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The origins and history of the cat

Black cat

Find out more about the history and origins of the cat

© Luku Muffin - Unsplash

Let’s delve into the cat’s origins and history. Travelling through the main eras of time, we’ll see how the Felis catus was perceived and its place in society.

By Emilie Heyl

Updated on the

The cat belongs to the Felidae family, carnivorous animals which, although of different morphology depending on the species, retain a strong resemblance between each of them in their body shape. Their most distant ancestors appeared in the Paleogene (about 65 million years ago), when all carnivores started coming on Earth; they were animals of reduced size, but whose morphology made them formidable predators.

The very first Felis appeared, after countless and slow evolutions, in the Pleistocene era (about 600,000 years ago). It was around this time that they differentiated themselves from the Panthera or Leo (species which combine the lion, the tiger, the leopard and the jaguar) and from the Acinonyx (of which the cheetah is one). In this period, they were spread over the entire surface of the globe (except Australia, where they were introduced by the colonists) and found a suitable habitat and some food wherever they would go.

The very first cat’s ancestors

On the old continent (Europe), the closest ancestors of the cat were the Felis silvestris (Common Wildcat), the Felis silvestris libyca (African Wildcat) and the Felis margarita (Sand Cat). It is impossible to establish when exactly the cat, or at least one of these cats, were domesticated as these species never appeared in prehistoric paintings. Therefore it seems like the cat was domesticated quite late, given his wild nature and need for freedom.

The cat has embodied deities in many historical civilizations, while others associated the feline with the concept of fertility and fecundity. Some civilisations made it a symbol, positive or negative, of sensuality. This is the reason why, apart from its elegance and beauty, the cat’s silhouette has been, more than any other, transcribed on amulets and jewelry.

The cat in ancient Egypt

It was in Egypt that the first written testimonies and iconographical documents portrayed cats, they date back to around 2130 BC. Originally, the cat was a wild animal that lived on the banks of the Nile Delta, chasing birds, rats and snakes. Very quickly, the Egyptians realised that this feline could become an excellent ally to hunt and exterminate rats which, with each flood of the Nile, invaded every year the fields and the attics. It was mainly for this reason that the cat began to be domesticated.

The cat, embodiment of the gods

In Egypt, the cat was not only loved for its practicality, but also worshiped as an emblem and as an embodiment of the gods. The Felis Catus represented two gods: God Osiris who, when he did not want to be recognised, liked to transform into a cat, and the Goddess Bastet, or Bast, benefactress with the body of a woman and the head of a cat. Protector of the house, pregnancy, childbirth, guardian of health, light and heat, the goddess Bastet was the most beloved deity of the people and no one could be found without an amulet of her.

The cat was also represented in many murals, but above all in splendid statues with pure and defined lines. In Egypt, exporting a cat, deemed divine, was severely punished. These animals could not in any way and under any pretext leave the country. But all these celebration and worshipping came to an end with Ptolemis’ dynasty and the abolition of the pagan cults ordered by Theodosius. The cat lost its “divine” role.

Why do we say the cat has nine lives?

This belief is linked on the one hand to the cat's great capacity for recovery and on the other hand to an old heritage. Indeed, there was a time when the number nine was considered a lucky charm, and it was associated with the cat that was considered the lucky animal par excellence.

The cat in ancient Greece

While exporting a cat was still forbidden in Egypt, it seems that some Macedonian and Phoenician merchants managed to import a few cats by smuggling them as far as Greece. At first they were not seen as useful allies, but as pets, as the Greeks would use weasels for rodent hunting. But it wasn’t long until cats replaced them as domestic hunters because, unlike weasels, cats did not attack or chase farmyard animals.

The only testimonies that we have of the cat’s life in ancient Greece are some quotes in Herodotus's texts, Aristophanes and Callimachus, a pictorial decoration on a vase and a bas-relief of the battle of Marathon (5th century BC. AD) on which is depicted a cat confronting a dog.

