Cats are all over the world except Antarctica. But how did they get there. Their history is as curious and mysterious as they are.
The Egyptian Pharaoh wanted to keep control of the African Wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) cats of Egypt that were diligently guarding the granaries, by killing off the rats.
In Egyptian culture, more grain meant more wealth, and the Pharaoh wanted to increase his wealth. However, the commoners loved their cats, so he couldn’t forbid them from owning these godlike creatures. So he devised a plan to elevate them to the status of demigods, where the commoners could care for the cats but they would remain the official property of the Pharaoh.
With demigod status, people were put to death if they killed a cat. If there was a fire, the cats were pulled to safety first. A family had to bring a cat to the priest to confirm the cat died of natural causes and was not killed. People wept, beat their chest and shaved their eyebrows to mourn the loss of their beloved cat.
The Egyptians wanted to maintain control over cats, but being at the crossroads the shipping and trading business, that was not possible. Ship captains kept several cats on board to control the rats and mice. And when the ships docked at a new port, the cats would disembark in search of more prey. Cats found their way both east and west, going around the world on the ships.
It is believed the Greeks stole cats from Egyptians to control their own rodent problem. Eventually the Egyptians began selling cats to the Romans, the Gaels, the Celts and other Europeans, and cats began to spread worldwide.
Cats arrived in Europe around 1000 BC, most likely on some of these ships. Ancient Greece and Rome valued cats for their ability to control rodents. Roman art depicts the cat as a working animal, not godlike, mystical creatures. But at one time, the cat was considered the guardian spirit of a household and a symbol of liberty. The Roman army used cats as store watchman, and carried cats with them, through Gaul and to Britain.
The conquered people became avid pet owners, some keeping larger cats in addition to the domestic ones. According to HDW Enterprises & Foothill Felines Bengals’s website, The History of the Domestic Cat, (http://www.hdw-inc.com/historyofcat.htm) it is believed some of these cats strayed and interbred with Felis Silvestris, the wild cat common to Western Europe and Britain. When the Romans retreated back to Rome in the 4th century, they left the cats behind.
According to Purina Co.’s Short History of the Cat, (http://www.purina.co.uk/Home/All+About+Cats/Choosing+a+Cat/A+Short+History+Of+The+Cat.htm) in 936 AD, Howell Dla, Prince of South Central Wales, enacted a law to protect domestic cats.
Cats permeated Viking culture for rodent control and as companions, and are linked to the domestication of the Norwegian Forest Cat, Skogkatt. The Viking goddess of love, fertility and war, Freyja considered cats her sacred animals, and art depicts her in a chariot drawn by two horse-sized winged cats. Kittens were given to new brides in her name in reference over cats, romance and fertility.
Domestic cats spread throughout Asia by 500 BC, where they protected silkworm cocoons, used to make silk, from rodents. Many writers and artists in Japan and China celebrated the mystery and beauty of the cat in their works. In Japan, the “Maneki Neko” is referred to in English as the “good fortune” or “good luck” cat.
This deference and worship of cats lead to their downfall from godlike to evil beasts. The cat’s fate during the dark ages was bleak, at best. The middle ages followed the fall of the Roman Empire during the 5th century and according to Wikipedia, extended until the rise of Western Roman Empire (5th century) until the rise of national monarchies, the start of European overseas exploration, the humanist revival, and the beginning of Protestant Reformation in 1517.
In Europe the cat became associated with the Devil, evil and witchcraft, and hundreds of thousands of cats were killed. This upset the balance of the rodent population, and is believed to have contributed to the spread of the bubonic plague, called Black Death. Rat fleas transmitted that disease to people, and almost a quarter of Europe’s population died. In parts of France, only ten percent of the population survived.
A Short History of the Cat – Purina – Your Pet, Our Passion
(www.purina.co.uk/) states that in 1484, Pope Innocent VII decreed all cat-worshipers in Europe be burned as witches. He believed that witches worshiped Satan and that they took on the form of their animal helpers, especially cats. The fact that cats prowl at night further connected them to the devil and witchcraft. (Perhaps this is why black cats are the least adoptable of any cats in shelters today.) Any cat in the company of an old woman was assumed to be a witch’s evil associate. The Inquisition was instructed to hunt down all cat owners and try them as witches. Hundreds of cats and their owners were burnt to death.
Cats’ lives didn’t improve in Europe until the 17th Century when they once again became mousers, particularly on ships. With overseas exploration, it was essential to keep the mice out of the food supply. Cats came to America on the Mayflower and became revered as food protectors.
By Victorian times (Queen Victoria’s reign from 20 June 20, 1837, until her death on Jan. 22 1901, cats had regained acceptance as household pets and by the end of the 19th Century early pedigree breeds were exhibited at the first cat shows. In 1871, a large show held at London’s Crystal Palace for British Shorthair and Persian types. About the same time in the Maine Coon was shown at the very first American cat show: the National Capital Cat Show held in 1895 in New York City.
The ancestral origins of the Maine Coon are unknown, and several stories abound. According to History, Legends and Myths of the Maine Coon, http://www.mainecoonrescue.net/history.html, one story traces the species Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, who was executed in 1793. Before her death, Antoinette attempted to escape France with the help of Captain Samuel Clough. She loaded Clough’s ship with her most prized possessions, including six of her favorite Turkish Angora cats. Although she did not make it to the United States, her pets safely reached the shores of Wiscasset, Maine, where they bred with other short-haired breeds and evolved into the modern breed of the Maine Coon.