If any of my readers hunger and thirst for information concerning the descent of the cat through marsupial ancestors and mesozoic mammals to the generalized placental or monodelphous carnivora of to-day, let them consult St. George Mivart, who gives altogether the most comprehensive and exhaustive scientific study to the cat ever published, and whose book on the cat is an excellent work for the earnest beginner in the study of biological science. He says no more complete example can be found of a perfectly organized living being than that supplied by the highest mammalian family—Felidae.
"On the whole," he sums up, "it seems probable that the mammalia, and therefore the cat, descends from some highly developed, somewhat reptile-like batrachian of which no trace has been found."
Away back in the eighth century of the Hegira, an Arab naturalist gives this account of the creation of the cat: "When, as the Arab relates, Noah made a couple of each animal to enter the ark, his companions and family asked, 'What security can you give us and the other animals, so long as the lion dwells with us on this narrow vessel?' Then Noah betook himself to prayer, and entreated the Lord God. Immediately fever came down from heaven and seized upon the king of beasts." This was the origin of fever. But constituents in Noah's time, as now, were ungrateful; and no sooner was the lion disposed of, than the mouse was discovered to be an object of suspicion. They complained that there would be no safety for provisions or clothing. "And so Noah renewed his supplication to the Most High, the lion sneezed, and a cat ran out of his nostrils. From that time the mouse has been timid and has hidden in holes."
In the Egyptian gallery of the British Museum there is an excellent painting of a tabby cat assisting a man to capture birds. Hieroglyphic inscriptions as far back as 1684 B.C. mention the cat, and there is at Leyden a tablet of the eighteenth or nineteenth dynasty with a cat seated under a chair. A temple at Beni-Hassan is dedicated to Pasht or Bubastis, the goddess of cats, which is as old as Thothmes IV of the eighteenth dynasty, 1500 B.C.; and the cat appears in written rituals of that dynasty. Herodotus tells of the almost superstitious reverence which dwellers along the Nile felt for the cat, and gravely states that when one died a natural death in any house, the inmates shaved their eyebrows as a token of grief; also, that in case of a fire the first thing they saved was the household cat. Fortunate pussies! /
It is thought that cats were introduced into Greece from Egypt, although Professor Rolleston, of Cambridge University, believes the Grecian pet cat to have been the white-breasted marten. Yet why should he? Is not a soft, white-breasted maltese or tabby as attractive? The idea that cats were domesticated in Western Europe by the Crusaders is thought to be erroneous; but pet cats were often found in nunneries in the Middle Ages, and Pope Gregory the Great, toward the end of the sixth century, had a pet cat of which he was very fond.
An old writer says, "A favorite cat sometimes accompanied the Egyptians on these occasions [of sport], and the artist of that day intends to show us by the exactness with which he represents her seizing her prey, that cats were trained to hunt and carry water-fowl." There are old Egyptian paintings representing sporting scenes along the Nile, where the cats plunge into the water of the marshes to retrieve and carry game; while plenty of mural paintings show them sitting under the arm-chair of the mistress of the house. Modern naturalists, however, claim a radical difference between those old Egyptian retrieving cats and our water-hating pussies. There are no records of cats between that period in Egypt, about 1630 B.C., and 260 B.C., when they seem to have become acclimated in Greece and Rome. There is in the Bordeaux Museum an ancient picture of a young girl holding a cat, on a tomb of the Gallo-Roman Epoch, and cats appeared in the heraldry of that date; but writers of those ages speak rather slightingly of them. Then for centuries the cat was looked upon as a diabolic creature, fit company for witches.
"Why," says Balthazar Bekker in the seventeenth century, "is a cat always found among the belongings of witches, when according to the Sacred Book, and Apocalypse in particular, it is the dog, not a feline animal, that consorts with the sorcerers?"
In Russia even yet the common people believe that black cats become devils at the end of seven years, and in many parts of Southern Europe they are still supposed to be serving apprenticeship as witches. In Sicily the peasants are sure that if a black cat lives with seven masters, the soul of the seventh will surely accompany him back to the dominion of Hades. In Brittany there is a dreadful tale of cats that dance with unholy glee around the crucifix while their King is being put to death. Cats figure in Norwegian folk-lore, too, as witches and picturesque incumbents of ghost-haunted houses and nocturnal revels. And even to-day there is a legend in Westminster to the effect that the dissipated cats of that region indulge in a most disreputable revel in some country house, and that is why they look so forlorn and altogether undone by daylight.