The cat during the Roman Empire

Romans were introduced to the cat a long time after Greece because, in the Empire, aggressive and large animals were especially appreciated and admired, as symbols of power. In addition, the Romans considered the cat as an independent animal, too independent to pay attention to humans.

Moreover, the development of agriculture In Rome meant that it was necessary that the presence of animals capable of defending crops and attics against the threat of the usual rodents.

The cat in the Middle Ages

With the assertion of early Christianity, around the 8th century, separating good and evil was becoming mandatory, not only from an ethical and religious perspective. This didn’t only concern humans, but also animals. The cat, as well as other animals (toad, rat, snake, etc.) was cataloged as a manifestation of the devil because of its independent and lustful behaviour and of his habit of hunting especially at night.

The cat, persecuted in the Middle Ages

This is how the cat, until the 13th century AD., became one of the most frowned upon and persecuted animals. The persecution also extended to those who, to their misfortune, had a good heart and took care of these felines. In general, they were women, who were sometimes accused of witchcraft simply because they had a black cat!

These facts can be confirmed simply by going through the legal reports of the time which report the trials: a poor women, subjected to torture, confessed "spontaneously" having physically been united with a big black cat, incarnation of Beelzebub . It was only towards the end of this "dark" period that people began to represent images of cats in family environments. However, it will take a long time to see cats appear in paintings of religious nature.

Why do we believe that the black cat brings bad luck?

It comes from the darkest period in cat history: the Middle Ages . At that time, cats were persecuted because a belief saw them as evil creatures sent by Satan to populate the Earth.

The cat in the Renaissance

Medieval persecutions certainly made life difficult for cats, which on the other hand allowed the proliferation of rats, favoring the transmission of diseases to humans, in particular the plague. These disastrous events gradually helped to restore the image of domestic felines which, if they were not regarded with the same kindness as other domestic animals, were at least appreciated for their skill as hunters.

The cat in a domestic family

At the start of the Renaissance, the cat was poorly represented in religious paintings, as it still dragged its grim medieval reputation as a close collaborator of the Evil One, and an essentially symbolic art could not but steer clear of all this. At that time, the cat was only found marginally, in certain paintings where it was represented without ever being near or in contact with a human. Towards the end of the Renaissance, there was a general reassessment of animals which made it possible to increase knowledge on their role and behaviour.

The cat entered the household, not only as a useful animal but also as a pet. In addition, monasteries and convents found themselves obliged to own at least a couple of cats to eliminate rats. Artistically, the cat was increasingly represented in paintings with a familial atmosphere, intimate, with certain family members and in women’s portraits.

The cat from the Enlightenment to the present day

Between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, cats saw their numbers increase throughout Europe, and in the tales in which they appeared, their character was painted both clever and independent, sympathetic and charming. In the 18th century, the advent of the Enlightenment made it possible to overcome all superstitions: it was the century of the triumph of reason. The spread of this movement of philosophical and ideological thoughts freed man from religious fanaticism and allowed the cat to regain its dignity and freedom.

But the real "century of the cat" was the nineteenth century; the romantic writers saw in this animal their symbol and became its most passionate defenders, in this way also influencing the feelings of the population who, finally, abandoned their last prejudices. In addition to its qualities as a hunter, we began to appreciate its beauty and elegance, to the point of organizing in 1871, at the Crystal Palace in London, the first cat show. The exhibitions followed one another throughout Europe and America, and the first feline associations were created, from then on, interest in the cat continued to grow day by day.

Recognition of the cat for its qualities

The First World War temporarily stopped all demonstrations and animal exposure and the recognised breeds almost entirely disappeared. From 1920 to 1938, there was a recovery which was, however, again stopped during the Second World War. It was therefore not until after the war that we could take care of our friends again and create new breeds, which required a lot of time and work.

The history of the cat is quite singular: adored and deified by the Egyptians, almost ignored by the ancient Greeks and Romans, cataloged as an evil animal and persecuted during the Middle Ages. Gradually though, as humans evolved in History, cats were esteemed again, until they obtained, in a very recent, modern era, a good reputation for its qualities and abilities.

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