Cats in Culture

The iconic Maneki Neko, originally of Japan but so wonderfully charismatic a cat that it is popular across Asia. There are legends about how this cat came to be, usually involving a cat beckoning a wealthy stranger away from danger (often a lightning strike) and into the safety of a temple. Suggesting that cats may be linked to the spiritual but also turning them into mascots of good luck and good fortune. I love these lucky arm-wavey cats. (Credit: Jakub Hałun, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

A bit of weird one, and a break from our usual bio-bios of the ‘Caturday Special’ series but on the day on which people celebrate the cat what could be better than to reflect on the representation of cats throughout human history and societies.

I explained in my domestic cat article that the humble little wildcat-turned-domestic was effectively a self-domesticating marvel. Little wonder, then, that they captured the hearts of many people throughout history. But the human journey with the cat does not begin with our friends in agricultural pursuits. Long before cats were our friends and co-habiting with us they are both a threat and an idol.

The Löwenmensch or Lion-Man – estimated to be between 35,000 and 40,000 years old it represent an exceptional feat of crafting and was clearly made with some reverence. What significance did big cats have to our prehistoric relatives? (Credit: Dagmar Hollmann / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s clear early humans looked at large cats with some reverence. Do we have evidence of this? Of course! From cave paintings of lots of animals, including lion-like cats, to the Löwenmensch, the statue of a lion-man found in a cave in Germany.

The Löwenmensch is fascinating. Estimated to be between 35,000-40,000 years old based upon radio-carbon dating, and carved with stone tools out of mammoth ivory. It is a beautiful work of art in its own right. What’s even more amazing about it, though, is the task of creating this 30cm tall figurine would have been painstaking.

Whatever drove the artisan or artisans of these people to perform that undertaking, it was clear that this zoomorphic (human represented as an animal) depiction was important. What does it represent? Is it an embodiment, a desire for them to be more cat, to be successful hunters like lions? What did they see in lions, in big cats, what behaviours, what fear did they have of their abilities to inspire such reverence? The time, effort and resources to make such a sculpture for what we assume was a fairly subsistence culture is truly unbelievable! This carving meant something!

The cave paintings we have, probably the most famous of which are the Chauvet cave paintings in France, are likely a little more recent than the Löwenmensch. The Chauvet paintings are estimated to be around 30,000 years old, the famous Lascaux paintings around 17,000 years old. Unlike the Löwenmensch these also depict multiple animals, not merely focussing on one specific one.

A recreation of the Lions Panel of the Chauvet Cave Paintings. It is believed they likely represent the Eurasian cave lion (Panthera spelaea) and clearly observation of scenes such as these were important to the people who drew them. What did they think of these animals? What was their significance to them? Is this merely a representation of what was, or does it have some symbolic significance? (Credit: some artist/artists 30,000 years ago via Claude Valette, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

The depiction of what seems to be a group of, likely, Eurasian cave lions, in Chauvet, however shows that observing cats was important.

I talked in our lion article and our cave lion article about how humans and lions are sort of linked, radiating out of Africa at around the same time, both migrating and adapting to new conditions. Predators don’t tend to mess with other predators too much, but early humans would definitely have been a target for lions, and the same pride we see in humans today may have turned that from a fear into a contest. Hunter versus hunter.

I like to imagine humans and lions like two great boxers; Ali and Frazier or Tyson and Holyfield; bitter, embattled rivals. How can you look upon such a person, in hindsight, with anything like genuine hatred? They may be a competitor, even an existential danger, but they do what you want to do so well that they just make you want to be better.

Move forward a few thousand years and humans are starting to do some new and weird stuff, like ‘settling’. Previously considered to have been in small tribes, semi or completely nomadic and hunter-gatherers, humans instead realise that by staying put, cultivating the land and grazing livestock they can find a perfectly comfortable life in one spot. This itself leads to what we know of as ‘civilisation’ – larger groups of people, settled into communities, working together.

Cats would grow incredibly important in the midst of this increasing agriculturisation. One of the key aspects of an agrarian culture versus a hunter-gatherer one is cultivating one’s own food. This requires surplus. At the very least it necessitates keeping seed-grain in store so that it can be brought out next year for planting. This requires storage and storage is liable to invasion from ‘pests’.

