We may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.
“I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The Wisdom of cats is infinitely superior.” Hippolyte Taine. (19th Centiry French Critic and Historian)
If you’re a cat lover you have at one time, or another been ridiculed by someone in your life who doesn’t share your love of felines. Whether its “I can’t believe the money, you spend on your cat” or “you really give her a birthday present” or “why would you spend so much money on vet bills.” They mock us for caring about our cats and accuse us of “worshipping” them. Well next time they accuse you of worshipping them you can tell them you’re not the first.
The Worshipping Begins
The first recorded examples of cat worship occurred some 4950 years ago in ancient Egypt.
Cats chose to live with their egyptian neighbors some 4000 to 6000 years ago when they wandered into egyptian villages and formed a unique and mutual voluntary relationship with humans. No other animal had ever chosen to become domesticated by people.
It is crucial to understand the important role cats played in the life of ordinary Egyptians to understand why cats became central in their religious beliefs.
The ancient Egyptians were farmers and stored excess grain to live on between harvests. Rodents infiltrated and consumed the grain. The African Wildcat, the ancestor of today’s house cat, became, and today remain, one of best rodent controllers available. According to Desmond Morris Zoologist, internationally recognized expert on cats, and author of Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia “There was certainly a great love of cats..it’s really easy to understand, Egyptian society depended on the grain stores, the grain stores were the basis for egyptian success and when the mice attacked those grain stores and the Egyptians observed the cats were killing the mice…that was really the start of the whole history of domestication of the cat because the Egyptians then started to look after these cats” says Morris.
Cats protected mans essential commodity – food – from its greatest threat – the rodent. The cat also served to protect Egyptian families from a regular threat which existed in Egypt– snakes. It was not uncommon for a poisonous snake to wander silently into a man’s home and threaten his wife and children with possible death. “They would have protected households against probably any small animals maybe snakes maybe plagues of locust” says Morris.
Cat’s were an Egyptians best protector of his home and loved ones from mice, which threatened their food, and snakes which threatened their lives.
The Rise of Bastet
The cat “then became the domestic working cat of Egypt because it was protecting them and so it was a very practical beginning …the thing developed to the point where later on the cat became not just a household pet but a sacred animal” says Morris.
According to Jaromir Malek author of The Cat in Ancient Egypt by 975 BC., during the twenty-second dynasty, the Egyptians turned the cat into a God as Bastet. Her name literally meaning “She of the City of Bast.” Bastet was one of the most revered gods in all Egyptian religion. While she started as a local Goddess her popularity soon spread throughout Egypt. She was a nurturing goddess of fertility, motherhood and prosperity, happiness and well-being reaching her peak during the Ptolemaic period from 332-30 BC. Bastet was worshipped in Egypt for over 1000 years.
The Egyptians held an annual festival in the city of Bubastis honoring Bastet. “The festival was the most popular one in ancient Egypt it was particularly licentious because the cat was always thought of a licentious animal, the sacred cat was thought of being linked to sexual license and apparently a vast amount of alcohol was consumed, and a great deal of sex took place, and that was why the sacred temple of Bubastis held the most popular festival in Egyptian religion at the time” says Morris. At the center of this festival was Bastet’s temple where sacred cats were pampered and worshipped.
“We know from the (Greek Historian) Herodotus that people were very sensitive about their cats, he reports that a Roman soldier that killed a cat was stoned to death by the angry Egyptians and there are records that families would shave off their eyebrows in morning…that was done when a cat died in some households” recounts Morris.
Cats were mummified when they died so that they would be able to accompany their owners in the afterlife. “The idea was if your cat had died you had it mummified, and you took it there to be buried in the sacred temple” at Bubastis, says Morris. Many animals were worshipped in ancient Egypt, but no other animal was so universally cherished as the cat.
Bastet also represented fertility for people in ancient Egypt. “Certainly fertility was important because the cat was fertile…it did have this very ornate sexual life; it also gave fertility to the Egyptians because it protected their crops. In an agricultural world your farmer needs to have sons and daughters to work on the farm so fertility was important” says Morris.
Today’s breed the Egyptian Mau is a direct descendant of the cat in ancient Egypt. Though in many ways all domestic cats can trace their lineage back to the magnificent Egyptian Wildcat and her incarnation as the Goddess Bastet.
The Norwegian Forest Cat
The Norwegian Forest Cat plays an important role in Norse Mythology. “The main (folk tale) goes back to norse mythology, Freya rode around in her sled that was pulled by two large white cats that were so huge that (the God) Thor couldn’t pick them up and the Norwegian people claim that those were Norwegian Forest Cats ” says Jim Couch Breeder of Norwegian Forest Cats and President of the Norwegian Forest Cat Fancy Association.
