Irrational fear of cats.

"The wildcat is the real cat, the soul of the domestic cat; unknowable to human beings, yet he exists inside our household pets, who have long ago seduced us with their seemingly civilized ways." 
-- Joyce Carol Oates

King Henry III of France, Louis XIV of France, and Napoleon suffered from Ailurophobia --

"Unlike dogs who need social contact and need to be part of a pack, the cat has no need to be with people and as a result there is little incentive for them to engage in social contact. Even the lowest level of fear (in the cat) is likely to be accompanied by a desire to avoid interaction and this will aid the ailurophobe in their avoidance of the cat." (Source: 3)

Given that fear of cats seems odd I have assembled a little catty history based on an essay I once wrote.  Perhaps this will explain a little more why people develop this mind numbing fear of the cute little tabby sitting by old Mrs White (not a witch), after all we have nothing to fear... do we.

Apparently the first signs of domestication date back 8,000 years ago and come from the island of Cyprus, where the bones of cats, mice, and humans have been found together. All three of these species first appear on Cyprus at the same time. It would seem that humans brought the two creatures to the island, the mice by accident and the cats on purpose.

To start with humans probably tolerated the cat as they killed the mice and rats that ate the food stores. Full domestication of the cat is likely to have occurred in Egypt approximately 4,000 years ago. To overcome the natural fear that wild cats had of humans, they were most likely captured as kittens and hand-reared... 

So where did healthy respect become mind numbing fear?  sure a cat scratch really hurts but there has to be more to it than that.

Before too long these ancient Egyptians had progressed from villages into cities, and from a simple nature-oriented pantheism led by the village shaman into a hyper-complex system of gods and goddesses with a set of elaborate rituals carefully governed by a priest class. The kingship secured itself, as has often been done, by claiming a right to rule as ordained by the gods. This divine right of kings eventually gave way to a royal demi-god hood, then a full god-hood: the king became Pharaoh, the god-king. Since Pharaoh was one of their own, this concept was strongly encouraged by the priests who benefited from the extra power.

"Around 4000 BCE, cattle breeders, plant gatherers, and seasonal cultivators began to settle and become farmers on the high ground at the foot of the desert plateau... in the Nile Delta... There, man's relationship with the cat in Egypt began." (1)

Since the food requirements of a city are much greater than those of a village, grain was taken as taxes and stored in the royal granaries. These granaries were windowless storage buildings and, like all buildings, were not secure against nature's smaller creatures: mice and rats. With all that grain piled in such great heaps, the vermin must have thought all their birthdays had come at once and must have bred like rabbits only wish they could. This was such a problem that Pharaoh needed  to muster all the cats he could in order to combat the vermin, so he appropriated all the cats in the land.

"About 4000 BCE, the first permanent settlements, granaries and silos, and other basic preconditions for cat-human contacts were in place. Along came Felis silvestris libyca, the Libyan subspecies of the wild cat. It was larger than our domestic cat, with a coat of reddish brown to gray-brown or sandy yellow and striped and with a ringed tail, much like our tabbies. " (1)

However, taking people's cats, especially beloved cats, posed a problem that even Pharaoh didn't want to face. Being divine himself, presumably with divine wisdom, he solved this problem by leaving all the cats where they were but making them demigods: all the cats in Egypt, all at once. There were suddenly tens of thousands of small, furry, purring divinities running around. As with all of man's lunacies, I feel certain that the cats ignored the whole thing.

"The cobra and two kinds of vipers, along with rats and mice, represented dangers to the human population. And while people were almost helpless to defend themselves against these, cats were not. Thus, they were most certainly made welcome! When the first Libyan wild cat wandered into a village and discovered tasty vermin in the silos, the relationship must have begun. Cats were even deliberately fed scraps of food to ensure their return. The cat thus found an ecological niche for itself. Diodorus Siculus, a Roman traveler who visited Egypt in 60-57 BCE, reported that in his time, cats were fed milk with bread or cut-up fish."  (1)

According to the dogmatic laws of the time a mere human could not own a demigod, only a god could, and who was the only "god" around? Pharaoh of course. 

A human could provide a home and food for a demigod, and this they did, bringing them to their assigned granary each night and picking them up each morning. For this service, they would receive a form of tax credit. (They got to claim their cats as dependents! One wonders how much cat sharing took place on their version of April Tax Returns)

Since all cats were the property of divine Pharaoh, to kill or injure one, even by accident, was a capital crime. If a house caught fire, the cats were saved first, then, if there was time, the people. People were, after all, only human.

So now the cats were starting to "rule" the people.  Now instead of going about one's business there was the possibility that accidentally hurting a demi-god cat could see you killed.  People would become superstitious and scared.

