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 helpfully subtitled 3500 Years of the Cat in Art, it gets off to a bad start by misdating the origins of cats in human history by some 5,000 years, but from then on improves into a thorough monument to feline fascination. Under ten chapter headings, ranging from “early” and “religious” cats to “legendary,” “eastern” and “portrait” examples, author Caroline Bugler dashes through the years with a rich store of anecdotes and antecedents.
While I already knew, for example, that the ancient Egyptians revered cats, I had little idea of the sun god Ra’s propensity for incarnating himself in the form of a sword-wielding tabby: an avatar depicted in exquisite detail on the plaster walls of a tomb in Deir el-Medina, locked in combat with the snake-demon Apophis, whose nightly mission was to attempt to slay Ra and prevent the dawn. Bugler’s commentary also reminded me that Herodotus wrote at some length on Greek ailurophilia, and in particular of his account of what happens when a house caught fire: “nobody takes the least trouble to put it out, for it is only the cats that matter; everyone stands in a row, a little distance from his neighbour, trying to protect the cats…”
Cats fared less well both in art and the human heart after the fall of ancient Egypt, with Christianity taking much of the blame. Unlike dogs, domestic cats rate just one passing mention in Biblical texts (in the deuterocanonical book of Baruch), and Bugler is entertainingly dry in detailing the injuries their reputations suffered under a succession of witchcraft-obsessed medieval popes. Gregory IX issued an edict in 1233 that sanctioned the extermination not only of cats, but also of their female owners. In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer for Witches) made their connection with witchcraft a matter of doctrine. As late as 1765, the French town of Metz practiced the annual tradition of burning cats on a bonfire on the feast day of St John the Baptist; while “the custom of hurling live cats from the belfry of the cloth hall in Ypres did not end until 1817. The town still commemorates this bizarre tradition (using toy cats, fortunately) in the cat festival it holds every three years.”
Fortunately for all involved, the sadistic murder of animals in the name of religious tradition gradually fell out of favour during the Enlightenment, and more civilised animal relations were able to flourish. One of the loveliest plates in The Cat shows William Blake’s illustration of the poem “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat,” written by Thomas Gray in 1747 in memory of Horace Walpole’s beloved tabby, Selima, who drowned in a porcelain tub that Walpole used for keeping goldfish. Conjuring Selima’s last moments, Gray described how “Eight times emerging from the flood/She mewed to every watery god.” Blake, however, chose in six watercolour illustrations to depict a more ethereal Selima, with a cat’s front half and a woman’s legs, leaning from a bank to paw at golden fairies. It’s a strange, piercing image, mixing human pathos with the blindness of animal instinct.
As Bugler highlights, the cultural place of cats—whether as gods, companions or demons—has always been a domestic one. Horses and hounds dominate heraldry and public statues; cats are for the kitchen and the boudoir, and perhaps for this reason are linked closely in art with women. Manet paints a prostitute, nude, with her black cat bristling near the edge of the frame; Ford Madox Brown shows his teenage daughter in a summer garden, her skirts nuzzled by a tortoiseshell cat with a bow around its neck; Renoir shows us a young woman caressing a favourite tabby close to her cheek. The animals are elegant, enigmatic, erotic: a half-tamed outpost of the wild.
As time passes through the pages of this book, cats gradually creep back from the margins to which the medieval world exiled them, towards centre-frame. By the time we reach the final chapter, the “modern cat” of art from the 1890s onwards, felines are once again the apples of human eyes—and fine fuel for the avant-garde to explore living lines and geometric form. Paul Klee’s The Mountain of the Sacred Cat gives us an angular titan of a puss, rising godlike above two stick-figure men; Andy Warhol depicts Sam the Cat 25 times in technicolour close-ups worthy of Marilyn Monroe; Picasso delights in the strut of street cats and—in a blue-toned 1965 oil—his wife’s black kitten standing off against a formidable crab amid pebbles on a Cannes beach.
The book ends with these modern masters, and with cats’ return to the faintly awed gaze of an age resigned to finding its gods in beauty. Cats themselves, however, have continued to travel deeper into our culture and affections: perhaps further in these last few decades than at any time since the Ptolemaic dynasty’s demise. Ours is a century in which blogger, researcher and supergeek Ethan Zuckerman’s “cute cat theory” of political activism is vigorously debated in academic journals and the US State Department. (The theory argues that the online tools used by millions to share comically-captioned cute cat photos are also a powerful tool for political activism.) Meanwhile the Lolcat Bible Translation Project has put almost the entire holy book into the language “spoken” by those captioned cats. If you don’t yet know what I’m talking about, simply Google “lolcat” and spend a month or two browsing the 3.6m odd results. It’s eerily habit-forming, and every bit as much fun as Herodotus.
Throughout history, the domestication of a species has typically involved humans remoulding the world to suit themselves. In cats, though, we meet the gaze of an alien but equal opportunism; of the only mammal to have invited itself into our homes, persuaded us to feed it, then got us cleaning up the mess afterwards.
The joy of animal gods has always been that their counterparts walk among us. In our current age of marvels, that profane deity—felis catus—grants us licence to be at once fond, foolish and devoted to the uselessly lovely. Which is much what we might wish to feel about great art, or even mediocre novels—if only the dozy pet on our desktop wasn’t insisting quite so loudly that it needs to be fed. Follow Prospect on Twitter and Facebook