The (Christian) devil has had many faces, some more human than others, and we can look at these depictions to learn about what the people who made them were afraid of. Depictions of the devil and demons inevitably reflect the prejudices of the day and we can see that in descriptions of demons as peasant like, with red hair, with appearance of a Scotsman and so on.
We have had a virtually blank slate when it comes to the appearance of the devil as the bible doesn’t really give any detail, thus making it easy to project fears onto.
“Many kinds of animals have come to symbolize the evil beast, as a force associated with evil or whatever it is we dislike.”
– Lynda Birke
During the middle ages, the devil was depicted as animal like with horns, a tail and sharp teeth – an image I’m sure we’re all familiar with today. This became more human from the 16th century, thus more able to seduce and recruit witches to his cause.
Depicting the devil as an animal may have been a way of reinforcing both the chain of being and the animalistic nature of the devil. Using animals such as male goats and rams could have been to emphasise him as a sexual being – hence wild and uncontrolled and seductive – as horns have long been used to represent fertility and sexuality. Some people have suggested that the goat has been linked with the devil because of their weird, devilish, eyes but I think it’s hard to know which came first – a chicken and egg situation. Admittedly goats have unusual eyes and this may have been enough for people to declare them devil touched. We also have the idea of goats vs sheep – the sheep being the flock of saved souls and the goat being those who are damned.
Pre-Christian thinking and beliefs inevitably have a role to play in how the devil was imagined. In ancient Babylonia there were wicked demons; winged female creatures that flew at night looking for men to seduce and children to attack. Christianity routinely took existing gods and turned them into evil spirits and this may be how the devil acquired wings. We can also see the devil as the ancestor of Pan – a half man, half goat Roman god who was associated with lust and hence could easily be seen as the epitome of temptation. Pan was also the god of nature and casting him as the devil reinforced the divide between man and nature, and emphasised the importance of not worshipping nature.
The devil also appeared as a cat or dog. Greeks and Romans associated dogs with Hecate, a goddess of witchcraft (and by association for Christians, of evil). There has also been a long association of dogs with the underworld and thus it was natural for Christianity to link dogs and the devil. Dogs also roamed freely and uncontrolled in the middle ages, a time when restless souls, or those who didn’t seem to belong anywhere, were seen with suspicion.
Another devilish form is the serpent, specifically, the serpent in the garden of Eden. Again, this highlights the sexual, seductive and tempting nature of the devil as snakes have a long association with fertility and sex.
These different forms fed into the concerns around bestiality. The animal could well be the devil in disguise and thus sex with it would lead to half monster creatures and the devil would have succeeded in creating chaos and disrupting the god given order of the world.
In addition to the devil himself being portrayed as an animal, we see this association between devil and beast in the form of witches familiars. The species varied significantly and included cats, dogs, rats, toads, mice, snails, birds, ferrets, moles and even small insects such as flies and moths. Whilst a witch may find their familiar appears out of nowhere, or is gifted by a fellow witch, one way of acquiring them was through the devil. The devil would give it in exchange for a pledge of allegiance.
We also find witches on the continent riding to sabbats on demons disguised as animals, and were said to be able to shape shift themselves as well as transform others into animals. All of this added to the threat that witches posed.
Something I’ve been pondering as I’ve been writing this is, what would the devil look like today? I can’t help but think of certain politicians…
Mountain lion * Cougar * Puma * Catamount *Florida Panther
There are different names for this feline which depend on where you live. Spanish explorers called it leon (lion) and gato monte (cat of the mountain), hence mountain lion. Puma comes from the Incas and cougar is thought to come from cuguacuarana, an old south American Indian word. The Florida panther is a subspecies of the mountain lion found in swamps in florida and is extremely endangered with about 50 cats left.
As well as their name changing as you range through their territory, so does their colouring. In warmer areas they tend to be a darker, reddish brown and in colder areas, are more silvery grey.
Whatever you call this creature, it’s the largest cat in north America and is found in mountainous regions. It’s solitary and territorial, feeding primarily on wild animals but they have been known to take farm stock which has caused issues.
They are excellent hunters, very patient and can sit still for hours waiting to ambush prey, even killing animals much larger than themselves. They hunt in daytime but still remain elusive, mysterious and invisible, moving through the landscape silently and stealthily. When they have the time, and appetite, they will leave nothing but blood splatter and fur.
Teaching us the importance of patience and silence, the mountain lion may well be an ambassador for meditation.
When they do move, they excel at that as well. They can jump 18 feet from the ground into a tree and have been known to jump the equivalent of a two story building up or down a hillside. They run very fast and can maneuver easily, much like cheetahs, changing direction with ease.
Over and over, when I was researching this creature, I kept coming up against the idea of leadership, something which feels strange when we are dealing with a solitude loving cat. Instead of a dictator style leader, we find the mountain lion cast as reluctant leader, he has the power needed and the physical strength some argue you need but he also has grace and leads without insisting others follow. Instead of creating rules that must be followed, he demonstrates and teaches, and leads, by example. The mountain lion is a quiet leader who defies the common expectations we have of rulers. In doing so, he shows us what it is to step into our own power, to honour (or at times to find) that part of us which may remain hidden. In believing in himself, he becomes powerful in his own way. He follows his convictions and in doing so, he becomes king of the mountain.
As they are solitary animals, they only pair up for the breeding season. During this time, males and females sleep and hunt together for a couple of weeks. The babies will then remain with their mother for the first year, sometimes for the first two years. It is then that they’ll learn how to hunt; mum will teach by example and the cubs will also learn from their own failures. Like the cubs, we too learn through experience. We can read and read and read but we’ll never know how to play tennis unless we pick up a racket. If we never buy any ingredients, all the knowledge we learn watching cooking programmes will never go to use.