"The relationship between Egyptians and cats was unique. Cattle, sheep, and fowl were useful for their skin or wool, for food, or as pack animals. Monkeys and baboons were kept for amusement, although baboons were also used in markets as a kind of guard dog. The cat, however, was free to come and go at will." (1)

Whenever a cat died in the normal course of events, the whole of its human household went into elaborate ritualistic mourning, often shaving off their eyebrows, chanting, pounding their breasts, and demonstrating other outward signs of grief at their loss. The body of the cat had to be carefully wrapped in linen and brought to the priests, who would check it carefully to be certain its death was natural. 

All this effort to please the gods and leaders and show proper devotion to the cat must have taken it's toll on the people.  The costs of taking care of a dead cat may have been terrible for a poor person to have to cover.  So you can see how it may have been considered unlucky to have a cat follow you home.

When the priests were done, the body was taken to the embalmers, who made a cat mummy of it. I understand that there were far more cat mummies than people mummies in Egypt: over 300,000 of them were found in the diggings at Beni-Hassan alone.

"The exact origin of this species is unknown, and its onomatopoeic name, miu, gives no linguistic clue to its original home, which was probably somewhere in the ancient Near East. There is no compelling evidence that the cat was introduced into Egypt from anywhere else. Around 1950 BCE, isolated representations of cats appear, as do those of cats as protective elements in religious reliefs. Some believe cats were brought into Egypt from Nubia during the New Kingdom. Others place their origins with Felis silvestris ornata and believe they were brought from Persia circa 2000 BCE. But these are minority opinions." (1)

"The ritualism and mythology concerning the cat spread far beyond their vermin-control capabilities. The people soon believed (helped, no doubt, by the priests) that the cats had a direct influence upon health, marriage, fortune, and other non-cat aspects of life. The goddess of life and family was Bast, who had a woman's body and a cat's head. In her left hand, Bast was often depicted as holding an amulet of the all-seeing sacred eye, the utchat, believed to have magical powers." (2)

"The utchat itself was everywhere in society: as decoration, in home shrines, worn as jewelry, etc. It was often depicted as being the eye of a cat, sometimes with cats within the eye itself. An utchat at the door kept a watchful eye out for thieves and vandals, protecting the home. An utchat over the lintel kept a watchful eye over all that dwelt within, preserving them from disease and accident. An utchat worn around the neck kept its watchful eye upon the road and protected travelers from harm. An utchat showing a mother cat with many kittens given as a wedding present meant many children. The beliefs were legion (so were the utchat makers)." (2)

What is clear is that an unhealthy obsession had developed with the humble puss.  With the embodiment of the idea that a cat has power can come the irrational idea of the cat as a danger to the self.

"Cats are adaptable to many different situations. They found a good source of food living around people's homes and farms as well as affection from their human friends. In turn, humans influenced the cats' genetic makeup by modifying their diet and by selective breeding. Domestication caused changes in the cat, particularly in the bone structure."  (1)

"Cats and humans spent about a thousand years establishing a symbiotic relationship until about the end of the third millennium BCE, when the cat was domesticated fully and became an economic ally, companion, and household pet. Then, from about 1000-350 BCE, cats became regarded as manifestations of the goddess Bastet, and perhaps others, and were bred in large numbers in the temples."  (1)

"To remove one of the divine cats from Egypt was to steal from Pharaoh, a capital crime. As a result, it took a while before many domesticated cats turned up elsewhere in the Near East." (2)

"The exceptions to this were ships' cats: sailors have always been practical people. The Nile bargemen kept cats aboard for the same reason the priests wanted cats at the granaries, to kill the vermin. The bargemen would offload their wares to the Phoenician and other seagoing traders at the mouth of the Nile, sometimes offloading a kitten or three at the same time (for the properly devout consideration, of course). In this manner the domestic cat slowly spread by sea to the various countries bordering the Mediterranean, and thence by overland caravan to the north and east." (2)

One can only wonder how the first Ailurophobes felt.  Certainly the cat was a god send to those given to hording large amounts of food as they could now store it against famines and grow rich charging too much for the stored food.

"In a similar manner, the caravans crossing the strip of desert separating the Nile from the Red Sea often carried cats with them, many of whose kittens somehow found their way to the dhows of the Indus traders. These Indus traders took the cats back to India, where they were traded eastward into Burma and Siam and northward into China." (2)

"There is some evidence that an independent domestication may have taken place in the valley of the Indus, by similar means to that in Egypt (without the divinity aspects), but as we're still speaking of an offshoot of felis sylvestris, the basic wildcat, it would have merged with the earlier domestication and vanished as a distinct entity as soon as Egyptian cats were spread over the trade routes" (2)

So while sailors kept a perspective it would seem that others had not.  Out of this developed not only the presence of the domestic cat but the superstitions that go with them.