Freya was the blue-eyed blonde Viking Goddess of love, sex, and fertility. The sexual nature of cats led to their connection with Freya. An old Norwegian folk tale says that if a person puts a pan of milk in their fields for Freya’s cats to drink she would protect their crops. The connection between cats and crops might have been related to the fact that cats protected crops from mice.
The Siamese is considered a good-luck cat in its native Thailand and its name Maew Kaew actually means Moon-Diamond. The Siamese along with other breeds in Thailand were and still are in some places considered sacred for the role they play as temple cats. “As vermin control – the theory has it that when Buddhism came to Thailand from India a lot of scriptures would have been written on palm leaf manuscripts, the cats were very valuable in the temples to guard against mice and rats from eating the holy books.” Says Sue Brown Siamese cat historian and contributor to The Legend of the Siamese Cat by Martin Clutterbuck.
Killing a cat in Thailand was the equivalent to killing a monk “That belief still persists today, there are some vets in Thailand that are unwilling to put down cats” says Brown.
Cats in Thailand were described in the oldest known book on cats. The Tamra Maew or Cat Book of Poems written somewhere between 1350-1767. This book describes 17 different varieties of cats and what they mean in terms of good luck and fortune.
Cats are also used as part of a ceremony involving a newborn baby. “There are ceremonies when a new baby is accepted into the household. There is a little ceremony and they use a gourd, a rock and a cat and the idea is being they want their child to grow up wise as the cat, as hard as the stone and as cool (level headed) as the gourd, it would be the equivalent of christening.” Says Brown.
The Siamese is known as the Royal Cat of Siam and while the latest research does not show evidence of this, the cat did play a part in the royal family. “There is a ceremony that takes place at the coronation of a king-the succession of the royal chamber-various symbolic objects are required to be at this ceremony, but a cat has to be one of them and in the thai crown jewels a set of cat jewelry dating from the early 1700’s dating back to one of the kings. which consisted of gold and diamond encrusted pendants and necklaces.” says Brown.
This beautiful bluish-silver-grey cat is found in Thailand and has an interesting if somewhat curious belief surrounding it. “In the villages in times of need for rain there is a ceremony where by a cat is put in a carrier which is tied to a pole, and the villagers go from door to door as they stop in front of a home. The owners come out and splash some water onto the cat which is supposed to encourage the rain to come and preferably a Korat is used because it is a cloud colored cat” says Daphne Negus one of the pioneers of the breed and one of the founders of the Korat Cat Fancy Association. It is also thought that by drenching an animal that stays dry this will help bring rain to drought ridden fields.
The Korat is a very popular cat in Thailand “They’re very highly prized, if somebody gives you one it’s a tribute; it signifies that they hold you in high regard ” said Negus. “There is another legend which is to give a pair of Korats to a young couple getting married will insure that they have silver in their lives, wealth, and happiness” said Negus. Reflecting the beautiful silver in the color of the cat.
The Sacred Cats Of Burma
The Birman is known as the Sacred Cat of Burma. The history of the Birman is found within a beautiful story according to Morris in Cat World “The legend of the Birman tells the story of the 100 pure white cats with yellow eyes who were the guardian of the sacred Temple at Lao-Tsun on the side of Mount Lugh in Burma before the time of Buddha. The high priest Mun-Ha, had a favorite cat known as Sinh. One day they were sitting together in front of the idol when the temple was attacked by raiders from Siam. Elderly Mun-Ha suffered a heart attack as he prayed. Sinh reacted by placing his paws on the body of the dying priest. As he did so, he was facing the golden blue-eyed idol and in the moment of his master’s death he was transformed, his eyes turning blue and his fur golden. Then the extremities of his body darkened to the color of the earth except for his paws which, where they were in contact with his master’s snowy white hair, retained their original, pure white coloring. As these changes occurred, the soul of the dead priest passed into Sinh’s body. Sinh never ate again and died a few days later, dutifully taking his master’s soul to paradise.”
Whether this legend actually comes from Burma is up to debate. “It would be very difficult I think to go to Burma and try to authenticate anything about that particular breed of cat ” says Sue Brown.
However, Val Katos Birman Breeder and creator of the Sacred Cat of Burma web site said she has “friends that have gone off to the near east and have said there are cats that hang around the temples and they have seen the (birman) cats there some with white feet.” So we just don’t know.
Another cat native to Burma is the Burmese, or Copper colored cat which was described in the Famous “Cat Book of Poems” from Thailand. According to Morris in Cat World these cats were kept as sacred animals in Buddhist temples in Burma where they were “pampered by the rich and holy, these revered cats were provided with personal servants in the form of student priests. These servants acted as guardians to ensure the safety of their charges and were severely punished if they failed their duties.”
