The cat has probably been associated with Man since it was first given a place by his fire in return for keeping the cave dwelling free of rats and mice. The relationship between the cat and Man has not been constant, however. Man’s attitude has ranged through indifference and neglect to the extremes of persecution and worship.
To the early Egyptians, the cat was a goddess and temples were built in her honour. Probably the most revered of animal deities was Bast, the cat-headed goddess. There was even a city, Bubastis, named after her. Occasionally, Bast was depicted as lion-headed, but the majority of the statues of her show her as cat-headed, often surrounded by sacred cats or kittens.
The Egyptians had great faith in the power of a living cat to protect them from both natural and supernatural evils. They made small ornaments and charms representing cats and the various cat deities. These decorated their homes and were buried with them to ensure that the soul of the dead person was protected on its perilous journey through the hostile spirit world.
Pious Egyptians always mummified their cats and had them buried with almost as much reverence as if they were human beings. At the end of the last century, a cat cemetery was discovered near the site of the ancient city of Bubastis. Here literally hundreds of thousands of little cat mummies were found ranged neatly on shelves. Some were stolen, some destroyed, and antique dealers sold many to tourists. Thousands were left.
An Alexandrian speculator finally thought of a way of turning them into money. He offered them for sale as manure and, in 1890 he had a cargo of 180,000 of them shipped to Liverpool. They made less than ￡4 a ton, much less than the value of a single specimen today.
The ancient Jews believed that when a religious person who had reached a high degree of sanctity died, his soul entered the body of a cat and remained there until the cat itself died a natural death. Only then could it enter Paradise.
Exactly the same belief existed in Burma and Thailand until comparatively recently, and beautiful sacred cats were kept in great luxury in the temples. When a member of the royal house of Siam died, his favourite cat was buried alive with him but a small opening was always left for its escape. When the cat emerged, the priests knew that the Prince’s soul had safely entered its feline host, and the cat was ceremonially escorted to the Temple. At the crowning of the young King of Siam in 1926, a white cat was carried by a court official in the procession to the Throne Room. The old King’s soul was resting in this cat, and his faithful former courtiers knew that he would want to be present at the crowning of his successor.