Mythology Of The Cat

Most of the lesser complex animals, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and reptiles probably have a worldview along the lines of ‘it just is’ and accept whatever comes along – go with the flow. But once you consider the relatively higher and more complex animals, like birds and mammals, then brain complexity becomes such that to a greater or lesser degree, intelligence and the ability to think and figure things out has to be taken into consideration.

For those of you who have companion animals, or even those of you who have just watched animals at a distance, you may have wondered how those animals view and perhaps even think about life, the universe and everything. That is, each animal must have some sort of personal worldview; a perspective or point of view probably forever beyond our understanding – usually but not always.

I’m picking on cats in this particular case because I’ve owned cats nearly all my life. This essay could just as easily have been dogs or horses or some other domesticated mammal.

So what are cats? Can we identify with them? Can they identify with us? Well, domesticated cats are playful; curious; adaptable; selfish; they dream; they like variety though they can also be creatures of habit; they can ‘think’ things through and make decisions; they have a vocal language and a body language; they display emotions; they have memory and therefore somewhat a sense of history; they have the same sensory apparatus as we have; they have their own likes and dislikes whether it be food; a place to sleep, where they want or don’t want to be scratched or rubbed or petted; and, in short each cat has their own very unique personality. Cats are certainly very self-centred, perhaps a bit more so than typical adult humans, but certainly akin to human infants and toddlers whose worldview is very self-centred with a near 24/7 gimmie, gimmie, gimmie; I want, I want, I want. Cats, at least those intersecting with humans have a gimmie/I want aspect to them, and like infants/toddlers the ‘pester’ factor can often reach extremes. In short, cats really seem to be mini albeit furry versions of humans, especially infants/toddlers. But, how close might that version really be?

For starters, and perhaps like all animals, the cat probably has a worldview something akin to it being the centre of things – the be-all-and-end-all – and that the entire environment the cat finds itself in is there to provide for all the cat’s requirements. From the domestic cat’s point of view, the world owes it a living! How else could the cat view things? One’s self perceptions tend to revolve around ‘I am the centre of the universe’ because you are most intimately bound up in your worldview with yourself and not as intimately with anything else. Therefore, anything else, in a self-centred worldview must be subservient. Of course the cat often finds out the hard way that parts of that external reality have differing opinions. That never seems to shift the cat’s worldview however that it is ‘top dog’* and deserves all the best that comes its way – which might not be all the ‘best’ that nature could provide but the cat doesn’t know that.

Cats certainly have no comprehension, perhaps like toddlers, of being in the way, underfoot, in danger of being trodden on or sat upon, while helping themselves to whatever piece of household geography suits their fancy. One could conclude from their selfish (from our point of view) behaviour, their worldview must be one of ‘supreme being’ and ‘rank has its privileges’, and such a worldview will persist at least until such time as their tail gets stepped on or they get tossed out of the easy chair! They still probably see themselves as supreme beings – it’s their worldview of you that’s now somewhat changed.

The average head of the household and cat owner is probably somewhat of the opinion or has the rationale that ‘I pay the bills, therefore I call the shots and what I say goes’! Cats can probably understand ‘head of the household’ in that in cat society, as in all animal societies, all cats are not equal – there is a hierarchy and one cat alone will be ‘top dog’ as it were. But there’s nothing in a cat’s worldview that corresponds to money or bills or economics or finance. Everything is a free lunch, be it sunshine or the electric/gas/wood heater you, the owner, pay for. Even if the cat goes outside and catches and eats a mouse, it’s still as free a lunch as far as the cat is concerned as the food you put in its food bowl. So that bit about ‘I’m the boss because I pay the bills’ has no meaning or significance to the cat since the concept of ‘bills’ is foreign.

Cats have no mythology about shopping. The post Xmas sales and weekly specials at the supermarket are alien concepts. So is that nearly supreme abstraction to humans – time. Birthdays are a non-event with no realization when they occur and with no relevance in any event. Ditto all those other special points in time like holidays we humans are obsessed with. Cats don’t make a habit of staying up late on New Years Eve. It’s of no consequence. Weekends are no different than weekdays.

Equally the cat has apparently no worldview of tomorrow or of the future (though it has a memory of the past). It doesn’t save for a rainy day. I’ve never observed a cat hide away a few of its dry cat food pellets for a future emergency or a midnight snack. A cat is very ‘now’ oriented. A cat probably has no concept of death, far less an afterlife. I’ve always tended to have two cats at a time on the theoretical grounds they have companionship when I’m not around. As such, one cat will finally get to go to that great ‘litter box in the sky’ and as such the surviving cat (for a while at least) will be without its companion feline ‘friend’. I’ve never noticed however any real change in the behaviour of the surviving cat. The demise and removal of the other animal has apparently all the relevance of my tossing an empty can into the recycling bin. Now if I tossed out the cat’s favourite easy chair that would probably cause more of a reaction!

