No one knows exactly when or how the cat first appeared on Earth. Most investigators agree, however, that the cat's most ancient ancestor probably was a weasellike animal called Miacis, which lived about 40 million or 50 million years ago.
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.
Cats in the Ancient World
The first associations of cats with humans may have begun toward the end of the Stone Age. It took many centuries, however, for the cat to become established as a domestic animal. About 5,000 years ago cats were accepted members of the households of Egypt. Many of the breeds we now know have evolved from these ancient cats. The Egyptians used the cat to hunt fish and birds as well as to destroy the rats and mice that infested the grain stocks along the Nile. The cat was considered so valuable that laws protected it, and eventually a cult of cat worship developed that lasted for more than 2,000 years. The cat goddess Bastet--whose name was also spelled Bast, Pasht, and many other ways--became one of the most sacred of all figures of worship. She was represented with the head of a cat. Soon all cats became sacred to the Egyptians, and all were well cared for.
After a cat's death, its body was mummified and buried in a special cemetery. One cemetery found in the 1800s contained the preserved bodies of more than 300,000 cats.
The Egyptians had strict laws prohibiting the export of cats; however, because cats were valued in other parts of the world for their rat-catching prowess, they were taken by the Greeks and Romans to most parts of Europe. Domestic cats were also found in India, China, and Japan where they were prized as pets as well as rodent catchers.
Cats in the Medieval World
The fate of the cat underwent a radical change in Europe during the Middle Ages. It became an object of superstitions and was associated with evil. The cat was believed to be endowed with powers of black magic--an associate of witches and perhaps the embodiment of the devil. As the cat population dwindled, the disease-carrying rat population increased, a factor that contributed greatly to the spread of plagues and other epidemics throughout Europe.
By the 17th century the cat had begun to regain its former place as a companion to people and a controller of rodents. Cardinal Richelieu, in France, was noted for his love of cats. Many writers, particularly in France and England, began to keep cats as pets and to write of their good qualities. It became fashionable to own and breed cats, especially the long-haired varieties. By the late 1800s cat shows were being held in England and the United States and cat fanciers' organizations were established. Many of the superstitions that arose during the period of cat persecution, however, are still evident today in the form of such sayings as "A black cat crossing your path brings bad luck."
Cats in the Arts
The cat has been a favorite subject of artists and writers for centuries. Perhaps best-known of all artistic representations are those of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet. Ancient sculptures and drawings of her image with the head of a cat have been found in many places in the Nile Valley. Japanese artists excelled in portraying the cat. Some of the drawings were so realistic that in ancient times they were thought to be magic. People believed that if the drawings themselves were hung in homes and in temples they kept rats and mice away. Among the most charming of Japanese cats is Maneki-Neko, a small cat believed to ensure happiness and good luck. Japanese Buddhists venerate cats after death, and the temple of Go-To-Ku-Ji in Tokyo is dedicated to them.
Vested priests serve the temple and intone chants for feline souls. Crowded into the temple are sculptures, paintings, and relief carvings of cats. In each, the cat has a paw raised as if in greeting, the classical pose of Maneki-Neko.
Cats have been portrayed in the works of many great artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, Paul Gauguin, Theodore Gericault, William Hogarth, Edouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso. Probably the best-known cat in the world is Felix the Cat, star of animated cartoon films. Other famous cartoon cats include Krazy Kat and Tom (of Tom and Jerry), both of which had mice for companions. Musicians such as Gioacchino Rossini and Maurice Ravel have also paid homage to the cat in compositions.
Fables and tales about cats are part of the culture of most people. Versions of the Puss in Boots fable occur in almost every language, and the tale of Dick Whittington and his cat is well known. The personality and beauty of cats has inspired many poets. A quotation from one of T. S. Eliot's poems appears at the beginning of this article. Readers of all ages enjoy books about cats. A list of some of the fine books that have been written about cats appears at the end of this article.