By Tanya Silverman
Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub meet at the International Cat Festival 2013. Photo courtesy of Adam Rifkin.
Think cat fanaticism is a crazy new phenomenon pioneered by internet weirdos? As BTR’s resident cat lover, I’ll use my authority to tell you something: you’re wrong. Sharing our earthly experience with cats has been engrained into the human psyche for centuries, way before the World Wide Web was even a thought.
Cats are the world’s most popular pets. Evidence suggests that their domestication dates back to the Middle East, in or around Ancient Egypt. People began growing fond of cats as predators because they killed off the rodents that threatened their crop production. As cat adaptation developed, the Ancient Egyptian religion came to include cat deities, like Bast (or Bastet), the “Devouring Lady” who was often seen as a gentle and protective goddess.
Though Egyptologists debate whether the cat was considered holy as a mortal entity in itself, there were points in the civilization when killing a cat was punishable by death and the loss of one’s cat entailed mourning practices–like shaving eyebrows–plus sophisticated mummification and burial. As such, when archaeologists dig up ancient cat and kitten skeletons, they use the artifacts to try and determine more precise dates of domestication. The oldest bones that were dug up this past spring are dated between 3800 and 3600 BC.
Fast forward thousands of years and cat interest continued through history, along with religious reverence. Islam appreciates cats for being clean animals. Prophet Mohammed had a favorite cat, Muezza, who would snuggle on his lap when he delivered sermons.
There’s also the tender story of a time when Mohammed was called to prayer and discovered Muezza sleeping on his robe sleeve. To her convenience, he chose to cut off the sleeve rather than disturb her peace.
Mohammed’s known companion, Abu Hurayrah, was also a devout cat fan, so much so that his nickname translates as “Father of Kittens”. On a public level, Islam teaches Muslims to not sell cats for money and that people can cohabitate with them as pets, so long as the humans provide nourishment and space to roam.
Mark Twain with a kitten. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
If ancient reverence and religious involvement aren’t enough, there’s substantial proof that cats are favored by many famous authors. Mark Twain wrote extensively about these animals in both his fiction and non-fiction works. He professed, in his journal, “A cat is more intelligent than people believe, and can be taught any crime.” Nevertheless, Twain trusted these furry creatures enough to play pool by his side or snuggle atop his lap.
Ernest Hemingway also had a noted affinity for felines and shared his house in Florida with many. Many still habitat his residence past his death; the Hemingway Home today hosts 40-50 polydactyl–or six-toed–cats, along with plenty of five-toed ones.
Drugs and sex are probably the first connotations one has of William S Burroughs, however, the man was an avid cat lover who was a longtime subscriber to Cat Fancy. Burroughs, who completed The Cat Inside later in his career, referred to the animals as his “psychic companions” and his true love.
The interest is not only limited to masters of the English language. Famous Czech author Bohumil Hrabal owned over twenty cats at his cottage in his old age. In Prague, there’s a colorful, commemorative mural of him painted amongst the precious pets.
Yes, photos of cats are plentiful online today. However, felines have been depicted in all sorts of artistic mediums throughout time. Theophile Steinlen not only mastered the iconic Art Nouveau poster Le Chat Noir after the Parisian cabaret club, but painted, sculpted, and sketched a vast array of chats. Brassai’s black-and-white photographs of Paris often included felines resting on windowsills, prancing on cobblestones, or sitting atop arrangements of empty wine bottles.
Salvador Dali with Babou the ocelot. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Maybe you’ve seen examples of Louis Wain’s British cat art, which ranged from anthropomorphized cats playing cricket early in his career, to more psychedelic depictions as he got older and crazier. Though she wasn’t a proper Felis catus domestica, we should also use this opportunity to give a shout-out to the beautiful Babou, Salvador Dali’s pet ocelot. A fancy companion, Dali took Babou on luxury liners and to Manhattan restaurants where he explained, to startled patrons, she was just a regular cat he had “painted over in an op art design.”
Here at BTR, we’ve brought you diverse coverage of current cat happenings: Confused Cats Against Feminism, Russian art model Zarathustra, the Grumppuccino, Catlateral Damage. These stories provide angles on how our modern civilization interprets cats.
Well then, what’s the deal with internet cats? Why are there so many online cat celebrities with notable followings? Is there a cosmic connection between Lolcats, Keyboard Cat’s “play them off” series, Grumpy Cat’s highly publicized NYC tours, Hamilton’s hipster mustache, cat video festivals, and Andrew WK singing to Lil Bub?
I’m not the first one to say this, but, part of the reason is that cats are an at-home animal, and when we’re using the internet to relax, it’s often when we’re in our dwelling, decompressing from the day. Digitized representations of cats are now inherent in the comforting zone of relief that we foster for ourselves.
Photo courtesy of Vasenka Photography.
Whatever the case (that thrives online or off), cat lovers don’t need a list of historical references and famous figures to realize that they offer wonderful additions to our lives. Cats make cute, furry companions that co-exist with a great deal of independence. They warm up your feet when you’re trying to sleep on cold winter nights. They make beautiful breathing ornaments on windowsills.
Their instances of cuteness and quirkiness can be acknowledged, and captured, with or without the internet.
People–past and present–share our experience on this planet with cats. The internet is just a newer outlet. If civilization fell and we could never log online again, felines would still linger amongst us and we’d go on to share our post-apocalyptic, internet-free world with our four-legged friends.