To celebrate International Cat Day, held on 8th August every year, I want to explore the domestication of cats and how people may once have seen them as powerful spirits, important enough for individuals to shapeshift into their form.
It will come as no surprise to any cat owner that, rather than humans domesticating cats, cats probably domesticated humans. As the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle was coming to an end, people started to grow crops. Soon, they had surplus grain and had to store it in granaries. The stored grain likely attracted mice, and, in turn, the mice attracted cats. Archaeologists used to think this first happened in Egypt (around 4,000 years-ago) but grain was grown and stored long before that, all the way back to around 12,000 years-ago in the Near East. Indeed, genetic analysis suggests that all domestic cats derive from at least five founder cats from the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East (where agriculture began) rather than from Egypt.
The first cats probably turned up on their own some 12,000 years-ago to feed on the mice that accumulated around granaries. It is likely these first farmers appreciated the cat’s hunting ability and controlling what would otherwise be a serious threat to their food supplies. Cats were certainly tolerated and possibly even encouraged by the people and it was likely not long before a Neolithic child brought home a fluffy bundle and asked his or her parents imploringly “Can I keep it?”
From the Near East, farming spread and one of the first places it went was to Cyprus. At the time of the farmers’ arrival, Cyprus was unpopulated and, significantly, it had no cats. But archaeologists have discovered that when people arrived, so did the cats, indicating people brought them with them on their sea crossing. Given, as the saying goes, it is almost impossible to herd wild or feral cats, perhaps those chosen for the journey were already partly domesticated. And even if cats were not domesticated at this stage, a slightly later burial at Shillourokambos on Cyprus, a settlement which people inhabited from 9,500 years-ago, shows they soon were.
A grave of a high-status individual (assumed from the rich array of grave goods he or she possessed) was accompanied by a cat, which had its own grave only 40 centimetres away. The two are contemporary and this may be a case of someone taking their faithful pet with them to the afterlife. Although people at the site did occasionally eat cats, this one was unbutchered and laid out with respect (albeit probably killed for its supernatural journey). It is also likely that people viewed cats as separate individuals in their own right since this cat had its own grave (the same is true of the first domesticated dogs). It is only later, in Egypt, when cats were fully domesticated that they shared the same grave with their presumed owners (again, the same is true for dogs). Interestingly, the first illustration of a cat with a collar appears in a tomb in Saqqara, dating to around 4,500 years-ago. But, at the very least, Shillourokambos reveals the beginnings of the close bond between humans and cats.
As with many animals at this time, such a bond was more than merely physical but also extended into the spiritual. Cat Gods and Goddesses came much later (most famously with the Egyptian Goddess Bast) but to begin with cats may have been seen as powerful spirits. Certainly the excavator of the Shillourokambos cat argues “It’s difficult to say the cat was a religious animal but it probably played a role in the symbolic and imaginative world of these people.”
Interestingly, from the same site in Cyprus, excavators found a sculpture of the head of, what appears to be, a half-human, half-feline individual. Shapeshifting into animals is a common technique of both modern and ancient shamanic practice and it is likely this is what the sculpture represents.
The face on the sculpture (shown above on the front of an excavation report) has both cat and human characteristics, but since the neck was not as sculpted and polished as the rest of the face, excavators assume that it was embedded in a wall, with the face protruding outwards. Maybe this shapeshifting individual was thought to have crossed a membrane from the otherworld into this world as it emerges from the wall.
Interestingly, Hekete, the Greek Goddess of Classical times, also shapeshifted into a cat, mainly to escape the clutches of the monster Typhon. But, afterwards, she extended special treatment to all cats. Since Hekete is also a Goddess linked with witchcraft maybe this is why witches’ familiars are popularly seen as black cats. Possibly the black fur was lent by another God who took cat form. In medieval Slavic mythology, the spirit Ovinnik appears in the form of a black cat, and was worshipped by many farming families, ostensibly because he watched over domestic animals and chased away evil-natured ghosts and mischievous fairies. But if treated badly, Ovinnik would think nothing of setting fire to the grain store. It seems that cats have always had a rather fickle nature.
Today, there is enough folklore and tradition surrounding cats that it would need a thick book to relate them all. But I wonder if both our closeness to the humble moggy, and also our respect (even distrust) of cats as powerful spirits (Gods in some traditions), did not start in Cyprus with a high-status individual and his or her cat. Perhaps he or she was also the person who shapeshifted into cat form, blurring the boundaries between humans and, what became, our beloved pets.