This is how it is believed the relationship between humans and small cats developed the closeness it currently has. We did not bring cats to our settlements to control pests, they came to hunt the pests and domesticated themselves. It’s an incredible mutualism and it is not surprising to find that around 10,000 years ago, there is evidence of humans having close relationships with feline companions.

Until recently it was believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate small cats. There is huge evidence supporting domestic cats in Ancient Egypt dating back around 4,000 years or more. However, the discovery of a grave in Cyprus led to a massive revision in that date. This discovery at the Neolithic site of Shillourokambos was of a human skeleton and a feline skeleton (closely resembling an African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica) presented at least some evidence of close human relationships prior to the Egyptians.

The infamous Neolithic skeleton from Shillourokambos, Cyprus (near modern Limassol) This is the oldest known example of a human seemingly buried deliberately with a cat. What does this mean? Is it likely that human had a domestic relationship, a pet-like situation, with the cat? It certainly seems likely. (Credit: Science Magazine, Used without Permission)

Why does it suggest this? Could it not merely be a native cat? No, because wildcats were not present in Cyprus at the time. It must have been brought over by human activity.

It should come as no surprise, then, that ancient cultures across the Fertile Crescent, Asia, the Middle-East, Europe and Africa that have left evidence of their past for us to inspect have also left evidence of their relationships with cats.

The lion-headed warrior Goddess Sekhmet. (Credit: Jeff Dahl by GFDL)

The Egyptians famously adored cats. The stories of their worship and respect for cats dominate. The idea that it was illegal to harm a cat, legends of defeats at the hands of Persians using the symbol of the cat, so feared by Egyptians, as a weapon, are easy to spin a sentimental web with.  By around 3000 BCE the Goddess, Bastet, appears, with her worship being centred on her main temple in Bubastis.

Bastet is an incredible goddess, initially being depicted with the head of a lion and associated with Sekhmet, the two ‘characters’ eventually diverged. Sekhmet became the lion-headed warrior Goddess, whilst Bastet morphed into a smaller-headed cat, more akin to a domestic cat, and came to represent the homely aspect, the domestic!

We see not only a remarkable evolution of deities and worship, but a shift in the consideration of the cat as a whole. For thousands of years the cats of Egypt were likely appreciated for killing crop and grain-store pests, helping maintain the full bellied prosperity of the Ancient Egyptian people. In time this protection, the killing of pests that cause us harm, of things like snakes, gave them a regal, hunter’s air. This was our divine warrior, our protector.

Bastet – Initially represented, as Sekhmet, as a lion-headed goddess, later on Bastet would come to be a goddess of hearth and home, of domesticity, and would have her lion-head replaced with that of a smaller cat. (Credit: Gunawan Kartapranata CC-BY-SA 3.0)

So those others who considered themselves divine, the pharaohs, took them in. Which led to a fashion of others taking them in. This created an entire culture of feline doting and also, presumably, showed to the ancient Egyptians the side of cats we know today.

As a hunter cats are seemingly sublime. Their form, movements, methods etc. are all incredible. However, once sated and with the right temperament the cat is a stone-cold darling! Cute little purry floofballs who you can just look at curled up on a cushion and stare at them for hours just admiring how adorable they are.

We softened cats, just not in reality! The sheer numbers of small rodents, birds and other fauna killed across the domestic cat’s habitat is a testament to the fact that they are still the lion-headed protectors of old! No, we softened cats in our minds. We came to understand them symbolically not as a hunter, but as a comfortable, settled creature.

What’s really remarkable, though, is the seeming universality of this.

It was not only ancient Egyptian culture that developed a homely Goddess of the humble cat.

Ancient China has skeletal evidence, from Quanhucan, of potential small cat domestication dating back around 5,300 years. Analysis of the bones to determine diet suggests these cats were getting a healthy dose of grain with their protein. Being obligate carnivores who seldom eat a significant amount of anything not-protein, and since cats do not naturally hunt millet or spelt it is likely they obtained this grain by eating China’s crop and seed pests.  

They also have a similar reputation and role as protectors of harvest and fertility.