Whether or not this really occurred we do know that cats are kept in Buddhist temples today in Burma.
Maneki Neko in Japan
In Japan cats have long played an important part in Japanese folklore and culture. “There is Japanese folklore belief that cats can be the possessors of other peoples souls.” said Dr. Ian Reader Professor of Religious Studies Lancaster University, England. In Japanese folklore a cat born with a special black mark on its back is a cat that holds the spirit of ones ancestors. The mark is supposed resemble a women’s Kimono and is called a Kimono cat. These cats were often taken to temples for protection.
The most famous of sacred cats in Japan is Maneki Neko- the Beckoning Cat, which is the Japanese Bobtail breed..”The actual origins of Maneki Neko are a little bit unclear there are actually 3 or 4 stories they all seem to revolve around somewhere around the 17th century, Cats have been religious figure in Japan before this period.” says Reader.
Reader recounts on of the best-known stories. “At Gotokigi, now according to this story it was a very run down temple the priest was a very kind old priest who looked after a number of cats and one day he was supposed to have said to one of the cats it would be so good, I wish you could do something to help the temple because nobody’s coming here. There was a storm going on and there was a great feudal lord riding past the temple at the time and he looked up and saw this cat on the wall of the temple apparently beckoning to him and making a beckoning sign toward him he was intrigued by this and decided to follow the cat into the temple as he walked forward from the place he was standing a bolt of lightning flashed down and hit the ground where he had been standing and he attributed his salvation to the fact the cat had saved him by beckoning. So in response he goes into the temple and gives a great donation when he finds its the priests cat” says Reader.
This legend actually has connections with the Buddhist God of Compassion Kannon. “The cat is possessed by the spirit Kannon-great buddhist figure of mercy and compassion who is very popular in Japan and Kannon has saved the temple and if you go to that temple there is a Kannon stature in the shape of Maneki Neko” says Reader.
Cats were kept in temples in Japan to guard against mice and rats, but played an even greater role in protecting the silkworm industry. “The other place where it becomes quite well known is in the silkworm farming which is very very important in Japan.. The one thing you had to do if you were going to farm silkworms is keeping a cat because the thing that gets in and kills the silkworm cocoons is rats and mice..(so) you get this phenomenon of the cat being venerated as a deity as a God” (because of the silkworm). says Reader. “At the silkworm harvest festival very often the cat in some villages would be venerated for the day as a God and given special foods and so on” says Reader. For this reason “the cat becomes a popular symbol of good luck beckoning good fortune.” continues Reader.
Reader believes that Maneki Neko is connected with the important role cats played in the Japanese silkworm industry. “You also got these economic themes of Maneki Neko the cat being important in silkworms and of putting a model cat and having a local cat shrine which is the cat protector of the silkworms.” said Reader.
The cat played an important part in both of Japan’s major religions. “When it was being venerated as a local God protecting the silkworm, it would definitly be more classified under the Shinto rubric, but you also have got the same legends coming along in the buddhist temples where the cats restore the temples to good fortune.”said Reader.
A Common Thread
Cats around the world and throughout time have been worshipped either for what they provided to their humans or because of qualities they had that people greatly admired.
Whether it was their protecting crops and families in ancient Egypt, the holy Buddhist Temple Scriptures in the far East, or the Silk Worm Industry in Japan their contribution to human society was important. People have long admired their cats either for their sexuality and fertility in Egypt and Norway their beauty and grace in far east, or their supposed ability to bring rain during times of drought in Thailand.
In many ways the way we treat our cats today is a form of worship “Although they’re not sacred in the full sense…we don’t worship cats, but on the other hand we worship cats with a small w we don’t worship them with a capital W we love our cats we worship them as beloved objects so what we do is we have our cats, we love our cats we treat them well we give them wonderful food we look after them we take them to the vet we do all the things that they need to have a long and happy life but we also over breed them a lot of them go stray, there are millions of stray cats starving in cities ” says Morris.
When we think of what our cats mean to us today we really shouldn’t be embarrassed about how we feel about and treat our cats. Cats protected the ancient Egyptians from the ravages of rodents and the danger of snakes. Today our cats protect us from the ravages of alienation and the danger of loneliness, and today we continue to admire our cats for their beauty, grace, and loving nature.
Written by Brad Kollus
Brad Kollus is an award winning Cat Writer specializing in the Feline-Human Bond. He lives with his wife Elizabeth, their son Dylan, and four cats, Scotty, Spanky, Lizzie, and Rosie in New Jersey.
Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!