In the Beginning, There Were Cats…Almost That Is
In the beginning, there were cats, that is almost. Until recent years, it was believed that domestic cats originated in Egypt. Archeological findings had traced them living in a harmonious relationship with man (domesticated status) from as early as 3000 BC.
Advances in science, history and technology have lead us to know cats probably were around when mankind formed its first agrarian society and predate Egypt by over 9,000 years.
In 2004, scientist found the skeletal remains with a cat deliberately buried with a human in Cyprus, dating back to 9,500 years ago. Additional research has linked domestic cats to the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, dating back some 12,000 years ago. The Neolithic Revolution, the first agricultural revolution, resulted in mankind being nomads and hunters to living in settlements, growing their food, and domesticating animals.
When humans were predominantly hunters, dogs were of great use, and became domesticated long before cats. Cats only became useful to people when they began to settle down, till the earth to grow crops, and store the harvest for future use. According to the Smithsonian Magazine’s History of Cats, with grain stores came mice, and when the first wild cats wandered into town, the stage was set for what the Science study authors call “one of the more successful ‘biological experiments’ ever undertaken.” The cats were delighted by the abundance of prey in the storehouses; people were delighted by the pest control.
Cats were found useful for their predatory abilities. By hunting rodents, the cats kept these menacing pests from ruining their food supply. Thus, cats became a benefit to them. They kept them around for their hunting prowess. Whether or not these cats became human friends, may never be known, but scientists do believe African Wild Cats (Felis silvestris lybica) or perhaps the wood cat (Felis sylvestris) may have actually domesticated themselves. No matter what people think, cats are smart, so it would be no surprise to find they knew they’d have a better life by befriending these two legged humans.
There’s not a lot of written history about the cat until the times of Ancient Egypt. Here, we can find some information about the unique relationship between the Egyptians and cats, with the Egyptians elevating them to a god-like basis.
Several online sources say the domestication of cats was encouraged in ancient Egypt. Money was given to people who took cats to the royal granaries of a night time, to hunt and deter vermin.
Cats, which may have looked somewhat different from today’s domesticated feline, first started approaching Egyptian grain stores along the banks of the Nile, attracted by the resident mice, rats, and snakes. People became grateful to these cats because they had reduced the rodent population. Because these cats were living in close proximity to man, they were threatened by fewer predators, and were given a bit of refuge. Their kittens, then, became used to mankind, and thus they became domesticated. This same principal applies to today’s feral kittens, which can be socialized and become companion animals.
The story of how cats became sacred feline deities has several versions. Some say that as a result of their usefulness, protecting food stores from vermin, the Ancient Egyptians turned cats into sacred feline deities. The name for these cats was ‘miw’. Other reports say the cat’s first name in Egypt was Myeo or Mau.
Owners went into mourning when ‘miw’ died, and the cat was embalmed and placed in wooden coffins. They were so passionately protected from harm that anyone finding themselves near an injured cat fled from the scene quickly to avert being blamed, and possibly even put to death, for killing the cat. In the event of fire, the cat(s) would be the first to be rescued. After death, cats were mummified for burial – often into enormous tombs with tens of thousands of other cats.
According to the e-book, Cats as Pets, other countries were aware of Egyptian cat worship. There is a story of a battle between Egypt and Persia in 525 B.C. where the Persian commander stationed cats in his front line. The Egyptians refused to attack because they feared hurting the cats. They lost the battle.
Other stories, some cited in the e-book, Cats as Pets, link female cats and lionesses ked to Sekhmet, the much revered Egyptian goddess of war, while Tom cats were considered sacred to the sun god, Ra.
Perhaps the sacred status is connected to Bast or Bastet, the goddess fertility and love. With the body of a woman and the head of a cat, she controlled the life giving sun’s heat. Bast has the pointed ears of the domestic cat, and was considered the protector of positive forces in the world. Early Egyptians also believed the glow from cat’s eyes held captive the light of the sun.
Another version of this story links the cats deity status to when the Goddess Sekhmet-Bast divided into two sisters, Sekhmet (a dark skinned woman with the head of a lioness with rounded ears) and Bast (the body of a woman and the head of a cat with pointed ears of a domestic cat), creating the cycle of life and death, forming the “Yin Yang” deities of ancient Egypt. Bast, whose sacred color was blue, was the protector of positive forces in the world. Conversely Sekhmet was the protector negative forces, protecting the righteous, providing for vengeance and swift justice. Sekhmet’s sacred color is red.
These domestic cats became treasured pets and were honored in many forms of artwork. By1500BC, and if someone killed a cat in Egypt, they were usually put to death. Despite this, thousands of cats were bred and raised for sacrifice. Their mummies have been found in huge numbers in Egyptian tombs.
In spite of the Egyptians’ efforts to prevent the cats from being exported abroad, cats started going global, and the story is a bit convoluted on how the first cats left Egypt. Some says the Greeks stole the animals to control their rodent problem. It is believed the first domesticated animals appeared in Europe around 900BC. Eventually the Egyptians began selling cats to the Romans, the Gaels, the Celts and later other Europeans and thus the cat population began to spread worldwide.
If the cats were around before Egypt, chances are they may not have had to be exported from Egypt and moved to areas where they could find food and refuge from predators, thus following man to where ever they went. And for my next post, let’s look at where the cats went, as they said “I Will Follow Him”.
What do you think? Do you think cats came to the aide of mankind in the earliest settlements? Do you think their sacred status is linked to the popularity of cats as companion animals today? Do you think cats really are godlike or just act that way? Mine certainly act like they are gods, and they let me know that
I’d better do as they demand.