They also have myths about their cuteness, playfulness and capriciousness!

A Ming Dynasty Guardian Lion – Believed to have been based on the Asiatic lion, this is a male (depicted with a ball) whereas the females are usually depicted with cubs. They are divine protectors and these sculptures would have been the reserve of people who could afford such divine protection! (Credit: Leonard G. CC-BY-SA)

Although I can find a significant amount of detail about the minor cat goddess Li Shou what I can’t find, unfortunately, is the source. The tale goes thus, however.

The Gods were seeking something to be in charge of the Earth, and after presumably having a formal interview process with the various candidates instead decided to give the role to the cat, Li Shou. Li Shou, however, was a cat. Instead of doing her due diligence she looked at the world, saw that it was good and so had a kip under a cherry tree. The world went to pot and the Gods were like “Cat, please!?” But Li Shou did it again, patrolling, finding a nice spot and having a nap. The Gods were displeased and said “Li Shou, up your game! The world’s going crazy! Stop falling asleep under cherry trees!” So she didn’t. Next time instead of falling asleep under cherry trees she was either distracted chasing a falling leaf or a butterfly, and played with it.

The Gods had finally had enough and were like “Li Shou, we love ya but you’re shit!” and the cat being a cat just shrugged and went “Eh, maybe I’m not good for the job.” So the Gods were in a pickle. Who was going to look after the Earth? Li Shou looked around at the first mugs who were available, who happened to be a human couple, and was like “Why not them?”

So the Gods put the humans in charge as custodians of the Earth, gifting humans the ability to talk but sadly robbing the cats of their ability to talk.

It’s a beautiful tale, it really is, and speaks so deeply to our observations of the small cat. They are lethargic during the day, to say the least. Cats are known to sleep up to 18 hours a day and this is reflected in the tale. But they are also delightfully playful and active.

What’s more the cat’s humility and independence, the fact that this cat doesn’t seem to have been afraid of the Gods, or afraid of her nature. Instead of feeling hard done by having lost the ability to speak the cat was happy to give the responsibility to the humans and just go cat about.

This strong-minded independence recognised by the ancient peoples of China was also one of the things the ancient peoples of Europe liked about them, specifically the Romans. To Romans a cat was a symbol of freedom and independence.

It’s why we don’t hear about them much in Roman culture. They were much more passionate about their dogs, or keeping birds than they were about ‘domesticating’ cats. Instead they respected them as they were. Cats, to them, were hunters, mascots, who would keep your grain or your equipment safe from potential nibblers.

One of surprisingly few representations of a small, domestic-type cat in Roman art. From the Triclinium (the dining room) of the House of the Faun in Pompeii it shows a tabby-colouration cat attacking a fowl. Given the fact that Romans did not often depict or talk about cats much there is some suggestion the mosaic artist may have originally been Alexandrian, from Alexandria in Egypt, where depictions of cats were more common. (Credit: Mary Harrsch CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In this sense there was, for no desire to come up with a better pseudo-Roman term, felinitas. Much as a person had humanitas, or humanity, and the culture set up for the pursuit of greatness by individuals, it seems as though the humans of that time respected cats not for their utility to them, but the utility they provided independently. The Romans respected cats for this independence and felinitas.

The Greek relationship, unsurprisingly, is complicated. It is unsurprising because Ancient Greece was not necessarily a unified culture, a common nation working to one goal. Rather it was a series of separate city states that would unite, forming leagues or alliances. As a result what passes as fashion in Athens may not pass in Ephesus. The opinion of cats in Epirus or Macedonia may not have been the same in Sparta or Rhodes. What’s more, when do you mean in Greek history? It’s all very situational.

Cats were almost certainly kept as pets or pest control in Greece. In some areas it is likely that Egyptian ideas of cat respect and worship were adopted. In other areas a more Roman attitude towards them was likely, it varied.

The Parthenon, the temple of Athena on Athens’ Akropolis, has likely seen many cats over the years (though few, like this one, led guided tours) however whilst it is almost certain the Greeks had cats, possibly kept cats or at least tolerated them, they do not have many dominant images, in text or art, of smaller cats. (Credit: ristok CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Of course Romans and Greeks weren’t the only ancient people with a healthy respect for cats in their role as independent hunters. A story in the Mahabharata (book 12) tells the tale of a mouse (Palita) and a cat (Lomasa).

