From Wild Cat to Grumpy Cat: a Short History of Our Fascination With Felines

Ironically, Fogle adds, aside from these sacrifices, killing a cat — even accidentally — was a serious crime in ancient Egypt and was punishable by death.

Cats as Pets

The Egyptians weren't the only ones to fall in love with cats. Across the world, humans were recognizing the benefits of cats, both for pest control and companionship. The ancient Egyptians prohibited the export of domesticated cats, but, Wastlhuber says, the Romans probably smuggled them out of Egypt, and eventually Phoenician traders exported them to Europe. Traveling monks likely brought tame felines to the Orient.

According to Donald Engels in Classical Cats: the Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat, images of cats began appearing on artifacts and coins in Greece between 1700 and 1200 B.C. And cat remains have been found in Greece as well, making scientists sure that domesticated cats were present in Minoan and Mycenaean Greece from at least 1600 B.C. In addition, cats began appearing in Greek literary works and art around 500 B.C.

The Romans also loved cats. Pickeral explains how feline images appeared in ancient Roman mosaics. Cats were an important component of Roman expeditions, accompanying their food supplies and ridding the armies of rodents. As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the feline population.

And in Medina (now Saudi Arabia), felines were treated with great respect, likely due to the Islam prophet Muhammed’s love for cats. In his book 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization, author Sam Stahl recounts how, in 625 B.C., the prophet Muhammed, answering the morning call to prayer, discovered his beloved cat Muezza sleeping on the sleeve of his prayer robe. Rather than disturb the cat, Muhammed is said to have cut a hole in the robe. (Most modern-day cat owners would agree this is not an unreasonable course of action.)

Origins of the Black Cat Myth

While cats were beloved and revered in some parts of the world, in others, their “power” took a nasty turn.

Around 1000 A.D., Christian leaders in Western Europe began associating cats with paganism, devil worship and evil. For centuries, cats were thought to be witches' “familiars” (demons supposedly attending and obeying a witch, most often in the form of an animal) or even witches themselves; because of this, cats were hunted and killed on sight. Historians believe that during this time, millions of cats were tortured and killed along with hundreds of thousands of their female owners in what we now refer to as “witch hunts.”

It took hundreds of years for this fearful attitude toward cats to die away in Western Europe. But Engels says that, during the Enlightenment, which took place in the 17th century, the association of cats with black magic faded and cats resumed their place in civil society in Western Europe. Art across Europe began to include cats depicted alongside their titled humans, and farmers and gentry alike were free to embrace their cats as productive household inhabitants and companions without fear of persecution.

Positive Modern Images of Cats

During the past 300 years, cats have continued to purr their way into our hearts and households, appearing in literature, art and lore in all cultures all over the world. The Japanese Maneki-neko, or Beckoning Cat, can be traced back to the 18th century. The Maneki-neko is a white ceramic cat, depicted with a raised paw; it is believed to bring luck and prosperity to the owner. This lucky cat has several origin stories: The most popular is about a samurai who was “beckoned” into a temple by a white cat. When he moved toward the temple, lightning struck where he had been standing. The grateful samurai bestowed wealth and prosperity upon the temple, creating the legend of the beckoning cat.

Though some cultures see cats as popular protectors, others have gone out of their way to protect and popularize the cat. The first official cat show took place in 1871 at the Crystal Palace in London. The show, writes Tamsin Pickeral, was developed by Harrison Weir, a respected cat breeder and author. Weir's intention was to celebrate and enhance the public image and welfare of cats; to this end, he created guidelines for judging, competition classes and more.

Weir’s cat show was popular, with 170 entries, extensive media coverage and the birth of an extremely competitive cat show circuit and what Pickeral refers to as a “fashion for pedigreed cats.” This interest gave rise to various organizations celebrating and showing pedigreed cats, including the National Cat Club of Great Britain, founded in 1887, and the American Cat Fanciers' Association, founded in 1906.

From Pest Control to Pets

In the last two centuries, the role of the cat has shifted as the number of people who keep cats as pets surpassed the number who keep cats for utilitarian reasons, such as pest control. This shift occurred duringWorld War I and World War II, when cats accompanied soldiers both as rat catchers and as companions. In fact,says Pickeral, “It is said that a number of Russian soldiers when captured were found to be carrying kittens as mascots beneath their coats.” By the mid-20th century, the cat had moved permanently into the role of pet and friend.

And this trend continues. In the United States today, more than 45 million households have cats, according to a 2013-2014 survey conducted by American Pet Products Association. And many of those cats have their own Instagram and YouTube channels, where they — and their owners — share their adorable antics with other cat fanciers. But what does the future have in store for these mysterious and wonderful animals? Has the digital age brought an entirely new era for cats as they prepare for world domination?

You be the judge. We’re going to go watch cat videos.

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