My favorite historian has always been Herodotus, that 5th century BC teller of old wives tales, collector of legends (urban and otherwise), belittler of the patently bogus, organizer of amazing twaddle, and story-relater beyond compare. This enterprising Greek traveled the known world of his time collecting stories and tales, sifting them and ruling on their veracity or lack thereof.
He solved a cat mystery for me just this past week – more like a cat slander, because it related to the alleged domestic deficiency of tomcats. I have countless times been told with great assurance that female cats will not let male cats near their litters because toms will kill their kittens. They do this, my informants say, to bring the female back into heat, so the males can commit more whoopee.
I have never seen this happen in all my time on this planet. Male cats that I have introduced to small kittens have invariably hissed in fright and run away. When it comes to a choice between a legend and the evidence of my own eyes, then the legend has to sit in a corner wearing a dunce cap. Although the tale is as false as an Al Gore climate change fantasy, still the question remains: where did it originate? I had always assumed it was a product of the Middle Ages, you know, cats as familiars of witches. “Bad cats; they probably eat their young.”
But Herodotus set me straight. It originated in ancient Egypt of all places, cat-lover central. As our Greek scholar relates it:
“Of all the animals that live with men there are great numbers, and would be many more but for accidents which befall the cats. For when the females have produced young they are no longer in the habit of going to the males, and these seeking to be united with them are not able.
“To this end then they contrive as follows — they either take away by force or remove secretly the young from the females and kill them (but after killing they do not eat them), and the females being deprived of their young and desiring more, therefore come to the males, for it is a creature that is fond of its young.”
It is possible some Egyptian jokesters got together and decided to have a little fun with the visiting Greek, who seemed to write down everything he was told as gospel. So they fed him this tall yarn, plus another cat whopper:
“Moreover when a fire occurs,” Herodotus writes, “the cats seem to be divinely possessed; for while the Egyptians stand at intervals and look after the cats, not taking any care to extinguish the fire, the cats slipping through or leaping over the men, jump into the fire; and when this happens, great mourning comes upon the Egyptians.”
That part about the mourning is perfectly plausible. Egypt was the one nation in history where felines held a status never achieved before or since. It is possible that cats joined the human family between five and six thousand years ago when Egyptian life hinged on the yearly grain supply which could be ravaged by rats and mice. The feline’s anti-rodent capability probably was the foundation of its popularity.
That repute grew over the centuries until Egypt assigned god-like qualities to their house pets and created a special goddess, Bast, to look over them. Bast took the form of a fine lady with a cat’s head. She was also the patron goddess of firefighters, because of an ancient belief that if a cat ran through a burning building it would draw the flames after it. Not content with this divine protection, Egyptians passed secular laws to guard these animals, making the killing of a cat punishable by death.
The death of a cat was a family tragedy. Everyone in the house would shave his eyebrows as a sign of deep mourning, and the cat was often mummified and buried with both honors and expensive treasures. Egypt’s belief in an afterlife carried over in such burials – mummified rats and mice have been found in cat tombs.
Bast’s center of worship was in Bubastis in the eastern Delta. Her chief festivals were celebrated in April and May. Herodotus describes them:
“When the Egyptians travel to Bubastis, they do so in this manner: men and women sail together, and in each boat there are many persons of both sexes. Some of the women shake their rattles and some of the men blow their pipes during the whole journey, while others sing and clap their hands. If they pass a town on the way, some of the women land and shout and jeer at the local women, while others dance and create a disturbance. They do this at every town on the Nile. When they arrive at Bubastis, they begin the festival with great sacrifices, and on this occasion, more wine is consumed than during the whole of the rest of the year.”
Herodotus seems a little too credulous when recording many of the tall tales told by Egyptians. He swallowed a report of the winged snakes of Arabia, which flapped into Egypt every year. They were met at the border by the national bird, the Ibis, and slaughtered. Our scholar fell for this shaggy snake story because the locals showed him a pile of serpent bones as proof.
I guess sometimes you can’t trust the evidence of your own eyes.