Ancient Egyptian cat figurine, Japanese Maneki-Nekio, Grumpy Cat

Whether or not you’re a cat lover, there’s no denying that cats rule the Internet. We can’t get enough of cat memes, tweeting cats and cats with Instagram accounts. We’re obsessed with Grumpy Cat, Hamilton the Hipster Cat, Lil Bub and others. Cat videos rack up millions of views, and there are entire film festivals (yes, plural) devoted to cat videos.

So why this modern fascination with cats?

Actually, it’s not so modern. Consider cats throughout history, and it’s clear that we’ve always been obsessed with the feline kind.

Cats in Egypt

For many years, researchers believed that cats first cuddled up to humans in ancient Egypt, an assumption based largely on the frequent appearance of cats in Egyptian art and the discovery of carefully mummified cats in both human and feline graves.

But it turns out that the Egyptians were not the first to cohabitate with cats: A 2009 article in Scientific American titled The Taming of the Cat reported that archeologists digging on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in 2004 came across cat bones in a 9,500-year-old burial site. Scientists found a complete cat skeleton, positioned in a grave next to the bones of a human, suggesting that the cat was tame and had been buried with its owner. And, because wild cats are not indigenous to the island, scientists have concluded that the cats accompanied humans when they settled there.

Cyprus is in the area known as the Fertile Crescent (which includes Mesopotamia, the land in and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). At this time in history, humans had evolved from hunters and gatherers into an agricultural society. This created plenty of feed stores in which cats would find lots of rodents. According to Scientific American, scientists believe this may have been the reason wild cats came out of the woods and began spending time closer to humans.

And even scientists believe it was the cats — not the humans — who came up with the idea to live together.

“We think what happened is that cats sort of domesticated themselves,” says Carlos Driscoll, a University of Oxford graduate student and one of the authors of a recent study published in Science Magazine that mapped the DNA of wild cats and domestic cats throughout the world to determine the origin and evolution of today’s house cat.

The relationship between cats and humans wasn’t developing only in the Fertile Crescent, though. According to 2013 Science Magazine article When Cats Became Comrades, scientists found more evidence that cats and humans were cohabitating across the world earlier than previously believed: In a 5,000-year-old Chinese farming village, archeologists unearthed feline bones among other artifacts and, upon analysis, discovered there had been an unusually high amount of grain in one cat’s diet. Since cats are primarily meat eaters, this suggested the cat was tame enough for humans to feed it, which seems to be a sure sign the cats were living among humans. And, writes J. Wastlhuber in History of Domestic Cats and Cat Breeds, by 1000 B.C., cats in Egypt were fully domesticated.

The Cult of Cats

The Internet may have changed the way we express our devotion to our cats, but the notion of idealizing them visually is centuries old. Egyptian artifacts and burial sites paint the most robust picture of a society that loved and appreciated felines — quite literally. In The Elegance of the Cat: an Illustrated History, writer Tamsin Pickeral points out that as many as 4,000 years ago, cats were frequent subjects in Egyptian art and tombs. The works depicted cats both as hunting in the marshes and also lying beneath chairs, indicating domestication.

And though Internet celebrity may seem like a new twist in the history of cats, our age isn’t the first to revere felines: Egyptian cats gradually went from being beloved pets to semisacred animals dedicated to Bastet, a protective female goddess with the body of a woman and the head of a cat. The Bastet-worshiping “cult of the cat,” says author Helen Strudwick in The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, reached its height around 950 B.C. Bastet’s festival was one of the more important and celebrated events in Egypt. Bastet became so much a part of Egyptian society that images of cats appeared everywhere, incorporated into paintings, statues and jewelry, and appearing on household items like pots and jars.

But it was not just images of cats that were important to the Egyptians: Strudwick describes how a person seeking the favor of Bastet could purchase a sacred cat from the priests of Bastet, who raised cats for this purpose. The cat was killed (usually by quickly breaking its neck), mummified and placed in a special underground cemetery for cats. The idea was that the cat would find Bastet upon its arrival in the afterlife and pass along a message from the human. According to Dr. Bruce Fogle in The New Encyclopedia of the Cat, archeologists have discovered several of these underground cemeteries, including one at the temple of Bastet at Beni Hasan, Egypt, which held more than 300,000 mummified cats.

Ironically, Fogle adds, aside from these sacrifices, killing a cat — even accidentally — was a serious crime in ancient Egypt and was punishable by death.

