Truth Behind Cats In Ancient Mesopotamia
Believe it or not, Ancient Egypt was not the first place to domesticate cats. One of the earliest known cases of cat domestication is a 9,500-year-old burial site on the island of Cyprus (off mainland Turkey) in which a cat was buried alongside a human being and a few other artifacts (source). There is even evidence that cats were brought to the island intentionally by humans.
The word “tabby” (as in tabby cats ) originated in Al-Attabiya, a city in Baghdad (source). It first described a striped pattern on a type of silk made there. Cats in Ancient Mesopotamia would have similar markings in their coat.
Rustum’s Magic Cat
According to a Persian legend, cats in Ancient Mesopotamia came into existence by way of magic (source).
Out on an exploit, Rustum, the great Persian hero, came across a band of thieves doing their dirty work. He overcame them and rescued an old magician from their clutches. Rustum offered the old magician food and a place in his tents for the evening.
The old magician was very grateful for Rustum’s kindness. As they sat around a campfire, the old magician asked Rustum what he wanted in return for saving his life. Rustum replied that there was nothing that he really wanted in return. He had everything that he considered important – a warm campfire, the scent of its smoke, and the beautiful stars overhead.
With that, the old magician went to work. He took a handful of smoke from the campfire, added a flame, and took one of the brightest stars out of the sky. Then, he kneaded them together and breathed on them. When he opened his hands to Rustum, there sat a little grey kitten with eyes as bright as the stars and a tongue that moved like the tip of a flame.
The Kings and Cats of Ancient Mesopotamia
The lion is one of the cats in Ancient Mesopotamia that gets mentioned frequently in lore. It is seen as a symbol of unbridled strength. Mighty heroes and kings would have their strength compared with that of a lion, often being shown as having defeated a lion.
Kings in Ancient Mesopotamia were given a god-like status (source). Many were considered to be descended from heaven. To show their mighty god-like strength, they would hunt lions. Hunting these cats of Ancient Mesopotamia symbolized the ability of the king to overcome chaos and mighty opponents.
Lion hunts were often part of religious ceremonies. They would pour out liquid offerings over the lion’s body. These offerings would be to the gods for their support and protection.
The Goddess Ishtar
Ishtar was the goddess of love, fertility, and war (she is also known as Inanna and “the Queen of Heaven”). Often, she is seen standing on or accompanied by lions. In the epic story of Gilgamesh, Ishtar wants Gilgamesh to marry her, but he refuses (source). He calls her out on how badly all her relationships with men end and mentions that she loves lions because of their strength, but she would dig them graves too.
Lions of the Bible
The Bible is silent on domestic cats but has a lot to say about lions. Just as in the other cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, the Bible tends to use the lion as a symbol of strength. They are not really assigned a consistent characteristic of being “good” or “evil.” Here are a few passages that mention lions:
- The LORD gives Sampson the power to kill a lion with his bare hands. Judges 14:6
- King Solomon builds a temple for God and uses images of lions as part of the elaborate decorations. 1 Kings 7:29
- Each of the cherubim (a type of angel) has 4 faces, one of which is a lion. Ezekiel 10:14
- The story of Daniel and the lion’s den; the prophet Daniel is thrown into a pit of hungry lions for refusing to worship the Babylonian king. God shuts the mouths of the lions and Daniel survives. Daniel 6
- Satan is referred to as a roaring lion. 1 Peter 5:8
- Jesus is referred to as “the lion of Judah.” Revelation 5:5
Pets in general are mentioned in the Bible. In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan describes a man who has taken another man’s pet sheep and killed it to King David. King David becomes furious that anyone would have done such a thing and sentences the man to death while requiring that the man pay for the pet sheep four times over. Other passages also show that God looks kindly on those who love animals.
There is, however, a myth that says that tabby cats received the “M” on their heads from the Virgin Mary. After Jesus was born, he began to cry. When Mary had trouble settling him down, a nearby cat saw what was going on and jumped into the manger with Jesus and began to purr. The purring was just what Jesus needed to calm down. In gratitude, Mary marked the cat with an “M”.
Much later in history, cats would have their own patron saint in Saint Gertrude of Nivelles.
Cats and Islam
The prophet Mohammad of Islam was said to be a cat lover (source). It is said that once his cat, Meuzza, fell asleep on Mohammad’s arm. When he was called to prayer, he did not want to wake the sleeping kitty, so he cut the sleeve off of his garment instead.
In another version of the tabby cat “M” story, Mohammad is attributed with giving the cat it’s signature “M.” This came about when Mohammad placed his hand gently on the cat’s head. It also happens that this was his cat Meuzza.
Sources and Digging Deeper
- Smithsonian Magazine – A Brief History of House Cats
- History.com – Mesoptotamia
- World History Encyclopedia – Cats in the Ancient World
- National Geographic – Oldest Known Pet Cat? 9,500-Year-Old Burial Found On Cyprus
- Merriam Webster – ‘Tabby’: The Cat’s Out of the Bag
- Getty – How To Be A King In Mesopotamia
- Spark Notes – Epic of Gilgamesh
- Bible Gateway – Various passages