It’s difficult to teach a cat anything that isn’t already hardwired into its little grey cells. I mean you don’t tend to have guard cats, seeing-eye cats, or cats that sit up, stop on command at the corner, beg, and play fetch, etc. when their human owners say so. The cat’s worldview is quite foreign to such concepts, though there’s little difference between a cat’s IQ and a dog’s IQ. Maybe that’s why the saying ‘dogs have masters; cats have slaves’!

So those are several significant differences between the worldview mythologies of the cat relative to humans (or even dogs, who, are well known to ‘grieve’ upon the death of a fellow companion dog or of their owner. If I died, my cat’s loyalty would shift quick-smart to the next human who fed it).

I noted above that cats dream and why not. I judge this because often when they are sound asleep I frequently notice their paws and mouths twitching as if in response to something going on inside their head. I assume it’s not some abstraction that occupies this assumed dream state. It’s probably related to visions of chasing and eating fat mice and plump flightless birds! There’s no way of telling for sure, but that’s what I suspect. If they dream, they dream practical cat-related things.

I’ve never gotten the impression that a cat ponders anything at anytime but practical matters that have a direct bearing on it in the here and right now. An obvious example is that any cat always finds itself on the wrong side of a door, and you are expected to correct that state of affairs as often as is necessary – which is very often indeed. No wonder people install cat flaps! Anyway, things like philosophy and religion and the arts and mathematics and anything abstract not only isn’t considered and immediately dismissed, the cat probably can’t even conceive of such things in order for them to be dismissed as of no relevance to the cat’s worldview. There’s no creativity in their little grey cells whatever. I very much doubt whether any cat has pondered whether or not it has free will. My cats don’t respond to cat art, like the pictures of cats on calendars. Music soothes the savage beast but with one minor exception all my cats have been oblivious to whatever type of music CD I’m playing, be it classical or jazz, country & western or film scores; vocal or instrumental. That one exception is that I once had a cat that would react to whistling within a song that emanated from the speakers. Still, cats probably therefore never have to endure that annoying experience of having an irritating song play endlessly, over and over and over again inside their head!

If the cats were of a human frame of mind, they might conceive of something like: In the beginning the great cat deity, lets name it Bastet (also spelled Bast, Baast, Ubasti and Baset) after the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, created not only the domestic feline, but all that’s part and parcel of their world. In the beginning Bastet created the ever pristine litter box; the ever full food and water bowls, and lots of birds and mice for felines to chase, catch and snack on. That’s of course according to the mythology of the cat, if the cat had a human’s imagination. Well actually, not. No cat has imagined any self-contained mythology about the origin and evolution of cats. If cats have a worldview mythology outside of the concepts of self and now, then it probably centres on what strange companions humans are. And I’m 99% sure that while such human activities might be fascinating, they are equally incomprehensible.

Translated, whatever mythology our domestic feline companions come up with that explains to their satisfaction their worldview, it will bear little resemblance to actual human activities on behalf of the animal, like the concept of money to pay for the goods and services it receives. The cats have no conception of livestock (slaughtered as pet food), of biological evolution (that provided the birds and mice and the abilities of the cat to chase, catch and snack on them), of the infrastructure that gets them their fresh water (and other goodies) that ends up as the end product in their water bowls, etc.

So while I have no idea what worldview mythology my cats have (and they probably aren’t the exact same – each cat’s worldview will be in part unique) it’s wrong.

However, we can speculate; take scenarios that are part and parcel of their world, natural or otherwise, and try to figure out how they see and interpret things through their eyes.

So what goes through a cat’s mind when it’s not immediately concerned with me; now – when it’s not in immediate need of catering to various biological requirements and functions? The cat is just sitting, wide awake, alert, observing, but what is it thinking? Does it have to be deep in thought at all? Probably not I suspect. In fact, it’s more likely as not they are observing just for the sake of observing – always on the lookout for something to chase and eat (that’s probably just hardwired into their brain), or for something that might chase and eat them.