1. New Mexican hairless cats: owned by T.J. Shinick,
A canon enacted in England in 1127 forbade any abbess or nun to use more costly fur than that of lambs or cats, and it is proved that cat-fur was at that time commonly used for trimming dresses. The cat was, probably for that reason, an object of chase in royal forests, and a license is still in existence from Richard II to the Abbot of Peterborough, and dated 1239, granting liberty to hunt cats. This was probably the wild cat, however, which was not the same as the domestic.
That cats, even in the Middle Ages, were thought much more highly of in Great Britain than on the Continent is proved by the fact that the laws there imposed a heavy fine on cat-killers, the fine being as much wheat as would serve to bury the cat when he was held up by the tip of the tail with his nose on the ground. So that pet cats stood a fairly good chance in those days.
One of the good things remembered of Louis XIII is that he interceded as Dauphin with Henri IV for the lives of the cats about to be burned at the festival on St. John's Day.
Nowadays, there is a current superstition that a black cat brings good luck to a house; but in the Middle Ages they believed that the devil borrowed the form of a black cat when he wanted to torment or get control of his victims. There are plenty of old traditions about cats having spoken to human beings, and been kicked, or struck, or burned by them in return; and invariably, these tales tell us, those who are so bespoken meet some one the next day with plain marks of the injury they had inflicted on the froward cat,—which was sure evidence of witchery and sorcery. Doubtless full many a human being has been put to death, in times past, on no stronger evidence of being a witch. Humanity did not come to the rescue of the cat and bring her out from the shadow of ignominy that hung over her in mediaeval times until 1618, when an interdict was issued in Flanders prohibiting the festive ceremony of throwing cats from the high tower of Ypres on Wednesdays of the second week in Lent. And from that time Pussy's fortunes began to look up.
To-day, travellers on the edge of the Pyrenees know a little old man, Martre Tolosan, who makes and sells replicas of the original models of cats found among the Roman remains at a small town near Toulouse. These are made in blue and white earthenware and each one is numbered. Mine, bought by a friend in 1895, is marked 5000. They are not exact models of our cats of to-day, to be sure, but they express all the snug content and inscrutable calm of our modern pets.
The Chinese reproduce cats in their ceramics in white, turquoise blue, and old violet. One that once belonged to Madame de Mazarin sold for eight hundred livres. In Japan, cats are reproduced in common ware, daubed with paint, but the Chinese make them of finer ware, enamelling the commoner kinds of porcelain and using the cat in conventional forms as flower-vases and lamps. These are among the laws supposedly enacted by Hoel Dha (Howell the Good) sometime between 915 and 948 A.D.
The Vendotian Code XI.
The worth of a cat and her teithi (qualities) this is:—
1st. The worth of a kitten from the night it is kittened until it shall open its eyes, is one penny.
2d. And from that time until it shall kill mice, two pence.
3d. And after it shall kill mice, four legal pence; and so it shall always remain.
4th. Her teithe are to see, to hear, to kill mice, and to have her claws.
This is the "Dimentian Code." XXXII. Of Cats.
1st. The worth of a cat that is killed or stolen. Its head to be put downward upon a clean, even floor, with its tail lifted upward and thus suspended, whilst wheat is poured about it until the top of its tail be covered and that is to be its worth. If the corn cannot be had, then a milch sheep with a lamb and its wool is its value, if it be a cat that guards the king's barn.
2d. The worth of a common cat is four legal pence.
3d. The teithi of a cat, and of every animal upon the milk of which people do not feed, is the third part of its worth or the worth of its litter.
4th. Whosoever shall sell a cat (cath) is to answer that she devour not her kittens, and that she have ears, teeth, eyes, and nails, and be a good mouser.
The "Gwentian Code" begins in the same way, but says:—
3d. That it be perfect of ear, perfect of eye, perfect of teeth, perfect of tail, perfect of claw, and without marks of fire. And if the cat fall short in any of these particulars, a third of her price had to be refunded. As to the fire, in case her fur had been singed the rats could detect her by the odor, and her qualities as a mouser were thus injured. And then it goes on to say:—
4th. That the teithi and the legal worth of a cat are coequal.
5th. A pound is the worth of a pet animal of the king.
6th. The pet animal of a breyer (brewer) is six score pence in value.
7th. The pet animal of a taoog is a curt penny in value.
In the 39th chapter, 53d section, we find that "there are three animals whose tails, eyes, and lives are of the same value—a calf, a filly for common work, and a cat, except the cat which shall watch the king's barn," in which case she was more valuable.
Another old Welsh law says: "Three animals reach their worth in a year: a sheep, a cat, and a cur. This is a complement of the legal hamlet; nine buildings, one plough, one kiln, one churn, and one cat, one cock, one bull, and one herdsman."
In order that there might be no mistake in regard to the cat, a rough sketch of Puss is given in the Mss. of the laws.