch hunts, where the poor women's cats were often hung with them, leading to the saying the luck of the cat meaning bad luck. This merged with the imported British black-cat superstition to change the luck from good to bad.

In Asia, cats were often used in the temples to control mice, who would otherwise chew on the prayer scrolls, and many became semi- mystical. The Tibetian lamas revered cats for their patience. In Siam (now Thailand), the priests bred sacred temple cats, similar to the Siamese cats of today, but rounder of head and stockier of body, and with a kink in the tail. The kink has religious significance in the temples, but has been bred out elsewhere. In Burma, the sacred temple cats were long-haired Siamese, but with white feet and no kink, the Birman of today.

Original Cats

Of all the current breeds of cats, the two that have the strongest claim to being the original domestic cat are the Egyptian Mau and the Abyssinian. Both have the intermediate body structure and wedge- shaped head with well-defined facial planes of the African Wildcat. (The latest trend in modern Abyssinian breeding is to breed for a small size, but that doesn't destroy the argument.) Also, both have a relatively primitive fur structure as compared with other domestic cats, and both are definitely traceable to the proper part of the world.

Egyptian Mau is a spotted tabby, with long legs, slightly longer in back, giving it a raked appearance and making it very fast: it is very similar to the African Wildcat with spots instead of stripes. It strongly resembles the cats seen in many Egyptian temple paintings. The Abyssinian has an all-agouti rabbit-like coat and a very wild- looking face, and strongly resembles the cats seen in other temple paintings.

The probability is that the original cat was a very faintly striped African Wildcat, such as is found around the edges of the deserts even today, which was quickly bred into striped, spotted, and all-agouti varieties by man. There is also strong evidence to show that the cat was domesticated several times in differing locales, and that the modern cat is actually a composite of these various early domestics.

R. Roger Breton
Nancy J Creek

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