Palita and Lomasa both lived around a massive banyan tree, the mouse in a hole and the cat lived among the branches hunting the birds. One day a hunter set up a trap and caught Lomasa in it, leaving some bait or meat behind. The mouse came to get the meat and found the mongoose (Harita) and the owl (Chandraka) waiting.

If Palita remained where he was the owl would snatch him up, if he scarpered back to the ground, Harita would hunt him down. As a result the mouse made an unlikely ally.

Palita made peace with Lomasa and said he would release the cat to pay back for his protection.

There’s a bit of back-and-forth but the upshot is the mouse won’t free the cat until the hunter is in sight. That way there is no danger to Palita as Lomasa will be more interested in running away from the hunter to kill the mouse.

Far from being a Aesopian exploration on ‘nature’ there is a huge amount about this story that is a lot more human and complex. It is not merely about a mouse distrusting a cat, but a mouse overcoming that fear to make a situational ally. Neither the cat, nor the mouse, deceive each other. As far as I can tell there is no betrayal, the cat does not get the mouse, the mouse does not turn into a Jerry and start terrorising the cat. Rather they find a mutually beneficial situation, negotiate a peaceful solution that benefits both of them and then both go their separate ways, mainly based upon the wisdom of Palita who is a surprisingly politically astute mouse.

The setting of the story of the cat and the mouse comes from the Shanti Parva, the Book of Peace, the 12th book of the Mahabharata. In this book the war has just ended and the new ruler of Pandava, Yudhishthira, seeks to understand what has happened and how best to lead his people. He consults with sages, including the dying former King and warrior Bhishma, who I believe tells the tale of the cat and the mouse. (Credit: Hindi Gita Press Mahabharata, Public Domain)

The whole tale is about trust and weirdly a philosophy that I find resonant. It’s a surprisingly psychologically astute observation of relationship behaviours. One can only ever be a situational friend or ally. Circumstances dictate the closeness of a relationship and those circumstances often rely on one or both parties obtaining some benefit. It’s not that a cat and a mouse can’t be friends. It’s that a mouse could never be friends with, say, a starving cat. How will you know if the cat is starving? Well if it is scoping to munch you, it doesn’t matter how friendly you are, the cat likely will say nothing.

There’re aspects of break-ups, fallings out with friends or family, politics and the whole she-bang of human social organisation in this little cat and mouse tale.

The most remarkable thing about this historical representation of the cat, this astute observation of complex human relationships? Whilst the Sanskrit text of the Mahabharata dates to around 400 CE, it likely traces its roots back to a much older oral tradition from the Vedic period (around 1,500-1000 BCE) and the Indus Valley cultures. For anyone who wants to suggest modern understandings of human behaviour are ‘more advanced’ I say you’re tripping and people have been musing on being people for a lot longer than we might suspect.

We go back to those representations of pre-history, the Löwenmensch, cave paintings etc. and it makes me wonder about the use of natural symbolism in human storytelling. That connection to nature, that respect that is so evident in the Löwenmensch figure is still present tens of thousands of years later in traditional stories.

It should come as no surprise then that a culture seemingly animal obsessed in which the main man Odin rides an eight-legged horse and has raven companions to find that Freyja, the Norse goddess, rode a chariot pulled by two grey cats, Bygul and Trjegul.

Yup, even Norse culture has its divine cats and Freyja’s cats are actually a fascinating study in the duality of feminine sexuality – something I’ve been thinking an awful lot about recently.

No, I’m not just horny, I’ve been writing chapter-by-chapter analysis of the novel ‘The Bet’ by author Vivienne Tuffnell, that deals a lot with female sexuality.

Freyja and her cat-drawn chariot (truly living the dream). Clearly a quite absurd image but what, then, does it mean? What is the significance of the cats being toms, male cats under the whip of this goddess of love and lust, of the unity of family and the division of warfare? Freyja is a many layered goddess and this scenario is, for all it’s silliness, actually incredibly layered and could be an article in its own right! (Credit: Emil Doepler, Public Domain)

For one thing Freyja’s cats are both toms, both male, yet they are very much ‘of the feminine’. They are slender, pretty, seen and not heard, tender, loving; every extant misogynist feminine expectation in the book. They embodied the essence of Freyja herself.

