Cats in the Ancient World


Joshua J. Mark
published on 17 November 2012
Available in other languages: Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Turkish

Cats and humans have shared in each other's lives for thousands of years and, even though they have not always been regarded as highly as in the present, have played an important role in a number of cultures. Always enigmatic, the cat has sometimes been mistrusted by various civilizations but always managed to prove their worth.

Although it has been commonly accepted that cats were first domesticated in Egypt 4000 years ago, their history among human beings goes back much further. Wild cats are now known to have lived among the people of Mesopotamia over 100,000 years ago and to have been domesticated there approximately 12,000 BCE at about the same time as dogs, sheep, and goats. Archaeological excavations in the past ten years have provided evidence that the Near Eastern Wildcat is the closest relative of the modern-day domestic cat and was bred by Mesopotamian farmers, most probably as a means of controlling pests, such as mice, which were attracted by grain supplies.

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The writer David Derbyshire cites a 2007 CE research project in which, “the study used DNA samples from 979 wild and domestic cats to piece together the feline family tree. They looked for markers in mitochondrial DNA - a type of genetic material passed down from mothers to kittens which can reveal when wild and domestic cat lineages were most closely related.” This project was headed by Dr. Andrew Kitchener, a Zoologist at the National Museums of Scotland, who writes, "This shows that the origin of domestic cats was not Ancient Egypt - which is the prevailing view - but Mesopotamia and that it occurred much earlier than was thought. The last common ancestor of wildcats and domesticated cats lived more than 100,000 years ago” (Derbyshire).

Dr. Kitchener's findings built upon the evidence of cat's domestication provided by the discovery in 1983 CE of a cat skeleton in a grave dating to 9,500 BCE on the island of Cyprus. This find, made by the archaeologist Alain le Brun, was important because Cyprus had no indigenous cat population and it is unlikely that settlers would have brought a wild cat, by boat, to the island.

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Bastets & Sekhmets
Bastets & Sekhmets
Kotomi Yamamura (CC BY-NC-SA)

Cats in Ancient Egypt

The cat's association with ancient Egypt, however, is understandable in that Egyptian culture was famous for its devotion to the cat. The export of cats from Egypt was so strictly prohibited that a branch of the government was formed solely to deal with this issue. Government agents were dispatched to other lands to find and return cats which had been smuggled out. It is clearly established that, by 450 BCE, the penalty in Egypt for killing a cat was death (though this law is thought to have been observed much earlier). The goddess Bastet, commonly depicted as a cat or as a woman with a cat's head, was among the most popular deities of the Egyptian pantheon. She was the keeper of hearth and home, protector of women's secrets, guardian against evil spirits and disease, and the goddess of cats.

Her ritual centre was the city of Bubastis (“House of Bastet”) in which, according to Herodotus (484-425 BCE), an enormous temple complex was built in her honour in the centre of the city. Herodotus also relates that the Egyptians cared so much for their cats that they placed their safety above human life and property. When a house caught fire, the Egyptians would concern themselves more with rescuing the cats than with anything else, often running back into the burning building or forming a perimeter around the flames to keep cats at a safe distance.

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When a cat died, Herodotus writes, “All the inhabitants of a house shave their eyebrows [as a sign of deep mourning]. Cats which have died are taken to Bubastis where they are embalmed and buried in sacred receptacles” (Nardo 117). The period of mourning was considered completed when the people's eyebrows had grown back. Mummified cats have been found at Bubastis and elsewhere throughout Egypt, sometimes buried with, or near to, their owners as evidenced by identifying seals on the mummies.

The greatest example of Egyptian devotion to the cat, however, comes from the Battle of Pelusium (525 BCE) in which Cambyses II of Persia defeated the forces of the Egyptian Pharaoh Psametik III to conquer Egypt. Knowing of the Egyptian's love for cats, Cambyses had his men round up various animals, cats chiefly among them, and drive the animals before the invading forces toward the fortified city of Pelusium on the Nile.

The Persian soldiers painted images of cats on their shields, and may have held cats in their arms, as they marched behind the wall of animals. The Egyptians, reluctant to defend themselves for fear of harming the cats (and perhaps incurring the death penalty should they kill one), and demoralized at seeing the image of Bastet on the enemy's shields, surrendered the city and let Egypt fall to the Persians. The historian Polyaenus (2nd century CE) writes that, after the surrender, Cambyses rode in triumph through the city and hurled cats into the faces of the defeated Egyptians in scorn.

