Cuddly. Domineering. Cats. Our love of these little monsters has endured through the ages. Let’s face it, they really do run the show.
Dogs are a man’s best friend, or so the saying goes, but there are a lot of cat people out there who’d disagree. Though dogs may outstrip cats as the most common house pet in the U.S., cats dominate when it comes to memes and viral videos—so much so that an exhibit at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image dubbed them the unofficial mascot of the internet.
There are a few theories about why cat content has become an internet genre unto itself. One is that dogs tend to acknowledge a camera and change their behavior as a result of it, while cats are more likely to ignore it. This translates to less predictable, more entertaining viewing for us.
Cats go about their weirdo business as if they weren’t being filmed, happily chasing their own tails, chirping at birds, and folding themselves into positions that seem, at times, physically impossible.
But our cultural cat obsession dates back to before the dawn of the internet. For thousands upon thousands of years, cats have been not just beloved pets, but objects of fascination and sometimes even worship.
According to experts, humans didn’t domesticate cats—rather, cats domesticated themselves. As people began storing surplus food indoors, mice and other rodents arrived, which in turn attracted cats who were hungry for easy prey.
The cats essentially invited themselves in, and proved themselves so useful that humans were happy to let them stick around . . . and then grew attached to them.
What started as a marriage of convenience became a true love story.
Ancient Egyptian Roots
It’s widely believed that the domestication of cats began almost 10,000 years ago in Egypt and parts of the Middle East. The first known domestic cat lived circa 7500 BC—we know this because the bones of a cat dating from this era were found buried alongside human bones in Cyprus. Since cats aren’t native to the region, this ancient kitty had to have been brought along deliberately.
According to the French archeological team who discovered this grave, the careful burial of the cat with its human owner strongly suggests that “cats had a special place in the daily lives, and in the afterlives” of people during the Neolithic period.
Engravings and pottery depicting cats have also been discovered from around this same time, which again suggests that even ancient civilizations held their feline companions in high esteem.
It was in ancient Egypt—beginning around 3100 BC—that cats started to become part of the fabric of daily life. They were a useful asset to a household, because they’d chase away dangerous animals like snakes and scorpions, plus rodents and other small pests. In exchange for their extermination services, ancient Egyptians allowed cats to come inside and shelter from the hot weather.
But, the significance of cats in ancient Egypt went much deeper than their practical role. Egyptians worshipped a number of feline deities, including Bastet (goddess of domesticity) and Sekhmet (goddess of war). Take a cursory glance at any ancient Egyptian art collection, and you’re bound to see a cat or two.
Some Egyptians were so attached to their feline friends that they even held onto them after death. Tombs weren’t just a burial site, they were a house a person would “live” in after death. So, people put a lot of thought into the objects they wanted buried with them, and into the engraved tableaus on the wall of their tomb.
Many people depicted their cats alongside their families and treasured memories in these tableaus—and a few especially passionate pet owners even had their cats mummified and buried alongside them.
From the Roman Empire to the New World
After Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire around 31 BC, the Roman army reportedly enlisted cats to safeguard their food supply and leather equipment against rodents. In-between their hunting duties, these cats also became companions to many of the soldiers.
In ancient Greece, cats held a more spiritual significance. Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and sorcery, was often depicted with a cat. This may be the origin of the now-iconic idea of a witch and her feline familiar.
Witch hunts in medieval Europe often targeted cats, which were seen as inextricably linked to the occult and to Satan. This is probably where the negative trope of the “cat lady” originated, as women who kept cats were treated as strange, suspect, and possibly demonic.
But despite these stereotypes, cats’ ability to fend off pests was a huge reason for their enduring popularity across the globe, including in Japan and other parts of Asia. It’s also what got them a ticket to the New World.
When Christopher Columbus’s ships set sail in the late 15th century, cats were brought along as mousers, and were thus an integral part of what would eventually become American society.
Cats As Companions
During the mid-to-late 19th century, it became more and more common for people to keep cats as companions, rather than just as pest control. (Then again, maybe it just became more socially acceptable to admit this was the real reason.) Paintings from this era often show cats cuddled up in the arms of their human owners or lounging alongside them.
Their popularity as pets was second only to dogs, and during World War I, cats once again proved to be an essential asset in the trenches—killing rodents, sniffing out dangerous gas, and providing comfort and companionship.
In the image below from 1918, a group of off-duty U.S. military police take a breather while deployed in France. The officers shoot the breeze, write letters, polish their guns . . . and cuddle an adorable kitten.
Clearly, the special bond between cats and humans has stood the test of time.
Today, cats remain one of the world’s most beloved pets, and arguably the internet’s most consistent source of low-stakes comedy content. And, with celebrities like Taylor Swift proudly showing off their feline families, the term “cat lady” has been reclaimed as a badge of honor.
But, what about the persistent stereotype that paints cats as aloof, distant, and inherently less affectionate than dogs? Over the past few years, research has officially proven this to be a myth.
Several recent studies show that cats are capable of developing strong, secure bonds to their owners, and show just as much affection and sociability as dogs. One even suggested that cats display distinct “attachment styles” towards their owners, just like human children.
So, next time you find yourself having a lengthy one-sided conversation with your cat, or running late because you can’t bear to dislodge them from your lap, know that you’re part of an ancient tradition that dates back to the dawn of civilization.
Cover image via Jon Santa Cruz/Shutterstock.