Cats have had a special place in the minds of men since cats and humans first made contact thousands of years ago. They have been both feared and revered depending on the culture in question, but there’s always been something sort of mystical about our relationship with cats.
All across the world and the centuries from Ancient Egypt to Medieval Europe and Japan, cats have been considered everything from bad luck to divine creatures.
Cats have been considered goddesses and witches, bad omens and signs of good fortune. Let’s take a look at what cats have been symbolic of in different parts of the world at different times.
In this article, we’ll cover the following:
The history of cats as symbols goes back very far, pretty much since we knew what cats were! And it’s really not all that surprising. With their large, luminescent eyes, dignified manner, and graceful movements, it’s no wonder that human beings have been fascinated with felines since the dawn of time.
Unlike dogs and horses who were domesticated purposefully to be useful to humans, cats just sort of stumbled into our lives. While ancient man kept them around to keep the rodent population under control, cats are uniquely useless to us in terms of survival. But, we love them anyway, and over the years we’ve assigned them an almost mythical identity.
While most of us know that black cats are often considered “bad luck,” our symbolic association with cats is much more complex than that.
In fact, the notion that black cats are symbols of evil is a uniquely European one. In other parts of the world cats symbolize a variety of different things.
This video gives some more facts about black cats and the misinformation that is still a problem to this day!
Before we talk about the cultural symbolism of cats, let’s take a look at what cats signify in the most private landscape of all: our dreams.
Dream interpretation is an ancient art that is based on the premise that our dreams are not simply a collection of remnants from our waking hours, but that they can offer insight into our innermost thoughts and can even be prophetic.
Cats in dreams can symbolize a variety of things, and the answer will depend on whom you ask. Some people say that the presence of a cat in a dream is innately positive, as cats signify femininity, independence, creativity, and power. Others will tell you that seeing a cat in your dreams is a bad omen, one that foretells bad luck and deception. Some say that dreaming of a cat means that someone whom you trust is misleading you in your waking life.
Some even say that the meaning of the cat in your dream depends entirely on how the cat presents himself. Is the cat aggressive, sleeping, calm, playful, or loving? The cat’s action and behavior are supposed to give you great insight into what kind of omen they are – a good one or a bad one.
Unlike feline symbolism in Europe, which generally depicts cats as sneaky, associated with witchcraft, and untrustworthy, the Japanese have a very different relationship with cats.
In Japan, cats are symbols of good luck. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant and noticed a small cat statue near the register, now you know why! These “beckoning cats,” a cat that is making a gesture with one of their paws (usually a little wave or a “come here” gesture), is thought to bring good fortune and financial success.
There are many Japanese legends that portray cats as bringers of good fortune, such as the legend of “Maneki Neko” in which a man is called over by a cat, only to have lighting strike the exact place where he was standing beforehand. In this legend, the cat saved the man by calling him away from danger.
While we often talk about feline symbolism in terms of good luck and bad luck, the Ancient Egyptians took it to a whole other level.
Cats in Egypt weren’t just seen as good luck; they were worshipped! Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including statues, amulets, and even mummified cat remains give us remarkable insight into the very special relationship the Egyptians had with cats and their symbolic significance.
Much of this worship can be traced to the ancient Egyptian cat goddess “Bastet” who represented fertility and motherhood and was highly revered.
Because of their symbolic association with the goddess Bastet, cats were treated very well during their lives, enjoying luxuries that many human beings weren’t afforded, and were then treated to elaborate funerary rights, including mummification, after their death.
In fact, entire households would be thrust into mourning when their cat died, and the penalties for harming cats were severe.
The fascination with cats and ancient Egypt lives on even today. You can even decorate your home with a replica of an ancient Egyptian cat statue.
Check out this video for more facts about cats in Ancient Egypt:
Black cats belong in a category of their own. While some cultures consider encountering a black cat as a sign of good luck (the Scots and the Celts come to mind), the vast majority of Europe considers black cats as a symbol of impending misfortune.
The notion that black cats brought bad luck can be traced to the Middle Ages when folkloric stories about witches who could transform back and forth from human form to black cats began circulating around the continent.
During this very superstitious time, people began believing that any black cat could be a witch in disguise. The idea that witches would transform into black cats to avoid detection at night made its way to the United States as well and became a particularly popular theory during the times of the Salem witch trials.
This is also how black cats began to be one of the most recognizable symbols of Halloween!
Thankfully, most people know that black cats make good pets just as any other color cat. However, the symbolism of cats is so entrenched into our collective minds that even in modern times some of us knock on wood if a black cat crosses our path in the night.
Do you have questions about cats and what they’ve meant to mankind over the centuries? Do you have a black cat that defies all the stereotypes? Tell us about it in the comments!
After moving to New York City from Rome, Italy, I began working in the nonprofit world. Despite my day job, my passion has always been animals, especially dogs and cats, and writing. What better way to combine the two? I’ve been a pet owner for 15 years, and my menagerie includes dogs, cats, hamsters and the occasional hermit crab. My beloved cat, Mozart, who I found as a newborn kitten, sparked my love for felines and is now nearly 15 years old. I am an enthusiastic volunteer at the local ASPCA, where I enjoy spending time with the cats and cleaning up after the dogs. I’ve been writing about pet ownership and care for the past five years.