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Cat Mummy
Cat Mummy
Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, Calif.) (CC BY-NC-SA)

The Egyptians are also responsible for the very name `cat' in that it derives from the North African word for the animal, “quattah”, and, as the cat was so closely associated with Egypt, almost every other European nation employs variations on this word: French, chat; Swedish, katt; German, katze; Italian, gatto; Spanish, gato and so forth (Morris, 175). The colloquial word for a cat - `puss' or `pussy' - is also associated with Egypt in that it derives from the word Pasht, another name for Bastet.

Cats In India

Cats are mentioned in the two great literary epics of ancient India, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana (both c. 5th/4th century BCE). In Mahabharata a famous passage concerns the cat Lomasa and the mouse Palita, who help each other escape from death and discuss at length the nature of relationships, particularly those in which one of the parties is stronger or more powerful than the other. In the Ramayana, the god Indra disguises himself as a cat after seducing the beautiful maid Ahalya as a means to escape from her husband. As was the case everywhere else, cats in India were found to be particularly useful in controlling the populations of less desirable creatures like mice, rats, and snakes and so were honoured in the homes, farms, and palaces throughout the land.

That the cat was seen as more than just a method of pest control is substantiated by the reverence accorded to felines in the literature of India. The famous story of Puss in Boots (best known through the French version by Charles Perrault, 1628-1703 CE) is taken from a much older Indian folk tale in the Panchatantra from the 5th century BCE (though the character of the cat's master has a very different personality in the older tale than the one in Perrault's story). The esteem in which cats were held is also evident in the Indian cat goddess, Sastht, who served much the same role as Bastet and was as greatly revered.

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The Persian Cat

A Persian tale claims the cat was created magically. The great Persian hero Rustum, out on campaign, one night saved a magician from a band of thieves. Rustum offered the older man the hospitality of his tent and, as they sat outside under the stars, enjoying the warmth of a fire, the magician asked Rustum what he wished for as a gift in repayment for saving the man's life. Rustum told him that there was nothing he desired since everything he could want, he already had before him in the warmth and comfort of the fire, the scent of the smoke and the beauty of the stars overhead. The magician then took a handful of smoke, added flame, and brought down two of the brightest stars, kneading them together in his hands and blowing on them. When he opened his hands toward Rustum, the warrior saw a small, smoke-grey kitten with eyes bright as the stars and a tiny tongue which darted like the tip of flame. In this way, the first Persian cat came to be created as a token of gratitude to Rustum.

The prophet Muhammed was also very fond of cats. According to legend, the `M' design on the forehead of the tabby cat was made when the prophet blessed his favourite cat by placing his hand on its head. This cat, Meuzza, also features in another famous story in which Muhammed, called to prayer, found the cat asleep on his arm. Rather than disturb the cat, Muhammed cut the sleeve from his robe and left Meuzza to sleep. The status of the cat, therefore, was further enhanced by its association with a figure of divinity.

The Gayer-Anderson Cat
The Gayer-Anderson Cat
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (Copyright)

Cats in China and Japan

This was also true in China where the goddess Li Shou was depicted in cat form and petitions and sacrifices made to her for pest control and fertility. She too, was a very popular goddess who was thought to embody the importance of cats in the early days of creation. An ancient Chinese myth relates that, in the beginning of the world, the gods appointed cats to oversee the running of their new creation and, in order for communication to be clear, granted cats the power of speech. Cats, however, were more interested in sleeping beneath the cherry trees and playing with the falling blossoms than with the mundane task of having to pay attention to the operation of the world.

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Three times the gods came to check on how well the cats were doing their job and all three times were disappointed to find their feline overseers asleep or at play. On the god's third visit, the cats explained they had no interest in running the world and nominated human beings for the position. The power of speech was then taken from the cats and given to humans but, as humans seemed incapable of understanding the words of the gods, cats remained entrusted with the important task of keeping time and so maintaining order. It was thought that one could tell the time of day by looking into a cat's eyes and this belief is still maintained in China.

In Japan, the famous image of the `Beckoning Cat' (the maneki neko figure of the cat with one raised paw) represents the goddess of mercy. The legend goes that a cat, sitting outside of the temple of Gotoku-ji, raised her paw in acknowledgement of the emperor who was passing by. Attracted by the cat's gesture, the emperor entered the temple and, moments later, lightning struck the very spot where he had been standing. The cat, therefore, saved his life and was accorded great honours.

