The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

November 1, 2013

Treating cat like goddess is hardly new development

I was reading an old Reader’s Digest article the other day on the topic of cats. I was astonished at some of the facts about their history recorded down through the millennia.

I’ve always been fascinated with the little furry creatures. We have a gray-and-white feline at our house that we affectionately call Miss Kitty.

The mild-mannered kitten just walked in the front door one day about four years ago and never left. She seems happy, sleeps most of the time, and likes to prowl around the house outside when the weather is friendly.

Our cat has developed a gourmet’s taste for certain kinds of crunchy cat food, however, one that borders on over-indulgence as far as the pet’s owners are concerned.

Still, my wife and I scour the pet care aisles at local supermarkets to find our little jewel’s favorite flavors among the colorful displays of cat cuisine. At first, I thought we’d gone a tad overboard on the matter.

But not after reading about the treatment of the graceful felines in ancient times.

In the ancient city of Bubastis, Egyptians venerated the cat-headed goddess Bastet, who represented pleasure, music and dance. Hers was the most elegant temple in all of Egypt, the scene of joyous festivals where wine flowed freely.

Pilgrims brought mummies of their cats there to be interred in sacred ground.

If cats had a heyday, that was it, about 3000 B.C. The cats of Egypt, especially if they were black, led a rich, full, pampered life and, like their goddess, were said to possess nine lives.

The law decreed that the bereaved household of a dead cat shave their eyebrows and enter a long period of mourning. And killing a cat, accidentally or otherwise, was punishable by death.

Little is known, though, about the cat prior to its domestication more than 5,000 years ago, some 45,000 years after the dog became some ancient hunter’s companion and guard animal.

The cat receives no biblical mention, though it has figured in the myths of the Orient. In ancient Burma and Siam, people believed that at death a holy man’s soul entered the body of a cat and whiled away there until the tabby died, when the soul went straight to paradise.

The cat’s good fortune continued for a time, as its species sailed the known world aboard Phoenician trading ships. The Romans hailed cats as defenders of the granaries against the evil rat. Indeed, the Roman goddess of grain and the harvest sometimes assumed the guise of a cat.

But in medieval Europe the cat began to fall from grace. Black cats in particular were thought to be the familiars of witches and warlocks. The black cat crossing one’s path became a satanic omen.

After that, feline fortunes improved.

Today, there are more than 30 million cats in North America, with one out of five U.S. households enjoying at least one puss-in-residence.

And cat lovers claim to catch mood signals from the bend of the tail: carried high means proud and contented; extended straight back means stalking; curled against the body means scared or worried; and thrashing about means angry.

The purring sound, meanwhile, does not originate in the throat but in the cat’s blood system, a vibration that arises from the wall of a major blood vessel in the chest area.

The cat’s sense of hearing is sharp indeed, extending to such high frequencies that it catches the ultrasonic chattering of a small mouse about to venture out from its hiding place.

The cat’s eyes are keen, of course, gathering a great deal of light and allowing the cat to see quite clearly in the near-darkness. But it is almost color blind, seeing only the changing of light. If nothing is moving in its line of vision, then it sees nothing.

Life span? Many cats reach the ripe age of 17 or even more, upward of 100 in a human equivalent. But that’s only one life; there are still eight to go.

 

Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald.

E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net

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