Women and Cats: Enemies of the Church

Women and cats have quite a history. We go back a long way, and have a lot in common – witches, goddesses, a dislike of rats. But perhaps the biggest thing we share is our history of being persecuted by the church. Which may help explain the present-day woman-cat bond – the one you see, for example, in the cliché of the little old lady with 25 cats: after what we’ve been through, we still want to look out for each other.

In evolutionary terms, the cat family is fairly modern – only 3-5 million years old – and its only been around 4000 years since the cat’s domestication in ancient Egypt. Apparently the Egyptians had an unusual affinity for animals. According to James Serpell’s “Domestication and the History of the Cat” (*1.) wild animals as diverse as baboons, jackals, hares, mongooses, hippos, crocodiles, lions, frogs, herons, ibises and, of course, cats were considered by the ancient Egyptians as the representatives on earth of various gods and goddesses. One city in the Nile Delta had as its chief deity a woman with the head of a lioness called Bastet. Bastet’s attributes were sexual energy, fertility and childbearing and nurturing, and her cult eventually spread to other parts of Egypt. Serpell writes of the wild, raunchy Bastet festival held each year in April and May, which was attended by as many as 700,000 people and who knows how many cats. Cats eventually came to have a special protected status in Egypt and it was a capital offence to kill one, even by accident.

But, as the pagan gods and goddesses died off, and Christianity began to spread farther and wider, attitudes toward cats took a nosedive. Here’s Serpell:

“From being essentially benevolent symbols of female fertility, sexuality and motherhood, they became, instead, the virtual antithesis: malevolent demons, agents of the Devil, and the traitorous companions of witches and necromancers.”

Why? A big part of it was the church’s desire to stamp out all traces of non-Christian religions and cults. According to Serpell, between the 12th and 14th centuries nearly all the main heretical sects (Templars, Waldensians, Cathars) “were accused of worshiping the Devil in the form of a large black cat.” And we all know about the link between cats and witches. Serpell gives details of some lesser-known witch trials in which cats played a prominent role. (He also points to a possible medical basis for some of the felinephobia. Stories of witches adopting the form of cats in order to sneak into houses and smother their victims could be linked to cats causing allergic asthma attacks in humans.)

By the late Middle Ages and early modern period, things had gotten pretty bad for cats, and, of course, for women. Serpell again:

“On feast days, as a symbolic means of driving out the Devil, cats, especially black ones, were captured and tortured, tossed onto bonfires, set alight and chased through the streets, impaled on spits and roasted alive, burned at the stake, plunged into boiling water, whipped to death, and hurled from the tops of tall buildings. … Anyone encountering a stray cat, particularly at night, also felt obliged to try and kill or maim it in the belief that it was probably a witch in disguise.”

Serpell makes clear there was a strong element of misogyny in the hatred of cats, particularly the link between female sexuality and the sexual habits of female cats: like Eve the temptress who led man into sin, the female cat was seen (including by Aristotle) as “a particularly lecherous animal that actively wheedled the males on to sexual congress.” Attributes seen by the ancient Egyptians as admirable were to be condemned and stamped out by the early Christian church.

Domestic cats seem do be doing a lot better these days, though the church is still going after women, and the for same old reasons: because female sexuality and fertility and independence are a threat to its past, its present and its future. Modern research actually shows there is a special bond between women and cats. Wedle, Bauer, et al (2011, *2.) conducted research on 40 cats and 39 owners (10 men and 29 women) and found that female owners have a more intense relationship with their cats than male owners (the sex of the cat didn’t seem to make a difference).

Maybe it’s because of what we’ve been through together.

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*1. In Dennis C. Turner & Patrick Bateson, The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

*2. Wedle, M., Bauer, B., Gracey, D., Grabmayer, C., Spielauer, E., Day, J. & Kotrschal, K. “Factors Influencing the Temporal Patterns of Dyadic Behaviours and Interactions Between Domestic Cats and Their Owners.” Behavioural Processes, 86 (2011) 58-67.

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