Feline Mythology

by Dennis Y. Ginoza

I Will See You in Another Life When We Are Both Cats

30593501 Unknown artist. “Cats; A Mouse,” (1250-1260). Pen and ink with body color and translucent 
washes on parchment. 21 x 16 centimeters. Courtesy the Getty, Los Angeles.

gri_97_p_7_0236836-(1) Unknown artist. “Millefleurs ground with unicorn, leopard/cat (?), ram, stag, lamb, dogs, foxes, birds and rabbits,” (1500-1525). 
Textile/Tapestry. 10 x 8 feet. Courtesy the Getty, Los Angeles.

00086601 Jean-Baptiste Perronneau. “Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange, née de Parseval,” (1747). Oil on canvas. 65 x 52 centimeters. Courtesy the Getty, Los Angeles.

ma-31808497 Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. “A Cat Interrupts a Dogfight to Avenge the Death of Her Mother,” (1875). Color woodblock print. 
35 x 23 centimeters. Courtesy LACMA, Los Angeles.

00092501 Max Liebermann. “Old Woman with Cat,” (1878). Oil on canvas. 96 x 74 centimeters. Courtesy the Getty, Los Angeles.



3,300 BC 5,300 years ago in the village of Quanhucun in Shaanxi, China, cats ate millet alongside the farmers who grew it. The story is told in pieces of bone—mandible, pelvis, tibia, humerus—unearthed and carbon dated by Chinese scientists in 2013. Isotopic data reveals a diet rich in grains, indicating the sharing of food between cats and humans. Variations in the amount of millet to meat suggest that some cats were treated better than others. One cat in particular was quite elderly, its teeth worn down to nubs. Researchers speculate that it was a favorite, provided with food and shelter by humans after a long life protecting the harvest from mice.

943 BC Depicted as a woman with a feline head, the cat goddess Bastet was one of the most popular deities of ancient Egypt. The center of her cult was Bubastis, a city where sacred cats were tended to by priests at the temple of Bastet. Dead cats were mummified and buried in the temple’s tombs, and to kill a cat was punishable by death. A fiercely protective goddess, Bastet was also associated with exuberant female sexuality. As described by Herodotus, the annual festival of Bastet was celebrated with much wine, dancing, and “women uncovering themselves.” After becoming pharaoh in 943 BC, Shoshenq I made Bubastis his capital. Bubastis and the temple of Bastet would remain one of Egypt’s most important religious centers for the next 600 years.

7th Century AD Prophet Muhammad held cats in high esteem. A well-known story relates how the Prophet was dressing himself to attend prayers when he discovered Muezza, his favorite cat, asleep on the sleeve of his prayer robe. Rather than wake her, Muhammad took a pair of scissors and cut the sleeve off, leaving Muezza undisturbed. He also gave sermons with Muezza in his lap and shared his water with her. One of Muhammad’s companions, who regularly fed and played with wandering cats, was nicknamed “Father of the Kitten” (Abu Hurairah) by Muhammad. Considered ritually clean, cats remain a cherished animal in Islam.

1484 In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII, who confirmed Tomas de Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor of Spain and called for the extermination of the Waldensians, issued the Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull that sanctioned the prosecution of witchcraft in Germany. Along with the infamous treatise Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), Pope Innocent VIII’s decree contributed to the witch-burning craze of 1450-1750 that killed roughly 40,000 people, mostly women. Cats, considered a witch’s familiar, were burned alongside their owners.

1583 Philip Stubbes, a puritan social reformer, publishes The Anatomie of Abuses, in which he notes, “The word pussie is now used of a woman.” The origin of the word pussy and its conflation of cats and female genitalia is uncertain. Pussy meaning cat is speculated to have come from the Egyptian goddess Bast (pronounced “Passht”), while pussy meaning female genitalia probably derives from the Low German puss (“pocket, pouch”). Pussy was used as an English endearment for women until the 19th century when it took on its current, cruder meaning.

1956 Brigitte Bardot’s sultry performance in the film And God Created Woman compelled a magazine writer to coin a new phrase to describe her: sex kitten. The term gained greater usage after Ann-Margret’s 1964 film Kitten with a Whip, eventually coming to describe a generation of sexually liberated women. Perhaps coincidentally, as that generation entered their 40s, the slang term “cougar” (women over 40 who seek sexual relations with much younger men) became widely used in American pop culture.

1985 After 20 years of focused breeding, in 1985 The International Cat Association finally recognized the Sphynx, a hairless breed of cat that originated in Canada. The 1980s also saw an exploding demand for pornography with the widespread adoption of the VCR. One of the most striking trends in pornography has been the increased incidence of depilated female genitalia. A curiosity at first, a hairless pudendum has now become the norm in adult videos while pubic hair in its natural form has been relegated to a specialized “big bush” niche. This trend has not been confined to pornography. A 2009 study found 50 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 25 admit to shaving their pubic hair. 2009 also saw the Sphynx become the fourth most popular cat breed in America.

2012 The first Internet Cat Video Festival was held at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Ten thousand fans attended. Since then, the festival has traveled to Boston, San Diego, Memphis, Oakland, and many other cities. The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal have covered it. In 2014, Will Braden was the recipient of the first Golden Kitty (People’s Choice) Award. Also in attendance was Lil BUB.

2013 A study by UC Berkeley found that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat feces, can quickly and permanently alter the brain function of its non-feline hosts. “The parasite is able to create this behavior change as early as three weeks after infection,” says Wendy Ingram of the University of California, Berkeley, who worked on the study. The CDC reports that 60 million Americans may unknowingly be carrying the parasite that has been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. “It does not necessarily explain crazy cat ladies or why there are LOLCATS online,” Ingram assures us.