I mean my cats are interested in birds; I’m interested in birds too – but for totally different reasons. On the other hand, my cats are interested in a clean litter box, but what goes through their minds when every time they go to the litter box it’s pristine, even though it wasn’t in that condition a little while back for obvious reasons? Do they associate that ‘it wasn’t then but now it is pristine’ phenomenon with a cat deity or with me or neither? Cat food appears on demand in bowls they eat out of, yet they have no comprehension of the chain of events between manufacture, distribution, the need for money to purchase, transport, open and pour into those bowls that food. So how do they account for the food that somehow magically appears before them? Do they have a food bowl mythology? Or, perhaps it is a phenomena that just is, and they think no more about it than a fish ponders the nature of the water it swims in. For some reason I find it very hard to picture my cats deep in thought wondering about all those whys and wherefores associated with the food they consume.

Well we have some idea what a cat’s worldview mythology is (me; now), and isn’t (nothing that’s abstract) but you, the owner, aren’t an abstraction. How do you fit in to your animal’s mythology?

Cats must have a field day with respect to inventing a mythology that accounts for the strange habits of those creatures they share their environment with – humans. For example, my cats see me getting dressed every morning – I’m putting on the fur. Since cats don’t need to dress, this behaviour must be really weird to them. Ditto making the bed or washing the dishes. The cats must be totally freaked out by my habit of deliberately getting wet via a daily shower or bath. What activity could repulse a cat more than that? Yuck! How do cats explain the dwelling they reside in along with all the stuff it contains? I know where it all comes from, but how do they account for it all? Do they even bother to try to account for it? Part of that all is my personal computer (PC). They see me typing away on this PC but I’m sure they have no comprehension of what this PC device is or why I’m pecking away on it instead of paying attention to them. When I go out of the house, shopping say or off to the club for a few cold beers, do they wonder where and why? Do they worry that I might not come back, because if I don’t they will find themselves in a pretty pickle. Or, is the fact I’m away of no interest and no consequence and causes no speculation? Since they don’t seem agitated when I leave, I suspect they have no comprehension of the possibility that I might not return, being hit by the proverbial bus instead.

So, do my cats develop a point of view, a worldview mythology to account for birds (a natural part of their environment), litter boxes (not so natural), and PC’s (totally unnatural)? I suspect they don’t. These things just are and don’t require any mythological interpretation to otherwise explain them.

Cats like to lie and stretch out in and soak up the warmth of the Sun. How do they account for sunshine and this warmth since presumably they know nothing of stellar astrophysics, nuclear fusion, photons, etc.? Might it be, if it be at all, that our cats conclude that in the beginning that great cat deity Bastet created the Sun to give pleasure and warmth to them, but, Bastet hides the Sun at regular intervals (at night) so as not to totally spoil us cats? Probably not I suspect. The warmth of the Sun probably just is (like the water is to the fish) – in fact they might not even make the connection between the Sun, sunshine, and the warmth that gives them.

Conclusions & Summary: So what is a domestic cat’s worldview mythology? Well, if the cat could speak, it might say something like this: “It’s all about me; it’s all about now; everything else just is and if it doesn’t affect me now, it’s not relevant.” The more I think about it, the more I draw a parallel between a cat being an eternal toddler (me; now; everything else just is, albeit interesting and worthy of exploring), but at least without the temper tantrums!

*The standing observation or joke is that a dog thinks to itself that ‘my human feeds me and plays with me and looks after me, therefore he must be a god’. The cat thinks to itself that ‘my human feeds me and plays with me and looks after me, therefore I must be a god!’ There’s an awful lot of relevance in that observation IMHO.

Black Cats and Feline Reputations

Most people in the United States have heard that if a black cat crosses your path, bad luck will follow. Most people who respond to such an event by saying something like “uh-oh” don’t follow up and blame the cat for the fact that a few days later they are, say, fired from their job or trip over the dog and sprain an ankle. But the notion persists, as do many other folk beliefs about cats-as-trouble. Most of these notions arose (in the West) during the late Middle Ages, persisting well into the seventeenth and even the eighteenth centuries. They come down to us today, happily, for the most part filtered by time and reason into paler, less scary versions. In fact, in England it is good luck if a black cat crosses your path. But Europeans in earlier times found plenty of reasons to be truly horrible to cats, especially black ones.