All the way down to be down-and-dirty fuckers and merciless killers. Freyja is not just the goddess of fertility, love and beauty. She is a goddess of sex, of war and of gold.

These cats reflect that. On the one hand the cat is a tender, fluffy cuddle-buddy. At the same time if you touch them the wrong way they’ll bite your fucking hand off and if you’ve seen one playing with a mouse you’ll know they’re cold! They don’t give a shit for the suffering of their prey, they just want to kill it.

But they reflect the changing roles of women, too. This is a dominant feminine goddess dominating two male animals. Particularly important in Norse cultures, where we have evidence of female warriors, we have documentation of shield-maidens, there is an acknowledgement of feminine strength and independence that is reflected so well by the symbol of the cat.

We see the cat becoming a symbol in a sense we could recognise it today. How many cat food adverts, when referring to the cat, use feminine pronouns? It’s a lot of ‘em, right!? We engender animals, objects, roles and symbols – rightly or wrongly.

Sheba cat food is one I particularly think of with regards to the feminisation of cats and keeping cats as pets. Their food is advertised very much as a luxury line and had ads that are like…weirdly similar to chocolate ads but presumably aimed at cat-mums! The cats are presented as demure, feminine, in need of pampering and luxury. In many ways an anachronistic stereotype they are probably going to have to move away from. (Credit:, CC-BY-2.0)

You see, so much of how we consider cats is removed from the cats themselves. To an extent all cultural representation of cats is merely fabrication, the human imagination at work. That’s not to say the Löwenmensch is unimportant, Egyptian cat worship is not worth studying or Freyja’s noble chariot-pullers should be disregarded. Rather I am suggesting looking at these depictions of cats teaches us a lot more about our cultures, hopes, fears, expectations, values etc. than it teaches us anything about cats!

Speaking of which, let’s look at the reception of cats in the middle-ages of Europe.

They allegedly kinda hated them.

I’m not gonna say who was in real control of the Catholic Church at the time, but let’s just say Bishop Tiddles has a lot to gain by purging the world of his competition. (Credit: some amazing 15th century German artist!, via J Paul Getty Collection, Public Domain)

I’m not going to out-and-out blame Christians, although it’s definitely their fault. However they were being led by fucking superstitious idiots who, seeing evidence of so much pagan ritual symbolism of cats, decided they were definitely doing the devil’s work.

Pope Gregory IX issued the Papal Bull ‘Vox in Rama’ in June 1233. The intention was to damn Luciferianism, the worship of Lucifer associated with a huge amount of the Gnostic tradition purged out of Europe by supposedly righteous people committing the darkest, most evil of actions – funnily enough justifying a bit more Gnosticism in Christianity.

So why make a villain of the cat? Well, because apparently devil worshippers would make black cat statues come to life and shit. I don’t know, it’s mad superstitious nonsense, to be quite honest. I’m a harsh critic of Christianity, or organised religion in general, for the fantastical joyride of bullshit it tends to take people on. Basically people had to kiss a black cat’s arse to initiate themselves into the devil’s rites.

However this was not a Papal Bull issued specifically to encourage Christian persecution of cats. Rather it was a smear on their name that would likely lead to dismissive and cruel attitudes towards cats.

Erm, allegedly a wild cat being chased by dogs and hunters. Fairly certain that’s just a hairy, grey man, though! (Credit: Unknown 15th century French artist who’d never seen a cat, via J Paul Getty Collection, Public Domain)

Pope Innocent VIII of the 15th century would describe cats as “The Devil’s favourite animal…” continuing the hatred and persecution of cats in Christian Europe. How far would this go? Cat burnings – where people would just set a net full of cats above a fire and revel as they presumably howled in pain and died horribly. Dead cats were often placed in or around houses as some weird ward of evil and symbol of good luck. Sometimes they would be enclosed alive, built in, immured in the walls or under floorboards.

