If you’re like me, you haven’t lost much sleep lately wondering why the cat played a fiddle while the cow jumped over the Moon.
Nursery rhymes are silly nonsense, we tell ourselves. But they must be factual on some level, if they are going to hold their audience.
Children are logical and literal enough to recognize simple but important truths, no matter how incomprehensibly these are presented.
And if Donald Engels, author of Classical Cats, is right, “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle” references pagan symbols popular enough to last thousands of years and spread across Western Europe from their origin in Ancient Egypt.
Maybe people kept repeating such things long after the original meaning was forgotten, until it all finally ended up as verses to entertain children.
The goddess and her sistrum
My beat isn’t philosophy or comparative religion, so I’m just going to follow Engels here. I can’t check him because there isn’t much other information available about domestic cat history over the last two millennia.
Unless otherwise noted, then, what follows is Engels’ interpretation of the little evidence that exists in historic and archaeological records.
With that caveat, let’s meet what Engels considers to be the original “cat and a fiddle”:
That’s the Ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet, whose sacred animal was the domestic cat.
She’s not holding a fiddle, though. That is a musical instrument called the “sistrum” in her right hand — imagine a tambourine made of bronze, with a handle and bronze rollers for rattles.
What a fine noise it must have made! How beautiful that gleaming metal must have looked in the bright sunshine at Bubastis and other temples dedicated to this cat-headed goddess.
Per the Roman writer Plutarch, as quoted by Engels:
The upper part of the sistrum is circular and its circumference contains the four things that are shaken; for the part of the world that undergoes reproduction and destruction is contained underneath the orb of the moon . . . At the top of the sistrum they construct the figure of a cat with a human face . . . by the cat they symbolize the moon because of the varied coloring . . . nocturnal activity, and fecundity of the animal . . .
The handle usually had a goddess’s face. In Ancient Egypt, this was often Hathor, goddess of fertility (sometimes pictured as a cow). By Plutarch’s time, it was usually Isis.
It’s hard to keep track of the goddesses and describe them simply.
- Their cults lasted for many centuries, with ideas about the goddess evolving over time.
- Pagans blended their deities together: this is why you start out with Bastet and soon end up talking about Artemis (Ancient Greece’s connection to Bastet), Isis (described by Engels as Graeco-Egyptian but also as very popular among Romans), and Diana (Rome’s version of Artemis). Some of these goddesses also were worshipped with the sistrum, for example, one found in what’s now London and probably associated with Isis.
- Human history from Ancient Egypt, through Ancient Greece, to the Roman Republic and Empire is involved. This sort of “smeared” everything together. In addition, Romans did not ban the religions of people they conquered, so there are also those contributions to factor in.
Let’s stick with cats. It’s straightforward enough.
Bastet and the other goddesses were all associated with fertility, motherhood, childbearing, and the family.
Of course, this made all of them very popular with women, especially at a time when life expectancy wasn’t very long and lots of children were needed just to maintain the population.
Domestic cats are very fertile, but as far as I can tell, their main association was with Bastet, though Engels also mentions a story of Artemis turning into a cat and notes that Isis and cats were both associated with Roman shipping.
Sadly, those ancient pagan connections had terrible results for many, but not all, cats in Western Europe later on.
Early Christianity and cats
I’m dropping Engels here, but it’s not his fault. I have not found one source that doesn’t blame Christianity for the medieval “Cat Massacres” (Engels’ term for unfortunate cats caught up in the witchcraft hysteria of those times; no need to go into details of the horrors experienced by people and cats alike).
Certainly there is blame, but a careful look back shows that it wasn’t that simple. Here are the relevant parts of my Cat Chronology, which is just a sampling and still shows things that don’t fit the stereotype:
- The beautiful artwork of the Lindisfarne Gospels (710 AD) and the Book of Kells (800 AD) includes cats. (LAV)
- 785 AD: The Council of Padeborn outlaws condemning people as witches. Burning a witch is a capital crime. (Wik)
- In France, Louis the Pious outlaws sorcerers and necromancers, but in 829 AD the Council of Paris asks that secular courts try such people since the Church is more concerned about heresy. (Wik)
- Around 900 AD, official Christian doctrine, per the Canon Episcopi, is that witchcraft doesn’t exist. However, secular laws often do condemn “witch-crafts.” (Wik)
- 1211 AD: Cats are starting to appear in witch denunciations. (S)
- 1258 AD: Pope Alexander IV says that witchcraft is not to be investigated by the church. (Wik)
- 1324 AD: The date of what some consider the first witch trial, that of Alice Kyteler in Ireland. (Wik)
- 1326 AD: Pope John XXII okays the inquisition and prosecution of witchcraft as a heresy (but see 1484 AD “Witch-Bull” below). (Wik)
- Roman Empire: In 1453 AD, the empire vanishes forever, along with parts of the Silk Road, when Constantinople falls to the Turks. (C)
- Europe: 1402 AD: The Spanish Empire begins with an invasion of the Canary Islands. ( W )
- 1415 AD: The Portuguese empire begins with the capture of Ceuta, a key port in northwest Africa. ( W )
- 1428 AD: Witch trials are held in the Western Alps and persecution spreads in parts of France and Switzerland. (Wik)
- 1478 AD: The Spanish Inquisition begins. (Wik)
- 1484 AD: Pope Innocent VIII issues the “Witch-Bull,” recognizing the existence of witches and giving the Inquisition full authority to deal with them. (Wik)
- The European Age of Discovery begins, running from the 15th through the 17th centuries. First the Portuguese and then the Spanish set off on long-distance voyages. (Wik)
- 1521 AD: Longhaired cats are first documented in Europe and are aristocratic pets.
