by Joelle Steele

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Cats have been a source of mystery to mankind since the dawn of recorded history. Their mythology and folklore alone are extensive, dating to ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures. And today, the many superstitions surrounding our feline companions still exist in some of the more primitive regions of the world.

The Romans called the cat "felis," a word which has to do with a good and positive magical omen, and from which we get the word "feline." But, they also called the cat "catta" which was also what they called the weasel, the original rat-catcher of the time. The word "catta" is believed to have Egyptian (Nubian) roots in the word "kadis" which has been interpreted as both "cat" and "holy." During the middle ages, it was claimed that the word "cat" came from either the Latin word "catus" meaning acute and referring to the cat's acute vision, or from "captura" or "captat," two forms of a Latin word meaning to capture, and referring to a cats' ability to catch their prey. It is from these roots that we get our modern-day scientific classification of Felidae for the cat family, and Feline catus, the genus and species signifying the domestic house cat. Also, many other cultures have words for the cat which may stem from these Latin roots. For example, the Dutch word for cat is "kat," the Hindu word is "katas," and the Turkish is "qadi."

Cats have also been called "puss" through the ages. In fact, up until the eighteenth century, the word "puss" was used in England to refer to cats and rabbits alike. It is believed by linguists to be a corruption of the Egyptian word "Pasht" which was one of the names for their cat goddess Bastet (Bast). Many experts also believe that the English word "meow" and the Chinese word for cat "mao" are derived from the Egyptian "Mau," another name for the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet.

In ancient Egypt, cats were considered a sign of good fortune, and Bastet (Bast), a goddess with the head of a cat, was the "mistress of the oracle" and the "little sister" of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, also called Mau and known as the "great cat." Both Bastet and Sekhmet were lunar deities who ruled women and cats and were sacred to the goddess Isis who is often depicted with cats. The Egyptian believed cats were the destroyers of demons and serpents of the underworld. Their eyes were linked to the god Horus and to many magical beliefs. Many sacred eye amulets contained images of cats, and some believed a giant cat looked down on the world from the sky. The ancient Egyptians mummified their dead cats, often adorning their bodies with jewels and protective amulets. In the early 19th century, an enormous cemetery containing over 50,000 mummified cats was discovered but later plundered and destroyed. It was a customary magical sign and denotation of grief and mourning, to shave your eyebrows when your cat died.

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not deify the cat, but cats were prominently portrayed in the company of gods. In his fables, Aesop portrayed cats as clever and cunning. The ancient Chinese had much literature about cats, but did not include the cat in their zodiac because of an old myth which said the cat did not weep in the presence of the dying Buddha. In ancient Burma, a cat named Sinh was believed to possess oracular powers. In ancient Scandinavia, the cat is greatly immortalized in myth and legend.

Up until the beginning of the middle ages, cats were revered in virtually every ancient culture. But, with the spread of Christianity during those early times, the omission of cats from the Bible was interpreted as a sign that the common house cat was a demonic entity. During those days, Christian and pagan beliefs were often intertwined, and feline sacrifices were not uncommon. Deeper into the middle ages, the cat is most often depicted as a symbol of the devil, and by the 15th century, Christian art depicts the cat almost exclusively as an agent of evil. From the 16th century well into the late 18th century when the last witch trial was held, cats were feared and loathed, associated almost exclusively with witchcraft, and believe by many to be witches in disguise. Many innocent people were burned at the stake as witches based entirely upon their ownership or association with cats.

This article last updated: 03/24/2012.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.