By Reva Sherrard
Near the temple of the cat goddess Bastet in ancient Egypt, a lioness emerged full of the desert’s fury, with eyes like fevered suns and a snarl for blood rising from her belly. To devour the people within the temple she first had to pass the sacred lake enclosing the buildings. Pausing to drink from the clear waters, she felt her bloody wrath receding in waves. But she was still hungry. In the temple’s inviting shade an acolyte saw her padding up the stone walkway and hastily prepared a basin of buffalo milk. She sniffed it with a growl, darting sparks from her yellow eyes at the temple attendants and worshippers, before lowering her great head to the basin. The growl became a purr. When her belly was full she sauntered over to a comfortable place on the floor, laid down, and fell asleep. Drowsing peacefully on the smooth stone, she shrank; she became small and slim, with a soft dappled coat. She lived in the temple grounds for the rest of her life, where she never wanted for mice and birds to hunt or friendly hands to stroke her.
No one who shares their life with cats will be surprised this myth exists. Bastet was a fierce goddess, originally a lion like her counterpart Sekhmet in Upper (southern) Egypt, whose breath was the searing desert wind, and who was worshiped with wine to imitate the blood she drank insatiably. These were goddesses of war and protection who savagely punished those who broke divine laws or abused the vulnerable. Mau, the Divine Cat — yes, it’s onomatopoeic — played a comparable role as a slayer of Apep, the giant serpent who embodied the forces of entropy and sought to swallow the sun.
Bastet was also a goddess of sensuality. The Greek historian Herodotus described her annual festival, which drew celebrants from all over the Nile valley, as a true bacchanal: Bawdy mirth was the order of the day, with music, dancing, drinking, laughter, buttocks-flashing, and everything those activities lead to. Adults, women in particular, were encouraged to leave everyday tasks to revel in sensory pleasures. As Bastet’s role differentiated over time from that of other feline deities, she was popularly revered by both sexes as a defender of women and the secrets of feminine magic, which to the ancient Egyptians, who viewed the soul as having both male and female aspects, applied to everyone.
Because the domestic cat originated in North Africa it makes sense that our name for her did, too. Latin cattus borrowed directly from an Afro-Asiatic word attested in Nubian kadis, Berber kadîska, and Coptic chaut — as did Arabic qut and a host of other virtually identical terms. Other words meaning “cat” are imitations of the sound cats make or the sounds humans make to call cats: mau/mao was an Egyptian god but is also the word for “cat” in Chinese and Thai, while English/Germanic “puss,” Kurdish pisîk, Rumanian pisica, Arabic bissa, Persian pishi, etc., are simply the kissing, psst-ing sound that humans have been getting their cats’ attention with since time immemorial. My theory? Cats respond to the short, repeated sibilant because it approaches the register of a rodent squeaking.
As agriculture spread from the Near East throughout Eurasia, cats weren’t far behind, adapting their behavior in symbiotic tandem with humans. The shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture and animal domestication meant grain stores, grain stores meant mice, and mice attracted the local wildcats. No human population could resist the appeal of small, furry creatures who protected granaries from rodent predation, inclined to hearthside companionability, and made a soothing rumble when stroked. The housecat was born.
Another predator drawn by rodents was the snake. Its shape and reptilian focus make it a more efficient mouse-killer, but that same lack of mammalian qualities — and an unfortunate mention in the Christian Bible — made it even more loathed than the playful cat once medieval plagues and famines sent Europeans raving from their homes in search of scapegoats for their suffering. Cats, snakes, Jews, and women were the usual suspects, all condemned more or less directly by the Catholic culture, and all but snakes, which are difficult to round up, subject to periodic massacres. Felicide reached a fever pitch in continental Europe during the ravages of the Black Death — an ironic trend, since without cats to keep them in check the plague-carrying rats bred and spread further than they could have during any other historical period.
In saner times our general affinity for felines prevailed, expressing itself in such folk beliefs as the M-like marking on a tabby’s forehead being the sign of the Virgin Mary’s blessing, and folktales like “Puss in Boots.” Sailors of most nations have always prized shipboard cats as luck-bringers, and even in the age of witch-hunts pet cats were common enough to come under suspicion as familiars. A Norwegian folk belief sums up our ambivalent awe nicely: If you gaze into a cat’s eyes you’ll glimpse a magic realm, either enchanting or terrifying. Perhaps the difference lies in the beholder.
Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.