The same absurd lust for suffering that caused the pursuit of witch hunts, inquisitions and even full blown wars between nations was propped up, supported, by this ridiculous symbol – the cat as evil! Even today some countries and cultures maintain superstitions about cats, especially black cats.

A 1555 German woodcut of…a…cat…with…a dick…in it’s mouth. Being offered a fish as a replacement. WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY DOING!? (Credit: Can’t seem to find any indication so assumed Public Domain and thanks weird German woodcut artist!)

It should be said that there is no evidence that this was done regularly or en masse. It is almost certain that there was not such a significant persecution of cats that it led directly to the Black Death and the spread of plague, as some suggest. Did it happen? Probably. Was it widespread? Possibly. Was it regular, organised and effectively an attempt to wipe out a species? Likely not. Did it cause plague? Absolutely not.

But what these stories provide for us is yet another tale in the role of cat symbolism in human culture and how the portrayal of an animal can lead to actual actions. Did the Catholic Church start a church-sanctioned campaign of killing cats? Almost certainly not. Did the Catholic Church publicising cats as suspicious, superstitious and of the devil cause some people to perform horrible actions? Probably. All of it, though, is entirely fabricated by people for people. The cat was merely a convenient symbol.

Sir Ian McKellen, only he’s given up on life and turned into a cat. I have no idea what’s going on here either. Apparently it’s a medieval era painting of a cat but I can’t find where it’s from exactly. To be honest, look at it! I think this poor kitto should just be left the hell alone to feel its misery in peace! (Credit: No idea…I literally have no idea who painted it, nor where the fuck they got the idea cats look like that. Presumed Public Domain)

What’s quite likely is that outside of urban settings, and despite the opinions of the Popes and the Catholic Church, in rural communities at least cats probably maintained their regard as solid hunters that help keep your shit in order.

Thankfully some of these people, artists in particular, were just as enamoured with cat pics as we are on the internet today and have provided many charming drawings of cats that I shall include to a) remind you that there was no universal hatred of cats in Europe and b) they’re just basically medieval cat memes!

I hear this was the most popular sitcom of its day. It was called ‘Weirdly proportioned cat people living an oddly human life for some reason’ – they didn’t need catchy titles or concepts back then. This was before ‘The Good Place’ revolutionised what situation comedies could be. (Credit: No one deserves any credit for this!)

Through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment our opinions of cats in Europe shifted again. To an extent, during this time, cats became almost a symbol of the human dominance of nature. As art, science and industry progressed our opinions of both cats and our own place in nature, was changing. Cats and their instincts became a representation, perhaps, of the taming of humans themselves. The hunter brought in from the wild, whose natural instincts are turned to other pursuits like science, sports or invention.

Hmm, he does a better job than a lot of artists at the time but let’s be honest, even Leonardo da Vinci was a bit shit at drawing cats, though apparently he enjoyed studying them very much. (Credit: Da Vinci via Ωméga *, CC-BY-NC 2.0)

The world’s first major modern cat show was put on at Crystal Palace in 1871. The popularity of the cat spread and today the internet is basically propped up on a foundation of funny cats, from ‘I Can Has Cheezburger?’ through Lil’ Bub and Grumpy Cat, we are now elevating individual cats to the status of celebrity.

Whether we’re conforming to old legends like Meowth in Pokémon being a representation of the Japanese Maneki Neko – the wonderful cat of good luck who beckons people to safety and prosperity;

A Meowth! Pokémon number #52 (Did I look that up on Google, yes…Why? Because I thought it was 51! Yeah I’m a nerd!) from the original 151 Pokémon, the Meowth is based off of the Japanese Maneki Neko – the lucky cats you often see waving their arms. They became very popular across China and other Asian countries too. (Credit: Brian Miller CC-BY-2.0)

Whether we’re representing old prejudices, such as with Salem the cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the typical, sarcastic witch’s black cat;

Salem Saberhagen; the teenage witch, Sabrina’s, sarcastic companion! Playing up to the pop-culture derived notion that witches had black cats that links all the way back to the idea of a black cat statue getting its arse kissed is in some way a Satanic initiation rite! It is amazing how tiny details like that can make it into a collective cultural symbology. (Credit: Copyright whoever the hell owns the OG Sabrina series, used without permission)

