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
Fascinating, thank you for all this ~ most of which is so new to me. Am shamefully (even tho a cat owner) not at all well versed in the history or the lore and mythology of cats, even while knowing it is extensive.
Watched a program on PBS where they used DNA to discover where the ‘housecat’ originated, which was the Middle East, and most likely Egypt. Great stuff!
Great column ! Thanks for this info, which was new to us !
That was really super interesting, terrific post!
What a delight to meet you this morning. Amd thank you for making that possible with your comment to Katie.
guyz……thanx for sharin theez tailz ~~~~ we hurd de storee bout Mary and
de tabbie M, but de otherz we never read bee for !
Great info! Mum’s ancestors are from Cyprus so maybe mine are too 😻
Great post. I like to believe the story of the M from Mary though.
Wow, that was such an interesting post! We recently had a cat at the shelter named “Ishtar.”
Wow. This was an interesting read with all the different legends and stories from the Bible and beyond. I’m familiar with the Daniel in the Lion’s den story but did not hear about the others. One thing is for sure, cats are magical creatures. If God saw it fit to create animals, they are definitely a gift.
I love history so thank you for this amazing post. I have been blessed to visit Egypt and see quite a lot.
It’s amazing that cats were domesticated and have been by the side of humans for so many thousands of years! It’s very interesting that the tabby cat’s M is attributed to both religions, Christian and Islam. I love the story of the magician, Rustum. What a sweet story.
Robin, this was so interesting! I am such a history buff and just really enjoy histories of animals, places, anything! To read and think about what happened before us is so intriguing. I remember when my daughter was in school learning about Mesopotamia and I thought that was interesting in itself, now learning about the cats makes it even more so. Great research!
This is such an interesting read. I love learning about the history of the origins of a species. I’m a history nerd, a biology minor, and an animal lover. So, you’re playing on some of my traits. I don’t think I’ve heard about the connection with domesticated cats, tabbies in particular, and Isalm. I read your story about tabbies and the Christian link. That is very interesting. It seems like these two religions intersect at different times. But then again, who wouldn’t want to calm the domesticated cat? Super information! I’m sharing it with all my animal friends.
I think it’s so cool to bring things to attention that people would never think of googling or looking into. So interesting and I’m sure many people would never know.
I always enjoy reading your articles on the history of cats. I love our tabby cat’s “m” and it is fun to read about stories regarding it.
This is such an interesting read about the history of cats! I love out intertwined animals have always been in our history.