"During the early middle ages, the Norse goddess Freya was the closest thing to a cat goddess among the Europeans. She had two huge cats pulling her wain, and was constantly surrounded by cats. She became irrevocably linked with our furry friends, and her worship contained many cat-oriented rituals. Her day of worship was Friday (Friday means Freya's Day): when Christendom barred her worship, Freya became a demon, Friday became the Black Sabbath, and the cat became a manifestation of the devil, hence persona non grata." (2)

Then began over a thousand  years persecution of the cat, sort of a feline inquisition. (If it's any consolation to cat people, the centrally organised church was also sponsoring the Grand Inquisition at the same time, and was busy killing people as well as cats.)

During this period, hundreds of thousands of cats were tortured, hung, roasted alive, burned at the stake, or killed outright on sight all in the name of god, the pope and common sense! So vast was this persecution that the European cat population dwindled to less than 10% of its pre-inquisitional number, despite the cats doing all they could to make more cats.

The natural ailurophobia of people had gotten the better of them and we set about purging the world of the best anti-rat and therefore anti-plague device ever.  Unsurprisingly there was a brief respite during the years of the Black Death. With people dying and generally blaming old women and drowning the odd cat, people did not fully have the time nor the inclination to persecute the cats as before. The cat population responded to this rest from persecution by rapidly multiplying and eating the plentiful food supply around them: the plague-carrying rats.  Man, in his usual wisdom, promptly rewarded the cat for helping to save him by resuming the feline inquisition with renewed vigour right where it had left off. 

It was this fear of witchcraft and the catty familiar that has added to modern day ailurophobia.  Before leaving the middle ages, mention should be made of the special relationship between witches and cats, perpetuated to this day in our Halloween decorations. In the Catholic Church-oriented society of the middle ages life was hard (especially for the serfs). Few people lived past forty or fifty, and those that did were far older than their years. Hygiene and medicine then being what they were (or weren't), life took its toll in the form of various skin problems, loss of teeth, receding gums, bent backs, arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, and a score of other things. An old man or woman was not the handsome or pretty thing they were in their "youth" these ideas being fairly relative at the best of times.

"Since this was a male-oriented society, an old man was often revered for his acquired knowledge, but an old woman was a useless thing. She could no longer bear children, carry wood, plough the field, or do any of the other little fun things of life. Couple this uselessness with the fact that everybody else was out working all day long, and the poor crone had nothing to do but sit in a corner of the hovel, muttering to herself and stroking the cat (who thought this was great)." (2)

"Now along comes some idiot who fouls the woman's front yard (sanitation was also somewhat lacking), which elicits a glare and a mumbled epithet from her, as she sits there stroking her cat. The idiot then stumbles over a stool the next day and breaks his arm." (2)

"Since, according to the times, evil befell one as a punishment for sin or as the result of a curse, obviously the old woman gave him the Evil Eye and placed a curse upon him, because the idiot is a good God-fearing man. Elementary! She is a witch and the cat is her familiar. Many an innocent old woman and her equally innocent cat died because of just such idiots." (2)

Interestingly in Asia, cats were often used in the temples to control mice, who would otherwise eat the prayer scrolls, and many became semi- mystical. In Siam (now Thailand), the priests bred sacred temple cats, similar to the Siamese cats of today. In Burma, the sacred temple cats were longhaired Siamese, but with white feet and no kink, the Birman of today.

So there we have the potted history of the superstitions and strange ideas that surround the cat as well as some idea why people might fear them.

If you get a chance there is a fantastic children's book called "Cat's Magic" where a young girl saves a cat from drowning and the Cat goddess grants her wishes with some strange results.

Movies ailurophobes should avoid

Catty Myths

  1. Cats have nine lives
  2. Cats' eyes shine at night because they are casting out the light they gather during the day.
  3. When a cat's whiskers droop, rain is coming.
  4. If you want to keep a cat from straying put butter on its feet.
  5. If a cat sneezes near a bride on her wedding day, she will have a happy marriage.
  6. A man who mistreats his cat will die in a storm. 
  7. If a dark coloured cat crosses your path, it will bring you gold
  8. If a light coloured cat crosses your path, it will bring you silver.
  9. Black cats are bad luck.
  10. Black cats are good luck
  11. Stepping over a cat brings bad luck. (site defunct)

We can be fairly sure that when I wrote this I used many more snippets from this site than I have given credit for.  sorry.  Back then I was not so careful with my credits and references as I now am.


In addition to all that stuff you learn in school and the stacks of stuff one reads in books and periodicals there were some main sources for this write-up back when this was an essay.  I have discluded those not directly quoted and those who's inclusion seems rather suspect in retrospect.

1 - Cats in Ancient Egypt, from a lecture presented by Jay Bisno, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 5/10/97 ( (site defunct)

2 - (site defunct )

3 -


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