Cat history, it is generally believed, can be traced back to the ‘Miacis’ (pronounced: mi-a-sis), a weasel like creature that inhabited the earth some 40 or so million years ago. Not just cat history, but the history of all land dwelling carnivores can be traced back to the ‘Miacis’, and that includes dogs.
Miacis is believed by many to be the common ancestor of all land-dwelling carnivores, including dogs as well as cats. But apparently the cats existed for millions of years before the first dogs. Perhaps best-known of the prehistoric cats is ‘Smilodon‘, the saber-toothed cat sometimes called a tiger. This formidable animal hunted throughout much of the world but became extinct long ago.
By the close of the Stone Age cats had learned that where humans were found, there was the easy prey of rodents, this was still too early in cat history for them to be considered domestic pets.
Take a look at two eras in history and learn how cats were treated and what they were associated with.
In Ancient Egypt the Egyptians would store grain and other food supplies which would attract rodents such as rats and mice. These rodents eventually attracted the cats to these food supplies, not for the grain of course, but for the ample supply of rats and mice.
The Egyptians saw this as a favour from the cats and a relationship between cats and humans was developed. Gradually, cats became members of Egyptian households and eventually became godlike creatures which the Egyptians would worship. New laws were passed at this time and it became a crime to kill a cat (the penalty being death), and it was forbidden to export cats from the country.
When a cat died during this era, it was mummified and buried in sanctified plots often with an ample supply of mummified mice for the afterlife. During research, one of these sanctified plots was discovered and amazingly contained 300,000 mummified cats. The plot became an invaluable resource for studying cat history.
It was not long before the cat craze spread to India and onto China and other Asian countries. Cats were still thought of as magical and became highly regarded pets and were prized for keeping the rodent population in order.
It was the Romans and the Greeks that eventually introduced the cat as a domestic animal. Here, they were not worshipped but kept as pets and human companions as well as keeping the rodent population under control.
Cats were extremely important during the 11th century for destroying vermin when the Black Death appeared. However, the worst time for cats was yet to come – this era was called the ‘Middle Ages’ or the ‘Medieval Times’.
During the ‘Medieval times, cats were thought to be ‘in league with the devil’. Cats were thought to have magical powers and were strongly associated with witchcraft. Anyone who kept a cat as a pet was thought to be a witch and put to death along with their cat.
Cats themselves had a rough time, they were treated badly, most often killed and driven out of towns and villages. Because of these superstitions about cats, the cat population of Europe became very close to being wiped out. Some superstitions have survived history today, some still believe that it is bad luck for a black cat to cross your path.
Black cats have taken a bad rap throughout history. Greek mythology thought that a woman named Galenthias was turned into a cat and became a priestess at the temple of Hecate, the “Dark Mother,” and sometimes known as the Mother of Witchcraft. During the 12th and 13th century, witches in Europe were often found with their “familiars,” usually black cats, and were said to turn themselves into cats at times. During the witch-burning era of the 17th century, witches’ cats were put into baskets and burned alongside the witches.
The decline in the cat population furthered the spread of the Black Death. The lack of cats meant more rats that were able to spread the disease throughout Europe.
Black Cats as Witches’ Familiars
- It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves.
- Folklore has it that if a witch becomes human, her black cat will no longer reside in her house.
- Some believe that black cats are witches in disguise, or witches reborn.
- Others believe black cats are witches familiars (beings that aid witches in performing their craft). Not all familiars were black cats though; some were cats of other colours, dogs, pigs, or other animals.
- For several centuries “witches” were rounded up, tried, and killed by burning or other violent methods; often their familiars were killed along with them.
Fortunately, the witch hunts eventually ceased and cats once again became highly popular and lovable, household pets. By the late 1800’s distinctive breeds were being established and cat shows were being held. The long-haired cat in particular became a popular, prized member of the cat family.
Black Cat Superstition
It was believed that if a cat were to jump over a dead body, the corpse would become a vampire. In order to reverse this process, the cat had to be destroyed.
Another superstition tells that witches could shape shift in to the form of a cat in order to get closer to their victims. Witches were thought to have cherished their cats so much that it could be a potentially dangerous situation if any harm came to them.
In one story, an innkeeper’s dog had killed a witches’ cat. The innkeeper’s servant dug a grave for the cat while the saddened witch stood by and watched. The witch asked if the servant would say some words over the cats body before burying it. The servant laughed and threw the cats body in the grave, saying “‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Here’s a hole and go thou must.” The witched threatened, “‘Very well, you will be punished, as you will see.” The next day, as the servant was plowing a field, a rock was thrown up and hit him in the eyes. He was blinded for life.
Some superstitions last to this very day, with some animal shelters refusing to allow the adoption of black cats near Halloween for fear of some ritual being the final destination for the poor cat.
Halloween Tip For Cat Owners
It is best to keep all cats indoors during the Halloween celebrations in month of October, regardless of their colour, but especially if they happen to be black. (Indeed, cats are safer indoors any time of year.) Even though there may be no cultists in your neighborhood or community, the sheer numbers of people out and about on Halloween along with increased vehicular traffic make the outdoors a frightening and unsafe place for small furry creatures.