The Curious Symbolism of Cats in Literature and Art

Cats and the internet have proved a match made in heaven: there are probably more quips about 90% of the internet being ‘pictures of cats’ than there actually are pictures of cats on the internet. But cats have not always enjoyed such adulation and worship. Indeed, throughout much of history, cats were symbols of witchcraft and black magic. Yet if we go back far enough, we find that cats used to be respected and admired in many cultures. What happened, then, in between? Why, throughout much of the Middle Ages and beyond, did the symbolism associated with cats become overwhelmingly negative?

Let’s take a closer look at the symbolism of the cat throughout literary and cultural history.

Cats in ancient times

There’s an amusing line attributed to the great comic fantasy author Terry Pratchett (although it hasn’t been traced in any of his novels): ‘In ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods. They have not forgotten this.’ Certainly, it appears to have been the Egyptians who first domesticated the cat, in around 2000 BC. The Nubian species Felis sylvestris lybica was bred to become the modern domestic cat. Indeed, the Egyptian Book of the Dead mentions a short-tailed ‘reed cat’, which slices up an evil snake named Apepi.

Indeed, as Hans Biedermann observes in his hugely informative The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), lion deities were replaced, in time, by domestic cat gods and goddesses, most famously the goddess Bastet. And of course, one of the most recognisable symbols of ancient Egypt, the Sphinx (also found in ancient Greek culture, as the story of Oedipus attests), often conflated the lion, human, and domestic cat all into one: sphinxes are often depicted as having the head of a human but sometimes they had a cat’s head instead (or, rarely, the head of a falcon or even a sheep), with the body of a lion. And in ancient Greece, sphinxes often had the wings of an eagle, too.

Curiously, what is evil in ancient Greek mythology was benevolent in ancient Egypt. The Sphinx in the Oedipus myth holds the whole of Thebes in thrall, and it is only Oedipus’ success in solving the famous Riddle of the Sphinx that saves the people.

In ancient Rome, cats were similarly venerated through their association with the goddess Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon as well as other things (including chastity and virginity). Hiedermann even reports that cats’ ashes were thought to possess magic powers: they were scattered over farmers’ fields, in the belief that the ashes alone would be enough to ward off harmful insects and animals.

It was perhaps Diana’s association with the moon which brought about her association with cats, those nocturnal predators which move by stealth under cover of darkness. But for the Celts, this was what made cats so suspicious: they must be in league with the forces of evil. Curiously, though, across the North Sea the Vikings venerated cats: in Norse mythology, the goddess Freya drove a chariot drawn by cats.

Cats in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

The bad press and generally negative symbolism surrounding cats continued into the Middle Ages and beyond, into the early modern era. Black cats in particular, because of their dark fur, became associated with witches, who were said to use black cats as their ‘familiars’. To this day, a strong element of superstition continues to affect the treatment of black cats, with many people being disinclined to adopt a black cat for this reason.

Curiously, this strong folkloric association between cats and witchcraft probably had its fullest treatment in English literature in a little-known comic novel written back in the sixteenth century. Indeed, this short book has the claim to being the first English novel, written over a hundred and fifty years before Robinson Crusoe (often said to be the first novel in English). This novel was Beware the Cat.

A printer’s assistant named William Baldwin wrote Beware the Cat in c. 1553 but it would not be published until 1570. There was a good reason for the delay: then Mary I or ‘Bloody Mary’ came to the throne in the same year, she persecuted Protestants, burning hundreds of them at the stake. Beware the Cat offers a strong line in anti-Catholic mockery and Baldwin doubtless realized that printing the book would not, to put it mildly, be the wisest of career moves. But after Mary’s death five years later, and with the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I, the book – with its playful but pointed ridiculing of Catholic superstitions and rituals – clearly became popular with readers and was reprinted in 1584.