Black cats were not only nocturnal like all cats, skulking around in the dark as if guilty of something, and they were often indifferent to humans, even haughty, but also they had the misfortune of being black. For Europeans in early times, black was-simply-bad. It was associated with the underworld, with night (when bad things like werewolves were on the prowl), with the dark forests where dangerous spirits and crazy people bent on mayhem lurked. It was a scary world, where Satan himself was a constant threat. He and his dark minions practiced the black arts and were always looking to traduce innocent souls into evil.* The world, back in late medieval times, was also full of somewhat attenuated beliefs based on ancient times. Rome’s Diana the Huntress was associated with cats and later in her career morphed a little bit into Hecate, goddess of the underworld and given to dark doings. Also she was associated with the moon, that unreliable and protean body in the night sky. Cats were awarded these attributes.

Early on, the Catholic Church tried to dispel any such pagan notions, discouraging belief in the witchcraft that appears to have always been part of life in most preliterate societies. But late in the Middle Ages when universal satisfaction with the teachings and workings of the Church began to decay, scapegoats were needed. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX explained that black cats were satanic and suddenly the Christian world was overrun with witches and their “familiars,” which is to say the black cats that the witches sent forth to do harm to people. Indeed, witches often turned into black cats. And witches of course were agents of the devil. Thousands of people, mostly women, were burned at the stake along with their cats. Putative witches were typically tortured, and they readily admitted their guilt to stop the torture, even repeating various totally made-up incantations. Thus the virulence of witchcraft was proved, leading to a kind of mass hysteria in which yet more witches were put to the torch. Meanwhile, with such a bad rap, cats of all colors were persecuted.

In one common event, they were hung in bags that avid medieval sportsmen would attack with lances. Indeed, killing cats by one means or another was a highly popular pastime. In these exercises, there was no special emphasis on black cats-any cat would do. From this era comes the old saying “no room to swing a cat,” another sportsmen’s amusement. Possibly harking back to the Egyptian belief that cats were associated with fecundity, some medieval European farmers would bury a cat-alive- near each field they planted, to ensure the growth of the crops. In one macabre case, English archaeologists in the nineteenth century found the remains of thousands of cats buried by the adoring ancient Egyptians, and shipped them back to Albion to be ground up and used as fertilizer.

Mistreatment of cats in this era took many forms. As James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania describes it, On feast days as a symbolic means of driving out the Devil, cats, especially black ones, were captured, tortured, thrown onto bonfires, set alight and chased through the streets, impaled on spits and roasted alive, burned at the stake, plunged into boiling water, whipped to death, and hurled from the tops of tall buildings; and all, it seems, in an atmosphere of extreme festive merriment.

Europe was not alone in the world in its distaste for all that cats stood for. Evil cats were common features of some Oriental folklore. In Japan, huge vampire cats took the form of human females and sucked the blood and strength from unwitting men. The Japanese used to cut off cats’ tails, believing the tail to be the seat of their malevolence. On the other hand, cats were looked upon with great favor in many Japanese monasteries, where bobtail cats called temple cats or kimono cats were thought to exemplify much of the wisdom passed on by the Buddha. And today, the Japanese have given the world the manekineko or beckoning cat, which can be found in many Asian restaurants and homes in this country as well as Japan and the rest of Asia.

The ceramic figure, something like a children’s illustration, recalls a cat that legendarily stood at the entrance of a famous temple beckoning a feudal lord to come inside. A lightning bolt struck where the lord had been standing and thereafter the beckoning cat was taken to be an incarnation of the goddess of mercy. It is also said to be good for businesses, beckoning customers, and for happiness and harmony-a long way from the cat vampires of old. Today in the West the association of cats with witches is memorialized in Hallowe’en costumery and iconography wherein witches on broomsticks ride across the disc of the full moon, while cartoonish black cats with malevolently arched backs spit and hiss in the foreground. On the last day of October, diminutive witches with black pointy hats will now turn up on doorsteps cheerfully calling for tricks or treats. And, of course, at least 278 zillion people have read about Harry Potter whose witch-filled world is also populated by kneazles, catlike creatures with spots and big ears, that appear to be mostly benevolent. In Islamic countries, cats are and were much admired, especially since the prophet Mohammed was particularly fond-and respectful-of cats, once cutting off his sleeve rather than awakening the cat who was sleeping on it. On the other hand, most Muslims find dogs objectionable. Dogs are eaten in many Asian restaurants, but I know of no place where cats are part of the normal diet.

The idea that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck is a southern European and Irish superstition, exported to the Americas. The English, as noted earlier, consider such an event good luck, and here and there local superstitions suggest that the appearance of a black cat in the presence of a pregnant woman assures a healthy offspring. Cats, and especially black ones, seem to have enjoyed a remarkable power: to be (in one place or another or at one time or another) all things to all people. Even at the height of cat persecution, plenty of cats lived comfortably with families who valued them for their help in vermin control. Indeed, in some places in England, if someone killed your cat, he would be forced to provide you with a pile of grain as high as the cat was long.