- 1533 AD: The French writer Montaigne is born. In his 1595 book of essays, he will write of an experience that all cat lovers have shared:
“When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me. We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks. If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.”
- Witch hunts become more common in Europe. (Wik)
- 1542 AD: England’s Parliament passes the first Witchcraft Act, making it a capital crime. (Wik)
- 1562 AD: On August 3rd, a freak snowstorm hits the city of Wiesensteig, Germany. The end result: 67 women executed for witchcraft. From this point, European witch hunts start kicking into high gear. ( W )
- 1580 to 1630 were the peak years for witch-hunts. Tens of thousands of people were executed, and no one knows how many cats suffered along with them.
But there were bright spots, too. In 1583, Saint Philip Neri reportedly left his cat in Rome when told by the pope to relocate to another monastery. Supported by the saint’s followers, she outlived her master and became one of the city’s most famous cats.
- 1598: In England, cat lovers hold a cat show in Winchester. There isn’t a lot of documentation about this event, but some online sources claim that it was performance based, with live rodents released and cats awarded prizes for “best ratter” and “best mouser.” (Hartwell)
- In England, 1606 may be the year that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is first performed. One of the witches in that play calls her familiar spirit “grimalkin”–a cat.
Meanwhile, in the Tower of London, Trixie the cat keeps her friend Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of South Hampton, company.
- 1618-1648: The Thirty-Years war devastates Europe, killing some 8 million people. ( W )
- 1624-1642: In France, famous cat lover Cardinal Richelieu centralizes his power. ( W )
- 1644-1647: While jury trials are suspended during England’s Civil War, witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne “discover” at least 300 witches, who are executed. Hopkins’ book The Discovery of Witches is quite popular both here and in the colonies. ( W )
- Starting in 1650, witch-hunts start to decline in Europe. Though there are occasional flares of mob violence and lynchings, upper-class support for belief in witches is no longer present. ( W )
- 1697: “Puss in Boots” is published as one of the Stories of Tales of Past Times with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose.
- The Americas: 1692-1693: The Salem witch trials. The accused claims that a red cat and a black cat are among the spirits she has seen telling her to hurt people. ( W )
- Around 1700, in England, Isaac Newton invents the cat flap so his pet kitty can enter and leave the house without letting in the weather.
- 1727: French writer François-Augustin de Paradis de Moncrif publishes the first book about cats, Les Chats, later called Histoire des Chats. He was ridiculed for this at the time, but the book is still in print today. (LAV)
- 1730: Also in France, workers riot and kill their owner’s cats. (LAV)
- 1745: Elizabeth of Russia orders cats to be installed for pest control in her palace–the Hermitage. ( W ) (Cats are still on the job there today.)
- Starting around 1750, popular support for kindness to animals increases.
- 1758: Sweden: Linnaeus publishes the first scientific description and categorization of the domestic cat.
- 1822: England’s Parliament passes the first animal abuse bill. (P)
Make of it what you will.
I added a very few human-history notes just to show that the “cat massacres” weren’t happening in a vacuum. Also, I wanted to close on a positive note.
Yes, the church was involved at later stages, but it looks to me as though it was trying to fight against the hysteria/superstition/hate at first.
And also many people continued to be friendly toward cats. They even held a cat show in one town.
It all was so complex! This is another case where human history makes it difficult to trace the story of domestic cats.
Perhaps someone with a strong history/social background will examine this in detail in the future.
Next time, the start of the cat fancy (though not details of breeds) and a brief look at where we are today.
Featured image: Internet Archive, public domain.
Engels, D. W. 2015. Classical cats: the rise and fall of the sacred cat. Ebook retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=NwkeCwAAQBAJ
Note: Some of the chronology mentioned above isn’t referenced and my notes are in storage, so I’m including the whole reference list.
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