Beware the Cat is huge fun: a short book containing interwoven stories, the kind of ‘Chinese box’ method of storytelling, it features werewolves and talking cats, magic potions and books of occult lore, and fuses the oral tradition of nursery rhymes with the high learning of Latin. The novel also appears to be the origin of the term ‘Grimalkin’ for a witch’s cat (later more famously used by Shakespeare in Macbeth). We discuss this fascinating (and riotously scatological) book in The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.

Cats in art

Cats have been popular in painting for many centuries, although the paintings in which they appear are less popular and familiar than, say, Stubbs’s horse paintings or the famous Cassius Marcellus Coolidge painting of dogs playing poker (from the 1890s).

A notable early example from the seventeenth century is Abraham Teniers’ Barber Shop with Monkeys and Cats, which is an oddly surreal creation for a seventeenth-century artwork, but shows how early artists became interested in anthropomorphising the cat. In the twentieth century, Picasso’s Cat Devouring a Bird is not one of his best-known works, but conveys the ferocious nature of these quiet predators, reminding us that cats – however domesticated – remain hunters, which evolved as predators (from their earlier big cat cousins, such as the lion and tiger), and which were bred to be ‘mousers’ on board ships and in big houses. To this day, in British politics, the official residence of the UK Prime Minister, 10 Downing Street, has an official position for a cat: Chief Mouser.

You can see both Teniers’ and Picasso’s paintings here.

Cats in literature

From Baldwin’s Beware the Cat in the sixteenth century, to the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the nineteenth and Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat in the twentieth, cats are frequently found in classic literature, especially children’s literature. They play a central role in some of the best-known fairy tales, notably Dick Whittington and Puss in Boots.

Poets down the ages, too, have sought to symbolise cats as free spirits, noted for their predatory natures and their determination to walk, in Rudyard Kipling’s expression, by themselves. In the eighteenth century, while he was confined to a mental asylum, the poet Christopher Smart wrote a glorious poem in praise of his cat:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.

You can read the full poem (actually part of a longer religious work Smart wrote) here. More recently, nature poets such as Edward Thomas (‘A Cat’) and Ted Hughes (‘Of Cats’) have addressed the darker instincts of the predatory cat: Thomas’s poem in particular pays attention to the cat’s killing of birds. But other poets have highlighted the cat’s value to humans as a symbol of quiet companionship: who could fail to be moved by Thomas Hardy’s moving elegy for his family cat, ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend’?

We have gathered together some of the best cat poems in a separate post.

And as for fiction, there are plenty of classic examples of earlier cat symbolism being perpetuated or, in some cases, challenged. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ (1845), for instance, reads as a simultaneous challenge to the baseless superstition surrounding black cats and as a reinforcement of the curious powers they’re said to possess. The story actually contains two black cats – although the second may be a ghostly reincarnation of the first. An unstable narrator tells of how an increasing short temper led him to harm his pet black cat – with devastating results for everyone (not least the cat). In the early twentieth century, Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1914), better known as Saki, gave us ‘Tobermory’: a hilarious story about a man who teaches a cat to talk, with disastrous results, because the cat begins to tell the ‘respectable’ people at the party exactly what he thinks of them.

More recently, Angela Carter’s classic book The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories, in which she offers her own distinctive take on classic fairy tales, features this idiosyncratic retelling of Puss in Boots, told by Figaro, a cat living in Italy. The story fuses commedia dell’arte tropes with its genuinely laugh-out-loud feline narrative voice. We discuss more classic short stories about cats in a separate post.

6 thoughts on “The Curious Symbolism of Cats in Literature and Art”

  1. Celine’s triology Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon (English versions of titles) features a cat named Bebert (who was a real cat) who has been called “the most famous cat in French literature” and had a book written about him. I am not sure how true this is, but the author of the book makes an interesting analysis of Bebert and his role in Celine’s art.

  2. I’d like to suggest “Cat in the Rain” by Ernest Hemingway. It is the first story about cats that came to my mind.


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