The Beckoning Cat image is thought to bring good luck when given as a gift and remains a very popular present in Japan. The cat was regularly considered a guardian of the home and was thought to be the special protector of valuable books. Cats were often housed in private pagodas in Japan and were considered so valuable that, by the 10th century CE, only the nobility could afford to own one.

Mosaic, Pompeii
Mosaic, Pompeii
Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli) (CC BY-SA)

Cats in Greece and Rome

Although cats were kept by people in Greece and Rome, the appreciation for the animal as a hunter was not as great in those cultures owing to the Greek and Roman practice of keeping domesticated weasels for pest control. The Romans regarded the cat as a symbol of independence and not as a creature of utility. Cats were kept as pets by both Greeks and Romans and were regarded highly.

A first century CE epitaph of a young girl holding a cat is among the earliest pieces of evidence of cats in Rome and, in Greece, the playwright Aristophanes (c. 446-386 BCE) frequently featured cats in his works for comic effect (coining the phrase, “The cat did it” in assigning blame). Among ancient civilizations, however, the cat was probably least popular among the Greeks owing to its association in certain myths with the goddess of death, darkness and witches, Hecate, who is more commonly associated with the dog (as is her Roman conterpart, Trivia). A much later development in Greek appreciation for the cat is evidenced in the legend that the cat protected the baby Jesus from rodents and snakes and so is accorded the best of spots in a Greek home but, originally, they do not seem to have been regarded highly.

Cats are thought to have been brought to Europe by Phoenician traders who smuggled them out of Egypt. As the Phoenicians are acknowledged to have extensively traded with every known civilization of the time, cats could have been spread around the region on a fairly regular basis. It is well documented that cats were kept on ships to control vermin during the time of the 15th century CE Age of Discovery and, most likely, they served the same purpose for the Phoenicians. If the Phoenicians did bring the cat to Europe, as seems very likely, they may have also introduced the Greek association of the cat with Hecate. As noted above, Hecate was associated with dogs regularly but one story in particular, which was quite popular, links the dark goddess with the cat.

The Greek myth which suggests this link is the well known story of Heracles (the Roman Hercules) and concerns Galinthius, a maid-servant to Heracles' mother, the Princess Alcmene. The god Zeus seduced Alcmene and she became pregnant with Heracles. Zeus' wife, Hera, was thwarted in her attempt to kill Alcmene and Heracles through the cleverness of Galinthius. Enraged, Hera transformed Galinthius into a cat and sent her to the underworld to ever after serve Hecate. This story was popularized by the Latin writer Antoninus Liberalis (2nd century CE) in his Metamorphosis, a retelling of older tales, which was popular enough to be copied and distributed up through the 9th century CE and to enjoy a wide readership through at least the 16th century CE. This myth, then, associated cats with darkness, transformation, the underworld, and witchcraft and, in time, these associations would prove very unfortunate for the cat.

Cats as Demonic Figures

Although cats seem to have enjoyed their ancient high standing in European countries at first (in Norse mythology, for example, the great goddess Freya is depicted in a chariot drawn by cats and in both Ireland and Scotland cats are depicted as magical in a positive sense) the Christian Church, following their regular course of demonizing important pagan symbols, drew on the pre-existing link between the cat and witchcraft to associate cats with evil as personified in the Devil. The medieval writer Walter Map (c. 1140-1210 CE) associated the cat with demonic forces in his work (although it is possible Map was being stirical) and there are records of cats being ritually killed in Cambridge England in the early 13th century CE.

The reputation of the cat took a more serious downward turn, however, after Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241 CE) issued his papal bull known as Vox in Rama in 1233 CE denouncing cats as evil and in league with Satan, cats - and especially black cats - were demonized to the point where they were regularly killed all across Europe. It should not be assumed that the common people would have read Vox in Rama and responded to it, nor even that the bull was widespread (it was issued only to Henry III, Count of Sayn, in Germany) but the opinion of the church toward cats would certainly have filtered down from the highest levels to the lay-people of the congregations.

It has long been argued that the death of so many cats allowed the mice and rat populations to thrive and that the fleas these vermin carried brought about the Bubonic Plague of 1348 CE. While this theory has been disputed, there seems no doubt that a decrease in the cat population would result in an increase in the number of mice and rats and it is established that there was such a decrease in the number of cats prior to 1348 CE. Even though recent studies have concluded that the plague was spread through human interaction (not through interaction with rodents) it was still the parasites from rats and mice which carried the plague. People of the time, however, had no idea where the plague came from (the bacterium Yersinia pestis,which causes plague, was not isolated until 1894 CE) and saw no correlation between the number of rodents, cats, and the disease; therefore cats continued to be suspect of all manner of ill-will and dangerous attributes.