I myself had a black cat for several years. I did not seek him out. Instead, two women in the office where I worked at the time thought it would be funny (I suppose) or somehow fitting for them to present me with a large carton at the end of one October day-it was a few days before Hallowe’en-in which there sat a lanky young black cat with a look in his eyes of what seemed low-level outrage. The carton itself was decorated with various kinds of feline graffiti. I was unable to think of a graceful, or even ungraceful, way to refuse this gift, but the thought of schlepping the elaborately decorated carton to Grand Central Terminal in New York City and boarding a crowded train for the hour’s ride to my town, then arriving at my door and trying to explain to my then wife how we had come to have a cat and then introducing the cat to our dog while our three young daughters enthusiastically mauled it… well, it was not an auspicious beginning.

I was aware that black cats had a reputation for bringing bad luck, but as a science editor I was not going to worry about such nonsense. We found it difficult for reasons I don’t recall to come up with a name for this interloper, so finally, in a burst of paternal authority (this was the late 1960s) and stunning imagination I unilaterally named him Cat. Science or no, I was tempted to look up a few superstitions about black cats and found, of course, that I should be careful about him crossing my path, and if he did the antidote was something like walking around the point where I had seen him twelve times, then heading off backwards in my original direction. I pronounced myself grateful for my exposure to science, thinking how time-consuming it would be for me to feel I needed the antidote, what with Cat strolling though the house day in and day out. Imagine the superstitious life: you would have hardly any time for anything else.

Anyway, I came to know Cat and to be very fond of him, admiring all the things about cats that all cat people admire, though if he ever caught a mouse and dispatched it (or a bird, for that matter), I was unaware of it. I did not consider this a failing-just Cat’s amiable and, I thought, admirable approach to life. He took things easy and stayed out of trouble. Like most people, I have experienced plenty of misfortunes, mostly minor ones, but it has never occurred to me to blame any of them on Cat, who was a really good guy. One day, in his late teens, with out having shown much by way of signs of aging, he simply stopped being alive.

I have since learned that nowadays it is not always easy to obtain a black cat from an animal shelter in the days near Halloween. This is because some of the good people who devote themselves to such places do not want to run the risk of someone taking a black cat off to some horrid altar and performing lethal satanic rituals with it. This, in the twenty-first century!

It is a sad commentary to think that such a precious and complicated organ as the human brain, capable of designing a laser, or a symphony, or a democratic constitution, or of divining the common molecular basis for all of life on this planet, can still be so foully and stupidly misused.

Not all superstitions about cats that persist today are malevolent, of course; most of them are positive and harmless, if a bit silly. Upon reflection, it does seem strange for an animal whose evolutionary history is so steadfastly catlike-you have to go back many millions of years to find a cat ancestor that doesn’t look and act unmistakably like a cat-to be assigned so variegated an array of meanings. The human propensity to imagine the supernatural or the anthropocentric and pin it on perfectly innocent animals is astonishing. Snakes have, as noted, gotten an especially bad rap (aside from the fact that some are poisonous) for conning Eve, and other offenses. Most American Indian cultures believe the presence of an owl, and especially the hooting of an owl, presages a death. Who doesn’t-deep down-believe that the bluebird brings happiness? Dogs have both suffered and been esteemed in their symbolic essences. Horses come off pretty well in this regard: malevolent horses are rarely seen in human folklore or in the tribunals of people of faith.

Cats and dogs are considered either contemptible or splendid in a kaleidoscope of ways and for a host of reasons. The Church of Rome, for example, found dogs to be despicable because of their licentiousness but also heroic for their loyalty. The Church held cats in some contempt (not only were they licentious but they were noisy about it) until a papal successor to Pope Gregory IX began raising them. Then attitudes toward cats slowly changed to mostly positive. Today, in the United States, more cats are pets than dogs.

We have been talking about cats as seen in the mirror that many people carry around, imagining that their own reflections project some truth about the rest of nature. These are what Michael Sims, the scholar of the remarkable tales of archy and mehitabel, calls “symbolic delusions.” It seems to me that all such notions-complimentary ones as well as utterly insulting ones, none of which has been solicited by cats themselves-are, if anything useful at all, a version of a Rorschach test, those ink blot examinations that humans use to try to figure out other humans. But this is a book about real cats, so the rest of it will endeavor to tell the story of cats largely from their own point of view, as best we can perceive that.