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August 2007

August 2007 - Cats

Gallery

Columns

  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Modeling for your Health
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Cats Are Hard
  • EMG News:
    News for August
  • Behind the Art:
    Isometric Perspective
  • Myths and Symbols:
    A Controversial Creature, part 1

    Features

  • Library Cats Walkthrough

    Fiction

  • Fiction: The Other Cat
  • Fiction: Spring
  • Fiction: Puss in Wingtips
  • Fiction: Housecat

    Reviews

  • Book: The Outlaw Varjak Paw


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  • A Controversial Creature, part 1
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    According to two recent surveys held here in Italy, on one side cats have surpassed dogs in numbers as companion animals, and, on the other, they rank quite high (number three), among animals people has strongly negative reactions to (repulsion-fear). Numbers appear to be similar in other surveys taken in the English-speaking countries.

    Ambivalence is, it may be said, the trademark of this small feline, both in real life (the sweet purr-ball sleeping on the sofa changes into an efficient killing-machine in the garden…) and in myth and fable.

    Not to mention a few myths in the commonest meaning of the word that seem to pass on from cat-book to cat-book without verification. (1)

    The height of cat popularity, we know, was in ancient Egypt, where cats were the animal sacred to Bastet (or Bast), the cat-goddess of the city of Bubastis (2). Cats were so respected that killing one was punished by death, as reported by the Greek historians Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, among others.

    That is undisputedly true, but the identification of the gods with their sacred animals originating true zoolatry (animal worship) was a very late development in Egyptian religion, appearing in the so-called Third Intermediate Period and carrying over to the Hellenistic Period (3). Bastet herself wasn’t associated with the domestic cat until the Middle Kingdom (4).

    And what about the countless cat-mummies in Egyptian museum collections all over the world? Well: I too had in my mind the picture of a grieving family carrying the body of their old, beloved Miu (5) to the temple of Bastet to be mummified. Until I happened to visit the Egyptian collections of the Louvre Museum, and read the captions accompanying an impressive series of animal mummies.

    That, brought me down to Earth with a thud.

    From analyses of the cat mummies it appears that the greatest numbers of the embalmed cats varied in age from 3 months to 8 months, and died of a broken neck. Egyptologists nowadays agree that many of the mummified animals found in temples (cats, but also ibises and others) were specifically raised to be mummified and sold to pilgrims as offerings for the gods (6).

    In Europe, cats already appear in Aesop’s collection of animal fables.

    In one famous fable, a female cat falls in love with a man and prays the goddess Aphrodite to make her human. The wish is granted, and the former cat marries her beloved, but one day capricious Aphrodite lets a mouse lose in the house. Immediately the old instincts awake, and the woman-cat jumps on the mouse intending to eat it.

    Just like Bastet, but in later times, another goddess, Frejya, is closely associated with cats.

    Frejya was a Scandinavian fertility goddess, one of the Vanir. Once these naturalistic gods, after a long war, made peace with the celestial Aesir, Frejya and her brother Freyr (7) went to live with the Aesir, while Hoenir and Mimir took their places among the Vanir. The Scandinavian myths tell us that Frejya used to ride a chariot pulled by cats. (It is not specified if they were domestic or wild cats, although some believe it to be the earliest reference to the Norwegian Forest Cat.)

    Also, as narrated in the Prose Edda, in a contest of strength with a giant the god Thor is asked to lift the house cat. With strenuous effort he succeeds in raising one paw of the animal. It is later revealed that under the appearance of the cat was hidden Jörmungandr, the serpent whose spires surround the world.

    It is usually reported that due to their association with pagan goddesses cats were heavily persecuted in the European Middle Ages. Let us bear in mind, please, that the so-called Middle Ages lasted for a whole millennium: from the fall of the Roman Empire to the discovery of the Americas (conventional dates, of course), and that it would be very unlikely to find, in the course of the age, something equally valid from Scandinavia to Sicily and from Portugal to Rus’.

    What can we find about cats in historical documents of the Middle Ages?

    One of the more extensive mentions is in the corpus of Welsh laws called Cyfraith Hywel or Laws of Hywel, compiled between A.D. 942 and 950 and later reworked, edited, and modified by successive kings and men-of-law.

