Cats of yore

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Cats have been involved in the lives of humans since the days of ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations, or probably even earlier. Their mystery has fascinated people through the ages and they have been regarded both as celestial and evil, as protectors and destroyers, and have been as loved as they have been hated. Here are some mythological stories surrounding our cats.

The Egyptian mythology…

The ancient Egyptian goddess Bast (circa 2890-2686 BC) is often depicted as a woman with the head of a cat,fun n frolic lion or desert cat. It was believed that Bast was the protector of the king, pregnant women, children and of course cats. She also came to be associated with fertility (no coincidence, given the cat’s skill at procreation). There used to be a temple of Bast in the city of Bubastis (now called Tell-Basta in Egypt), where the mummifi ed remains or necropolis of over 300,000 holy cats were found.

Egyptian women also set standards of beauty to that of a cat’s and it is believed that they applied make-up to their eyes to resemble felines. It was considered a crime to kill cats in Egypt, one that even invited the death penalty, and families mourned the passing away of cats by shaving off their eyebrows.

The Islamic connection…

Islam too has had a long association with cats. A popular story goes that the holy cat Muezza was Prophet Mohammed pet, and was once napping in his arms when he was called to prayer. Rather than awakening her, the Prophet tore off the sleeve of his robe and let Muezza continue sleeping. It is even said that the marking of ‘M’ found on the foreheads of tabby cats was formed by the impression of the Prophet resting his hand on there.

China and cats…

If you’ve been to any traditional Chinese restaurant or beauty salon, you’re sure to have noticed the manekineko or beckoning cat. Legend has it that a nobleman saw this cat calling out to him from the entrance of a temple and stepped in. By doing so he narrowly avoided a bolt of lighting or trap laid for him just ahead, as versions of the story go. Since then the manekineko has come to signify the bringing of good luck or prosperity.

Feline power in India…

India too has its share of cat legends. The reason why Lord Kartikeya (Ayyappa) never got married in life is given through this story: One day, the child-god Kartikeya was in a playful and naughty mood. He happened to spy a female cat and decided to have some fun. He hurled stones at her, held her up by the tail and dropped her and frightened her. Finally deciding he had had enough, he made his way back home to Kailasa.

He rushed to give his mother Parvati a hug when he stopped short, totally aghast at the sight of his beloved mother bruised and bleeding. On demanding who had committed such an atrocity, Parvati replied, “My dear child, it was you! Didn’t you trouble a female cat today, for no reason at all? Have you forgotten my son, that I am Shakti? I reside in all the feminine forms of creation!” And that is why, Kartik never married. Because that would mean a bit of his mother would be in his wife and it is against the laws of nature to marry one’s own mother!

And finally, Ma Shashti, one of the nine ‘grihas’ that we worship, rides a cat as her mode of transport. Bengalis believe that it is because of Ma Shashti’s grace and blessing that they have children. Therefore, most Bengalis would never harm a cat for fear of offending Shashti.

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