Cats have a strong tie to the Middle East. One of the earliest known cases of cat domestication is a 9,500 year old burial site on the island of Cyprus (off of mainland Turkey) in which a cat was buried along side a human being and a few other artifacts. There is even evidence that cats were brought to the island intentionally by humans. Could this be the place where the domestication of cats began?
It makes sense that the people of the Ancient Middle East would take to cats since many cultures were agriculturally based. Farmers used cats to help protect their grain from rodents and other vermin. Further, in a study released in 2007, scientists confirmed that genetic testing proves that today’s domestic cats are descendants of Near Eastern wildcats.
An unusual find….or lack thereof
Oddly, with all of the proof that cats were very much present in the everyday lives of the ancient Middle Eastern people, I have found few credible sources that show that ancient Middle Eastern people made reference to domestic cats at all. In searching through the cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia (Sumeria, Babylon, and Assyria), I haven’t found any mythology pertaining to domestic cats. Neither does the Bible mention domestic cats.
One cat that all of the Ancient Middle Eastern cultures do mention is the lion. It is seen as a symbol of unbridled strength. Mighty heros and kings would have their strength compared with that of a lion, often being shown as having defeated a lion.
Ancient Mesopotamian Kings
Kings in Ancient Mesopotamia were given a god-like status. In order to show their mighty god-like strength, they would hunt lions for sport. To the people of that world, this made the king seem very strong. However, the king had the lions brought to a “hunting ground” near the palace and each of the lions was wounded by an assistant before they were introduced to the king.
The Goddess Ishtar
Ishtar was the goddess of love, fertility, and war (she is also known as Inanna and “the Queen of Heaven”). Often she is seen standing on or accompanied by lions. In the epic story of Gilgamesh, Ishtar wants Gilgamesh to marry her, but he refuses. He calls her out on how badly all of her relationship with men end and mentions that she loves lions because of their strength, but she would dig them graves too.
Ishtar is most known for the myth about her trip to the underworld. She lies to the gatekeeper to the underworld who allows her entrance for the staff that she was carrying. As she continues deeper into the underworld other pieces of jewelry and clothing are demanded of her until she is completely naked (and powerless since her powers were in her clothes and jewelry). Finally she reaches the goddess of the underworld who sees that she is powerless and unleashes diseases on her, kills her, and hangs her corpse.
A few days a later a friend of Ishtar’s creates a monster to go and retrieve her from the underworld along with a bag of the waters of life. The monster brings her back to life and out of the underworld successfully, but demands that she choose someone to take her place in the underworld. Ishtar chooses her husband because he wasn’t mourning her death when she returned.
Lions of the Bible
The Bible is silent on domestic cats, but has a lot to say about lions. Just as in the other cultures of the the Ancient Middle East, the Bible tends to use the lion as a symbol of strength. They are not really assigned a consistent characteristic of being “good” or “evil.” Here are a few passages that mention lions:
- The LORD
gives Sampson the power to kill a lion with his bare hands. Judges 14:6
- King Solomon builds a temple for God and uses images of lions as part of the elaborate decorations. 1 Kings 7:29
- Each of the cherubim (a type of angel) has 4 faces, one of which is a lion. Ezekiel 10:14
- The story of Daniel and the lion’s den; the prophet Daniel is thrown into a pit of hungry lions for refusing to worship the Babylonian king. God shuts the mouths of the lions and Daniel survives. Daniel 6
- Satan is referred to as a roaring lion. 1 Peter 5:8
- Jesus is referred to as “the lion of Judah.” Revelation 5:5
Pets in general are mentioned in the Bible. In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan describes a man who has taken another man’s pet sheep and killed it to King David. King David becomes furious that anyone would have done such a thing and sentences the man to death while requiring that the man pay for the pet sheep 4 times over. Other passages also show that God looks kindly on those who love animals.
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