There is some debate about the timing of the domestication of the cat, so you can acknowledge here that new archaeological evidence is being found every year and modern theory will change according to that evidence.
Genetic research published in 2007 claimed to prove that domestic cats derive from five founders from the Near East (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Israel, Kuwait, south-eastern Turkey and south-western Iran) in the earliest agricultural Neolithic settlements, potentially 10,000 years ago or more. The descendants of these five founders were then transported across the world with human assistance.
The use of the words ‘genetic research’, ‘Near East’ and ‘Neolithic settlements’ will probably enable you to hold the floor on this subject, but be wary of getting carried away – best to stick to the Egyptian stuff that most people know and love.
Most avid cat lovers will at least have read that, as traditional nomadic lifestyles ceased, the storage of crops became more essential. This grain attracted rodents and the rodents attracted wild cats. These cats, resembling today’s African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), were encouraged to stay, certainly by the Egyptians, by feeding them scraps. The presence of an abundance of food, both scavenged and caught, and no predators or deterrence from humans meant that cat colonies soon formed. If you feel you have the rapt attention of your audience, you may want to expand on this by detailing your own insight into life for a cat in Ancient Egypt by including some of the following detail: all grain was stored in royal granaries and as these large concentrations of foodstuffs attracted large quantities of mice, it was essential that the pharaoh had access to as many cats as possible to protect the precious commodity. It would have been extremely difficult to confiscate everyone’s domestic cats, so the pharaoh, in an obvious stroke of genius, made all cats demigods.
A mere human couldn’t own a demigod (only a god could do that), but could look after one. At night Egyptians brought their cats to work at the granary, picking them up in the morning. For this service, they received a tax credit and were able to claim their cats as dependants, despite all cats being the property of the pharaoh. You may find that the clever dick cat lovers who have now congregated in a clowder (the collective noun for cats and always useful to know) around you are seeing the flaw in this version of history, with mutterings of ‘Can you imagine taking your cat to work at the local granary and then picking him up again in the morning?’ Or ‘My cat would have left of his own accord before the whistle blew because he’d had enough, if he even got started in the first place.’ Or ‘As soon as my cat realised he was woken from a deep sleep to be taken to work with a bunch of other cats, you wouldn’t see him for dust.’ Or ‘You’d get my cat there but never see him again as he’d move in with someone more sympathetic to the importance of his sleep/wake cycle.’
At this point, you might be well advised to laugh heartily and change the subject immediately – probably away from cats completely. If you are feeling brave, foolhardy, or even slightly inebriated, you could continue with a generalisation such as, ‘Well anyway, cats were always put first in the Egyptian household. After all, people were only human; cats were demigods,’ adding in a wry aside, ‘Some would say that this is equally true today.’
When all the members of your audience have stopped slapping their thighs, you can back up your impressive knowledge of ancient Egyptian history by telling everyone that when a cat died, the family that housed it went into ritual mourning, shaving off their eyebrows and pounding their chests to show their outward signs of grief at the loss. The cat’s body was wrapped and brought to a priest to make sure the death was natural (killing or injuring a cat was a capital crime). It was then embalmed. People came to believe that cats had a direct influence on their health and fortune. You may wish to add that many of the embalmed cats found in the tombs of the pharaohs in the early twentieth century were brought back to the UK and ground up to be used as fertiliser, but if they want to see a mummified cat they need go no further than the map room in the castle on St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Nobody really knows how it got there, so you can blithely hazard a guess. By now you may find that you have lost most of your listeners, but it’s one of those cat topics that you could nonetheless hold in reserve for the right moment.
When the human clowder has all but dispersed, you may find yourself left with one admirer who wants more information about the cat’s domestication timeline, thus presenting you with an opportunity to add flesh to the bones by mentioning the journeys across the Mediterranean which enabled the cat to populate other continents. Indeed for centuries after their ancient Egyptian heyday, cats continued to be revered for their apparently supernatural powers. At this point you might deliver the phrase that you have already committed to memory, ‘Cats are just so much more tuned in to their surroundings than humans are.’ In fact, cats continued to be worshipped in Europe, developing an even stronger cult status and becoming involved in various religious rituals. However, there was an inevitable price to pay for having it so easy for so long.
If you feel the moment warrants it, you might mention that in medieval France, cats were ritually sacrificed to ensure a successful harvest and they were also seen as the familiars of witches. The Catholic Church didn’t care much for the cat either, and in the thirteenth century the worship of cat-like gods was forbidden. The cat was considered the manifestation of the devil and hundreds of thousands were tortured and killed, reducing the cat population by over 90%. Numbers were also affected by the Black Death, as many were culled in the mistaken belief that they were carriers of the disease. It wasn’t a good time to be a cat.
But it got worse; cats continued to be ritually slaughtered or tortured well into the nineteenth century in various parts of Europe. Reassure what remains of your audience though that salvation came at last, thanks to the Victorians. In Britain, by the mid-nineteenth century, cats were restored to their rightful position in the home, and in 1871 the first cat show took place at the Crystal Palace in south London. The organisers had clearly determined to change public perception of the domestic cat and, to a large extent, they succeeded.
You can even bring things bang up to date by commenting on the zeitgeist. For example, books about cats now have titles such as Yoga for Cats, Psycho Pussy and Do Cats Need Shrinks? Owners will board their cat in a hotel when they go away on holiday and keep its photograph in their purse to show anyone who is interested. Cat ownership is a multimillion pound business; a fortune is spent on veterinary bills, toys, food and even videos to entertain the bored housecat when the owner is out (the 2001 comedy Cats and Dogs is apparently a big favourite). Your final flourish could be, ‘You can even make a diamond out of the cremated ashes of your dearly departed cat or, as the ultimate memorial, clone them using their DNA.’
For more that will give you paws for thought, invest in a copy of The Bluffer’s Guide to Cats.