Throughout history, humans have projected their dreams, fears and peculiarities onto felines. Why?by Tom Chatfield / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Left, one of the many drawings of cats by Louis Wain (1860-1939); right, a lolcat—captioned pictures like these are an internet phenomenon
Cats first decided to live among humans over 9,000 years ago. A burial site in Cyprus dating from 7,500BC provides the earliest evidence, with the corpse of an eight-month-old cat carefully laid out in its own tiny plot less than two feet away from its companion human. This gives human-feline cohabitation a more recent pedigree than human-canine, with dogs having lived alongside humans for well over 10,000 years, but puts cats comfortably ahead of such lesser beasts as chickens, ducks, horses, silkworms and ferrets. And among all domestic animals cats boast a unique distinction: to the best of our knowledge, it was them who chose us.
Or rather, cats chose what humans represented: the plentiful supply of tasty vermin that lived among the stock and refuse of early civilisation. In this, the central dynamic of human-feline relations has altered little over ten millennia: food and shelter are welcome, and the bipeds who come packaged with these lie somewhere between a nuisance and a bonus. As I type these words, a well-fed feline called Jacob is lying across my forearms, where he spends much of the day when I’m writing. I know that he appreciates the stroking as well as the feeding; but I’m equally certain that, if our sizes were reversed, the only thing that would stop him from eating me instantly would be the pleasure of hunting me first.
Vermin-catching skills aside, cats are not useful to humans in any instrumental sense, nor much inclined to put themselves at our service. In contrast to the empathetic, emphatically useful dog, a cat’s mind is an alien and often unsympathetic mix of impulses. And it’s perhaps this combination of indifference and intimacy that has made it a beast of such ambivalent fascination throughout our history. Felines have been gods, demons, spirits and poppets to humankind over the centuries—and that’s before you reach the maelstrom of the internet and its obsessions. They are, in effect, a blank page onto which we doodle our dreams, fears and obsessions.
Thanks to a new book from independent London publishers Merrell, we now have a lavish and delightfully illustrated synopsis of the role of cats in our visual culture. Titled The Cat, and rather more…