Cats have quietly crept into the number one spot as America’s favorite companion animal: In the past decade, they have come to outnumber dogs 66 to 58 million, according to the ASPCA. So why, when so many of us choose these amiable creatures to be our “best friend,” do many others-perhaps as many as one in four–continue to regard the cat with suspicion?
Ailurophobia, an actual fear of cats, is caused by an early traumatic experience involving a cat and requires therapy to overcome. But that differs from the general distrust and even disdain for cats that some people harbor.
Folk beliefs about felines are centuries old, rooted in a lack of understanding of the natural universe: A cat in a room with a dying or dead person will steal that person’s soul. If a cat sits with its back to the door, it will rain. It’s bad luck to cut a cat’s whiskers. A cat crying at night means witches are tormenting it.
But cats are not alone among animals associated with once-inexplicable phenomena. In the Salem witch trials of 1692, for example, men and women accused of witchcraft were said to be in league with Satan by working through “familiars,” which could include small birds, snakes, and goats, as well as cats. With our ever-growing knowledge of animal behavior, we’ve accepted most of these animals for what they are. But cats (and snakes, too) have maintained their mystery.
Part of the reason may be that over the millennia cats have kept their essence. Recent fossil evidence has shown that cats teamed up with humans as long as eight thousand years ago, in early agrarian settlements where rodents were plentiful. The African wildcats that first stepped into the lives of these Neolithic peoples differed from today’s cats only in their slightly larger size, though domestication has softened their temperaments.
Cats quickly became integral to agrarian societies. The reverence for cats in ancient Egypt is well documented: Killing a cat was a capital crime; when a cat died, its owners shaved their eyebrows to publicize their grief; Bastet, goddess of the home, took the form of a cat; and cat mummies and cemeteries abounded. Other cultures found the cat to be a powerful symbol as well–Freya, Norse goddess of fertility, Hecate, Greek queen of the Underworld, and Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt, among others, were associated with cats. The cat remained closely linked to the forces of the earth and the deities that were thought to govern nature.
While Christianity was building strength in Europe, paganism existed alongside the new beliefs for centuries, and the awe of Mother Earth clung on. Spirits, good and evil, and other mystical and magical phenomena were still widely accepted as reality, and cats were among the animals used in sorcery practices. To convince converts, the church attributed negative qualities to the deities of non-Christian cultures, turning old religious symbols on their heads in order to demolish old faiths. Thus the ancient world’s kinship with the cat was portrayed as a form of devil worship. (Hinduism and Buddhism, and later Islam, by contrast, have managed to maintain friendly relations with the cat through the ages.)
Outcasts of society–most notably women considered unsuitable for marriage and childbearing–welcomed the ostracized cats as companions. Blame for natural disasters, illness, stormy weather, or any other misfortune landed easily on these societal pariahs.
Late in the 15th century, a decree from Pope Innocent VIII condemned cats outright as witches’ familiars and made owning one a capital offense. The war on witchcraft intensified over the next 200 years, sending millions of cats, not to mention humans, to their deaths. Not until the mid-l8th and 19th centuries did reason prevail, and cats, at last, were received back into the laps of enlightened, loving humans.
Today science has overtaken superstition. We know that cats’ eyes glow in the dark not because they are possessed by demons, but because a light-reflecting mechanism behind their retinas enhances their vision in the semidarkness, when prey are most likely to venture out. Cats’ eyes don’t wax and wane with the changing phases of the moon or the tides; their pupils contract with light. For a black cat to lie alongside a sick person doesn’t foretell death; rather it provides the sufferer with physical and mental relief.
For the most part, we’ve come full circle, appreciating the cat for its affectionate, sometimes saucy personality and not merely for its abilities in the barn. Just to be on the safe side, though, it’s still a good idea to keep your cat indoors on Halloween. There seems to be something lurking deep within us, some hangover from our long-buried past, that keeps a sliver of those ancient feats and superstitions alive in the dark of that night–and prevents some among us from ever being able to relax completely in the company of cats.