“The phrase domestic cat is an oxymoron” (George F. Will)
Ever since hunting communities turned to farming, the advantages of keeping cats around was obvious – they kept down the rodents that ate the precious grain supplies. As cats became more domesticated people grew fond of these playful balls of mischief and started making them pets. Cats were revered by the Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Romans, and Vikings for hundreds of years. If a black cat crossed your path you would be lucky, and to dream of this creature was a good omen. Mummified cats were buried in houses as a spiritual protection against rats and mice. But something happened in the Middle Ages that changed public opinion so that cats suddenly became demonized and were actively persecuted. Why did this happen?
The cat is an ambivalent creature, wild by nature and perhaps never fully tamed. They are not easily befriended, roam about in the night, and are sexually promiscuous. Cats are stealthy, sneaky, silent, clever, inquisitive, and almost invisible in the darkness – except for their scary eyes. All felines are hunters and killers, and their eerie howls and cries can sound quite chilling. They are said to have nine lives and be difficult to get rid of. And some old wives’ tales claim cats kill babies – either by sitting on their faces or by sucking the breath from their noses.
The Celts believed cats were the souls of wicked people unfit to be reborn as humans who were changed into animals instead. Perhaps this notion of evil lived on in the European psyche because when the early medieval witch hunts broke out, common animals became firmly associated with witches – particularly black cats. Cats were said to be their familiar spirits. Felines were seen as either shape-shifting witches or devils in disguise, or as the bad souls of former witches reborn. In 1484, a Papal decree denounced all cats and their owners as devil-worshippers, opening the floodgates for The Burning Times to begin.
This persecution lasted hundreds of years. And just as the cunning folk were condemned to terrible deaths, so too were their pets. Thousands of cats were hunted down during Lent and burned on huge public bonfires. At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I (1558) live cats were stuffed inside a wicker effigy of the pope and set ablaze. It is said that loud songs and music were used to drown out their pitiful howls, but no one spoke out against the atrocity because cats were the most feared and reviled of all common animals.
The Age of Enlightenment gave rise to a more logical and scientific way of thinking that eventually overcame these fears and superstitions. And when people started questioning the existence of witchcraft they began seeing cats through different eyes too. They were no longer the public enemy.
As a life-long cat owner I have grown to appreciate the independence and intriguing ambiguities of my kitties, but if yours ever lets you think they are truly domesticated – enjoy the illusion!
(Photos: Kit Perriman)
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