Cats have woven themselves into the very fabric of human history. In every corner of the world, cats have been revered, feared, mythologized, and even deified. Their roles and symbols have evolved over time, reflecting each culture’s unique understanding and appreciation of these animals.
Learning more about the symbolism of cats in different cultures can shed light on human attitudes toward cats, giving us a new perspective about these fascinating creatures.
Cats in Different Cultures
Ancient Egypt: Cats as Deities and Protectors
In Ancient Egypt, cats were revered and associated with the goddess Bastet, who was depicted as a lioness in early dynasties and later as a domesticated cat. Bastet was the goddess of home, fertility, and protection against evil spirits and disease. Killing a cat, even accidentally, was punishable by death.
The ancient Egyptians admired cats for their grace and hunting skills. Cats were seen as protectors of food from pests, and their ability to kill snakes linked them with divine protection against venomous creatures.
Mummified cats have been found in Egyptian tombs, emphasising the spiritual significance they held. The Egyptians even had amulets and statues in the form of cats to harness their protective power.
European Middle Ages: Cats as Witches’ Familiars
In stark contrast to their divine status in Egypt, cats, particularly black ones, came under suspicion during the European Middle Ages. They were seen as witches’ familiars or even shape-shifted witches. This association stemmed from pagan beliefs and the cat’s nocturnal nature, making them synonymous with darkness, mystery, and magic.
This belief was so widespread that cats were often persecuted, hunted, and killed. This had unintended consequences, as the diminished cat population led to an increase in rats and subsequently the spread of the Black Plague.
Japan: Cats as Lucky Charms and Guardians
In Japan, cats hold a special place. The “Maneki-neko” or the “beckoning cat” is a popular talisman believed to bring good luck, wealth, and prosperity. It’s often seen at the entrances of shops, restaurants, and other businesses.
Moreover, Japanese folklore tells tales of the “bakeneko” and “nekomata,” cats with supernatural powers and abilities. While some stories paint them as vengeful spirits, others show them in a protective light.
Norse Mythology: Cats as Divine Companions
Freyja, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, had a chariot that was pulled by two large cats. Cats in Norse culture were seen as symbols of mystery and magic, much like in other cultures. Their independent nature resonated with the Norse appreciation of self-reliance and strength.
China: Cats as Symbols of Serenity and Mystery
In Chinese culture, cats are often seen as symbols of mystery due to their unpredictable and secretive nature. They are also associated with poise and grace. A famous ancient Chinese painting, “Kitten,” portrays a cat as a symbol of serenity and solitude.
Islamic Culture: Cats as Cherished Companions
Cats hold a cherished place in Islamic culture, revered for their cleanliness. Prophet Muhammad is said to have had a great affection for cats. There are many Hadiths (sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad) which mention his interactions with cats, emphasising kindness towards them.
Modern Western Society: Cats as Companions
Today, cats are one of the most popular pets worldwide, particularly in Western cultures. They are often seen as symbols of independence, mystery, and intuition. Their unpredictable and sometimes aloof nature often makes them subjects of fascination and affection.
With the advent of the internet, cats have practically become global icons of humour, cuteness, and eccentricity. From viral videos to memes, Siamese cats, British Longhairs, and Persian cats, among other adorable cat breeds, have solidified their position in modern pop culture, transcending many of their historical symbols.
From deities to witches’ familiars, to beloved pets, cats have journeyed through a myriad of roles and symbolisms across different cultures. Their diverse portrayal is a testament to their intriguing nature and our ever-evolving relationship with them.
While the treatment of cats has varied – from reverence to persecution – today, they have found a largely universal status as cherished companions in many parts of the world. Their journey through history is a rich tapestry that reflects broader cultural beliefs, fears, and aspirations.