Cats and humans have a history that goes way back in time. The oldest piece of evidence we have of the cat-human relationship is a cat buried with a man in Cyprus, which dates to over 9,000 years ago. It’s not really certain who chose whom, the cats or the humans. What we do know is that these ancient cat breeds were created without the assistance of breeders and that they stole the hearts of most of the people they came into contact with. Stories and legends about cats permeate history.
Ancient Cat Breeds #1: Egyptian Mau
The Egyptian Mau breed looks very similar to their wild ancestors. They have retained the wild spotted markings and a cheetah-like skin flap that reaches from the back of their rib cage to their hind legs. This flap allows the Egyptian Mau to be the fastest domestic cat with speeds up to 30 mph (48 kph)!
The Ancient Egyptians adored the Egyptian Mau. In fact, the word “mau” means “cat” in Ancient Egyptian. There is evidence of the Egyptian Mau with humans in Egypt as far back as 1580 BC. These kitties were worshiped, painted, sculpted, and mummified. They were trained to hunt and retrieve ducks with their owners. Cats were so revered by the Ancient Egyptians that the punishment for killing a cat was death.
There was a very important story in the Ancient Egyptian religion that involved the Egyptian Mau. Ra was the sun god who was said to travel by boat across the sky during the day and he would be swallowed and travel through the underworld at night. Every morning Ra would come back to life. His enemy was Apep, the serpentine god of darkness, evil, and destruction. Apep threatened to destroy Ra as he traveled through the underworld. In an epic battle, Ra took the form of an Egyptian Mau and sliced off Apep’s head. Later, Ra’s daughters would also take the form of cats. This includes the famous Bastet, the goddess of fertility, who was pictured as a black domestic cat.
Ancient Cat Breeds #2: Norwegian Forest Cat
The Norwegian Forest Cat breed is the official breed of Norway. These long haired beauties are often confused with the Maine Coon, but are a bit larger. It is believed that these big, beautiful cats made their way up from the Mediterranean region with Roman soldiers. They may have had shorter hair that became longer as the cats adapted to the cold winters in Norway. The vikings liked to use the Norwegan Forest Cat on their ships to keep the rodent population in check.
The earliest written records of Norwegian Forest Cats come from the Edda. The Edda is a set of epic poems written between 800 and 1200 AD that records the stories from Norway’s ancient pagan religion. These poems describe Freya, goddess of fertility, beauty, and love as driving a chariot that was pulled by 2 large cats. It is debated as to whether these cats were Norwegian Forest Cats, but that is the most popular conclusion.
A story outside of the Edda describes how Freya got her cats. Thor, the god of thunder, was taking a nap outdoors when he was suddenly awakened by a horrible noise. When he investigated the noise, he found a father cat and two giant blue kittens, one of which was singing. Apparently, the kitten was a pretty bad singer. The father cat was desperate for help because he couldn’t raise his sons on his own. Thor helped the father cat by taking the two kittens and presenting them to Freya as a gift.
Ancient Cat Breeds #3: Japanese Bobtail
Of the 3 cat breeds mentioned in this post, the Japanese Bobtail has enjoyed the most fame in modern times. Both Maneki Neko and Hello Kitty are fashioned after the Japanese Bobtail! These cool kitties are known for their short, curly tail. Believe it or not, the tail of the Japanese Bobtail has the same number of bones as any other cat, those bones are just smaller. It is a natural genetic mutation that has not been affected by man.
It is likely that the Japanese Bobtail was brought over to Japan by Buddhist monks about 1,000 years ago. Unlike the Egyptian Mau and the Norwegian Forest Cat, the Japanese Bobtail did not become a part of the religion in its new home. Still, there are many legends that the Japanese tell about these cats and they are greatly revered.
One legend says that the Japanese Bobtail was once a cat with a normal length tail. However, one day a rather clumsy Japanese Bobtail caught his tail on fire and ran throughout the village trying to put it out. As he ran, he caught every building in the village on fire and everything burned to the ground. As a means of preventing this sort of destruction from happening again, the Emperor cut off all of the cats’ tails in the village. According to this legend, this is how the Japanese Bobtail got its famous tail.
On a better note, another legend describes Japan as having a real crisis. Rodents infestations had destroyed the population of silk worms. The emperor ordered everyone to let their cats outdoors to take care of the rodents. The Japanese bobtail helped to remove the rodents and thus, restore the silk worm population. They saved the day!
If your cat was part of an ancient legend, what sort of character would he/she be?
Sources & Digging Deeper