Whether their capacity for mischief and getting themselves into trouble leads us to consider how to “Hang In There, Baby;”

Seemingly dating back to 1971, motivational posters (that would set the tone for meme images to come decades later) like these ‘Hang in There’ cat showed up in various guises, usually featuring a cat clinging to a pole or a stick and the slogan “Hang in There, Baby.” (Credit: Ann Althouse, CC-BY-NC 2.0)
Sassy the cat from Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey – a highly controversial film for its use of, and the potential treatment of, its animal actors. (Credit: Copyright Disney, image exceptionally small so presumably they don’t sue arses off people, used without permission)

Or whether they’re just a begrudgingly loyal companion who, despite their attitude, just want to go home and have some food and some pets like Sassy from ‘Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey’ (itself a 1993 remake of the 1963 Disney movie ‘The Incredible Journey’ based upon a novel by Shiela Burnford);

The fact is that cats have always, and likely will always be important to human culture. In some cases we use the dark mystique (e.g. Le Chat Noir in Montmartre, Paris, with that iconic poster, that clearly uses the superstition of black cats to draw people to their theatre/entertainment venue), in some cases we use their power and majesty to manipulate children into eating an unhealthily carb-loaded breakfast (Tony the Tiger the Kellogg’s mascot for Frosties, or Frosted Flakes) and in some cases we just like cats doing cat stuff (the internet) – It all demonstrates the fabulous complexity, the layered structure of human symbolism.

I’m a biologist first and foremost. Cats are cats. They need to cat about doing cat things to keep being cats. They just cat!

Many of us in Europe and, likely, around the world will recognise this strinking image of a black cat by Théophile Steinlen. As well as the club for which it was designed this iconic poster, invoking the demonic mystique of the black cat, has also adorned bedroom walls and also quite a nice little French style café in Cardiff. Highly recommend their croque madame. (Credit: Son of Groucho CC-BY-2.0)

But the human mind doesn’t work that way and it creates densely layered meanings that are, much like the idea of friends and foes in the tale of Lomasa and Palita from the Mahabharata, very situational. What this or that cat means may be different between different cultures. The Christian suspicion of the cat is not matched by Islam, where the tale is that the distinct tabby ‘M’ marking on their forehead was bestowed upon them when the Prophet Mohammed touched a cat on the head. Japan has a literal cat island full of feral cats whilst other nations invest heavily in purging their towns and cities of ferals. The Lion King created a couple of generations of people who would grow to venerate lions whilst people who actually have to live side by side may struggle to hold a positive opinion when they snatch a cow in an opportunistic fit of hunger. It is not about ‘what do cats mean as a symbol?’ as it is ‘what cats mean what symbols to what people at what time?’. It’s a lot more layered.

I saw when I did my ‘Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals’ series just how incredibly important to conservation the recognition of an animal on its own terms was. So much of human understanding of the natural world is tied not to actual facts and observations but to myths, reputations and symbols.

This is something that will have to be educated out. Our cultures are foundational, they are the soil in which we plant roots and draw the most from, but that does not mean it is always good for us, or give us a solid idea of what the truth is.

The internet is made of cats. (Credit: RatherGood)

In terms of animals this means reputations based on little more than religious fashion and trend, the benefits of association or the perils of damnation. Humans are capable of a great deal of cruelty in the names of all sorts of beliefs, good or bad – regardless, those actions will be rooted in a foundational culture and the means by which that culture represents its animals will determine how those people consider or treat them.

What’s certain, though, is much as ancient cultures like the Egyptians left behind a solid legacy to the cat, the preservation of the internet is a future key aspect of ensuring the humans to-come understand our present relationship with cats, and the differences in those relationships between cultures.

This article was released on International Cat Day 2021! Happy Cat Day, Everyone!

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Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.
Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources.
Caturday Special: The OcelotThe cat, the myth, the legend, the meme, star of Archer, Metal Gear Solid and a weird little invisible dragon kid in Dark Souls 3? We look at the ocelot, a medium-sized cat from the Americas that is as cute as it is deadly.
Caturday Special: The Giant Cheetah – The larger cousin of our extant cheetah, if you think they’re impressive, wait until you read about these big boys!

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.


Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) -

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