    Good king Hywel has some surprising things to say, for instance:

    The value of a cat, four pence. The value of a kitten from the night it is born until it opens its eyes, a penny, and from then until it kills mice, two pence, and after it kills mice, four pence. . . .

    It is worth mentioning that four pence was the minimum value of stolen goods for which the death penalty could be applied, in the case that the thief was caught with the goods and it was theft by stealth. The law also states that a ship without a cat onboard is a wreck and a settlement where no cat lives is illegal, a definite testament to the pest-control abilities of our friend.

    Cats are featured extensively in the pages of the Book of Kells, one of the masterpieces of Irish illuminating art dating to around the year 800. There we can see, for instance, a cat and a mouse together illustrating the verse And the lion shall lie down with the lamb. In another case a mouse, having stolen a consecrated wafer, is chased by a cat across the page (fol.48 r). Moreover, in many monasteries the cat was the only animal monks and nuns were allowed to keep as pets.

    In one of the most famous works of early French literature, Le Roman de Renard, (8) we find a cat, Tybalt, as one of the antagonists of the main character, Renard the fox. While Tybalt is not a lovable character, he is neither the main antagonist (that role is covered by Isengrin the wolf) nor diabolically evil.

    The fame of the Roman and of its archetypal characters even after centuries is reflected in a famous scene of Romeo and Juliet, the duel between Mercutio and the aptly named Tybalt cousin of Juliet, in which Mercutio needles his opponent with continued references to his four-footed namesake.

    Mer. (…) Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk? Tyb. What wouldst thou have with me? Mer. Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives . . .

    It is usually said that the Papal bull Vox in Rama, published in 1233, started the identification between the cat and the devil and the persecution of cats (and women held to be witches). In preparation for this column I did my best to find the full text of the Vox in Rama, with no success, since the document is oft mentioned but very rarely quoted (and never in full). An excerpt I did find, speaking of a sabbath of witches, mentions the appearance of a black cat big as a dog, which the gathered people would in turn kiss under the tail. In my opinion just the mention of the size is enough to indicate that the writer was not referring to a natural animal.

    Even more, if we read manuals about witchcraft dating from the late Middle Ages or the Renaissance (written for use of magistrates or men of the church both in Catholicism and Protestant denominations) or tribunal documents, we find indeed mention of cats as familiars, but also of dogs, goats, pigs, rats, and many others, making very unlikely indeed the idea of a persecution of cats per se as unique indicators of witchcraft.

    The barbaric traditions surrounding the cat, linked to specific feast-days (cats burned or thrown from a tower or what have you) parallel similar barbaric treatment inflicted to other animals (dogs, pigs, or cattle, for instance) in different occasions, and, at least in my opinion, reflect more the ease of finding an handy and helpless victim that any specific hatred for cats as presumed spawn of the devil.

    There is still much to say, but my space for this month is finished. The second part, covering the cat in more recent times, in fairy-tales and in extra-European countries, will be featured next month.

    Notes

    (1) I don’t mean to offend anybody, but as a lover of history, verification of data and sources is one of my pet peeves.

    (2) Greek name of the city of Per Bast(et), the capital city of the 18th nome of Lower Egypt (in the region of the Delta).

    (3) In traditional Egyptian chronology the Third Intermediate Period begins with the 21st Dynasties (21th Tanite and 21thTheban) in the 11th century B.C.

    (4) The goddess was originally associated with the lion, not the cat. The Middle Kingdom includes the 11th and the 12th dynasties and goes from 1987 B.C. to 1780 B.C.

    (5) Miu and mau are possible transliterations of the ancient Egyptian word for ‘cat’ which is used in most surviving texts as a generic proper name, as far as I know with a single exception in which the cat was named Nefer (beautiful). Dogs, instead were most often mentioned by a proper name.

    (6) See, for instance http://www.akhet.co.uk/cat.htm

    (7) Frejya and Freyr aren’t names, they mean simply ‘Lady’ and ‘Lord’ and are used as substitutes for a name that for some reason, was tabooed.

    (8) Written in Langue d’oil, it is a collection of stories put together in the 12th and 13th century, it was so popular that the name of the protagonist, Renard became in modern French the word for ‘fox’ instead of the ancient word goupil.

    Illustration credits

    Cat mummy mask from http://www.answers.com/topic/cats-in-ancient-egypt

    Marina Bonomi
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