Cats as Pets

The Egyptians weren’t the only ones to fall in love with cats. Across the world, humans were recognizing the benefits of cats, both for pest control and companionship. The ancient Egyptians prohibited the export of domesticated cats, but, Wastlhuber says, the Romans probably smuggled them out of Egypt, and eventually Phoenician traders exported them to Europe. Traveling monks likely brought tame felines to the Orient.

According to Donald Engels in Classical Cats: the Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat, images of cats began appearing on artifacts and coins in Greece between 1700 and 1200 B.C. And cat remains have been found in Greece as well, making scientists sure that domesticated cats were present in Minoan and Mycenaean Greece from at least 1600 B.C. In addition, cats began appearing in Greek literary works and art around 500 B.C.

The Romans also loved cats. Pickeral explains how feline images appeared in ancient Roman mosaics. Cats were an important component of Roman expeditions, accompanying their food supplies and ridding the armies of rodents. As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the feline population.

And in Medina (now Saudi Arabia), felines were treated with great respect, likely due to the Islam prophet Muhammed’s love for cats. In his book 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization, author Sam Stahl recounts how, in 625 B.C., the prophet Muhammed, answering the morning call to prayer, discovered his beloved cat Muezza sleeping on the sleeve of his prayer robe. Rather than disturb the cat, Muhammed is said to have cut a hole in the robe. (Most modern-day cat owners would agree this is not an unreasonable course of action.)

Origins of the Black Cat Myth

While cats were beloved and revered in some parts of the world, in others, their “power” took a nasty turn.

Around 1000 A.D., Christian leaders in Western Europe began associating cats with paganism, devil worship and evil. For centuries, cats were thought to be witches’ “familiars” (demons supposedly attending and obeying a witch, most often in the form of an animal) or even witches themselves; because of this, cats were hunted and killed on sight. Historians believe that during this time, millions of cats were tortured and killed along with hundreds of thousands of their female owners in what we now refer to as “witch hunts.”

It took hundreds of years for this fearful attitude toward cats to die away in Western Europe. But Engels says that, during the Enlightenment, which took place in the 17th century, the association of cats with black magic faded and cats resumed their place in civil society in Western Europe. Art across Europe began to include cats depicted alongside their titled humans, and farmers and gentry alike were free to embrace their cats as productive household inhabitants and companions without fear of persecution. 

Positive Modern Images of Cats

During the past 300 years, cats have continued to purr their way into our hearts and households, appearing in literature, art and lore in all cultures all over the world. The Japanese Maneki-neko, or Beckoning Cat, can be traced back to the 18th century. The Maneki-neko is a white ceramic cat, depicted with a raised paw; it is believed to bring luck and prosperity to the owner. This lucky cat has several origin stories: The most popular is about a samurai who was “beckoned” into a temple by a white cat. When he moved toward the temple, lightning struck where he had been standing. The grateful samurai bestowed wealth and prosperity upon the temple, creating the legend of the beckoning cat.

Though some cultures see cats as popular protectors, others have gone out of their way to protect and popularize the cat. The first official cat show took place in 1871 at the Crystal Palace in London. The show, writes Tamsin Pickeral, was developed by Harrison Weir, a respected cat breeder and author. Weir’s intention was to celebrate and enhance the public image and welfare of cats; to this end, he created guidelines for judging, competition classes and more.

Weir’s cat show was popular, with 170 entries, extensive media coverage and the birth of an extremely competitive cat show circuit and what Pickeral refers to as a “fashion for pedigreed cats.” This interest gave rise to various organizations celebrating and showing pedigreed cats, including the National Cat Club of Great Britain, founded in 1887, and the American Cat Fanciers’ Association, founded in 1906.

From Pest Control to Pets

In the last two centuries, the role of the cat has shifted as the number of people who keep cats as pets surpassed the number who keep cats for utilitarian reasons, such as pest control. This shift occurred during World War I and World War II, when cats accompanied soldiers both as rat catchers and as companions. In fact, says Pickeral, “It is said that a number of Russian soldiers when captured were found to be carrying kittens as mascots beneath their coats.” By the mid-20th century, the cat had moved permanently into the role of pet and friend.

And this trend continues. In the United States today, more than 45 million households have cats, according to a 2013-2014 survey conducted by American Pet Products Association. And many of those cats have their own Instagram and YouTube channels, where they — and their owners — share their adorable antics with other cat fanciers. But what does the future have in store for these mysterious and wonderful animals? Has the digital age brought an entirely new era for cats as they prepare for world domination?

You be the judge. We’re going to go watch cat videos.

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