Desmond Morris writes, “Because the cat was seen as evil, all kinds of frightening powers were attributed to it by the writers of the day. Its teeth were said to be venomous, its flesh poisonous, its hair lethal (causing suffocation if a few were accidentally swallowed), and its breath infectious, destroying human lungs and causing consumption” and further states, “As late as 1658 Edward Topsel, in his serious work on natural history, [wrote] `the familiars of Witches do most ordinarily appear in the shape of Cats, which is an argument that this beast is dangerous to soul and body” (158). The inhabitants of the European nations, believing the cat to be evil, shunned not only the animal but anyone who seemed overly fond of the cat. Elderly women who cared for cats were especially susceptible to punishment for witchcraft simply on the grounds of being so accused.

The Victorian Age and Cat Vindication

Cats survived these frenzied superstitions better than many of their human companions and during the Enlightenment of the 18th century were elevated to the status of pampered pets. This was due to the spirit of the age and the new paradigm of reason prevailing over superstition. The power of the church in dictating popular opinion had been broken by the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648 CE) and in the Age of Enlightenment people could choose to believe what they wanted to regarding cats or any other subject.

During the Victorian Age (1837-1901 CE) cats were again elevated to the previous high standing they had enjoyed in ancient Egypt. Queen Victoria of Great Britain, who had always kept dogs as pets, became interested in cats through the many stories of archaeological finds in Egypt being published regularly in England. Many of these stories included descriptions of the Egyptian reverence for cats, images of statues of Bastet, and the feline association with the gods and monarchy. The queen's interest in the cat led her to adopt two Blue Persians whom she treated as members of her court. This story was carried by the newspapers of the day and, as Queen Victoria was a very popular monarch, more and more people became interested in having cats of their own.

This trend spread to the United States and was encouraged by the most popular magazine in America at that time, Godey's Lady's Book. Published by Louis A. Godey of Philadelphia from 1830 -1878, this monthly periodical featured stories, articles, poems, and engravings and is perhaps best known for helping to institutionalize the practice of the family Christmas tree in America (although it also advocated for women's rights, education, the celebration of Thansgiving, and was among the first to publish Edgar Allen Poe's work).

In 1836 CE, the brilliant editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale joined Godey's and greatly enhanced its reputation and circulation. In an 1860 article, Hale wrote that cats were not solely for older women or monarchs and that anyone should feel comfortable in embracing the “love and virtue” of the cat. Cat popularity in the United States grew appreciably after the Godey article. Cats first came to North America, it is thought, in 1749 CE, from England, to help control the mice and rat population but they seem to have been largely considered utilitarian until the Victorian Age when they became cherished pets and, in the United States, this was largely due to the influence of Godey's Lady's Book and Sarah Hale's contributions to it.

Popularity of Cats

Many writers of the age owned and admired cats. Charles Dickens was so devoted to his cats that he allowed them into his study and regularly allowed his favorite (known as The Master's Cat) to snuff out the candle on Dickens' writing desk even when the author was at work. Evidently, the cat would grow tired of Dickens' attention being directed toward the page instead of to feline companionship and petting (Morris, 167). Mark Twain, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Thomas Hardy were all great admirers of the cat and Lewis Carroll, of course, created one of the most enduring images of the feline through the Cheshire Cat in his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The first major Cat Show was held at the Crystal Palace in London in 1871CE and appreciation of the cat was elevated to such a level that, for the first time, cats were given “specific standards and classes” which are still used to categorize felines in the present day (Morris, 148). Cat shows became increasingly popular after this event and interest in breeding and showing cats spread throughout Europe and North America. The first cat show in America (in 1895 CE) was so popular that it was held at the large venue of Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. From agents of pest control to divine or semi-divine creatures, to incarnations of evil, and, finally, to house pets, cats have been the close associates of human beings for centuries. They continue to be valued companions for people across the world today and, in this, these individuals carry on the legacy of the ancients in their devotion to, and appreciation for, the cat.

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About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
Joshua J. Mark is World History Encyclopedia's co-founder and Content Director. He was previously a professor at Marist College (NY) where he taught history, philosophy, literature, and writing. He has traveled extensively and lived in Greece and Germany.


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APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2012, November 17). Cats in the Ancient World. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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Mark, Joshua J.. "Cats in the Ancient World." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 17, 2012.

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Mark, Joshua J.. "Cats in the Ancient World." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 17 Nov 2012. Web. 25 May 2024.