They are good mothers and when mum has to leave her babies to go and hunt, she tucks them away in dens and crevices. When preventative protection isn’t an option, the mother will show great strength in defending her children. She is a responsible and loving mother.
“Responsibility is no more than the ability to respond to any situation. Panic is not a part of this sacred medicine.”
– Medicine cards
Despite only coming together to mate, mountain lions leave messages using faeces, urine, scratched logs and other marks. Just because you don’t see someone very often, doesn’t mean you aren’t in touch. Some of my best friends over my life have been people who’ve lived miles away from me. Instead of building or maintaining a relationship based on physical proximity, I have friends who I share interests or experiences with and instead of regular coffees and catch ups, I send them texts, emails, messages and post.
When we looked at the coyote, human wildlife conflict was an important topic to consider and whilst mountain lions share the potential for danger, they don’t often enter human worlds. They do their best to avoid us and when they do, they would rather flee than fight us. Where coyotes encroached on our habitats, mountain lions have shrunk their home as humans have expanded. When Europeans first settled in North America, mountain lions lived from coast to coast. Now they are confined to the west (excluding the small Florida population).
In mythology, we have the stories which display the strength, grace and power of the mountain lion. They are depicted as courageous and in the story of the Wolf, the Fox, the Bobcat and the Cougar, those creatures protected a group of North Americans from some evil beings.
In the story of the puma and the bear, we learn about the importance of preparedness and the perils of cockiness. Bear ran off with Puma’s wife and boasted that he was so strong that he had nothing to fear from Puma and so he didn’t think to prepare for a fight. Obviously Puma won and Bear was killed, Puma’s wife was banished for her infidelity.
Mountain lions seem to have been called on for their skills as warriors, as defenders and as hunters. They have also been associated with healing and in particular, for curing illness caused by witches.
Given their secretive nature, perhaps this is a card that is asking you to seek out what is hidden, or leave well alone. Like much of this card, there is no straightforward, clear cut answer. You must use your intuition and feel your way into it to find your own personal meaning and understanding.
We’ve already realised that I love cats, and because I am very very allergic to them I can’t have one so I tend to live vicariously through other cat owners and cat related things. Hence cats in literature are getting their very own blog post!
Cats, as we know, have been with humans for a long time so it is no surprise that they have a prominent place in art and literature of both today and the past. They are complicated creatures but cats, in stories and poems, tend to be portrayed as clever and wily, as independent and cunning, and as mysterious and enigmatic. They are shown to be witch’s familiars, travellers companions, heroes and villains. In some writings they take centre stage and in others, supporting roles.
In folklore, cats tend to be haughty and proud, sneaking and clever, wise and helpful. This sits gratingly against the less flattering cat related metaphors we use; fat cat, copy cat, pussy, pussy footing, cat burglar, alley cat, have kittens, wild cat, catty and so on. Even miow, when said the right way, is derisive. There is something about the cat that means we use it to say lazy, to talk of sexual behaviour and to deride sexual women. I’m actually going to look a bit closer at cats and women when I focus in on gender within nature and writing so I shall leave that thought with you for now.
As well as metaphors, there are also a host of interesting sayings involving cats which are great for sparking the imagination! It can be raining cats and dogs whilst children fight like cats and dogs and suddenly curiosity kills all these cats, except the one in the cat’s pajamas!
Cats in stories
To get a flavour of the many different cat characters found in fiction, here is a small sample:
- Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat, a cunning, clever and manipulative beast.
- The range of cats which appear in the books of Beatrix Potter, portrayed anthropomorphically but still retaining a number of elements of their natural life and are playful and a little mischievous.
- Mog from Judith Kerr
- Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams
- Garfield created by Jim Davis
- The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber
- The Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale
- There are even cats in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
And big cats aren’t neglected either
- Aslan, the lion from the Narnia books. I don’t know much about the Christian imagery in the series but I do know that Aslan is supposed to represent Jesus.
- The tiger in The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- Bagheera from the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
- There is also the Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
In addition to these examples, cats show up in a range of fiction types, from children’s books to science fiction and beyond. They are familiar creatures with an array of different personalities and habitats which give authors a lot of scope to work with. Because there are a lot of metaphors and symbols that can be found in the cat, they can be used to add depth to work and as shortcuts in creating character traits.
Naturally, cats also crop up in Aesop’s fables, written about 500BC, so the use of cats in fiction is not a modern idea. In one of the fables, Belling the Cat, the cat is cast in the role of enemy and hunter, as does the Town Mouse and The City Mouse. Obviously, perspective is important when considering the traits of any animal. Of course, most stories told from the point of view of mice are going to show the cat as evil and dangerous. And stories told from the point of view of a dog would probably exaggerate the cat’s faults and tar them with aspersions which emphasise their own strengths. If you were a dog who was trying to show everyone how fast and hardworking you were, you’d tell everyone how lazy the cat was.
There are lots of folk tales (I nearly did go there and say tails…) regarding the cat but here are just three, from very different cultures, which help give a flavour:
- The boy who drew cats, Japan. In this tale, the cat is shown to protect the boy and to be helpful towards humans whilst not expecting anything in return.
- The cat who came indoors, Africa. This is a story which illustrates how the cat domesticated itself and thus how the cat is independent and strong minded.
- Puss in boots, also known as the master cat, Europe. Here we see the cat as clever, planning ahead and getting what it wants (and escaping death).
We also find cats all over the world in mythology playing the roles of gods and goddesses as well as guides and guardians of humans. They were often considered magical and portrayed as moving between worlds; night and day, this world and the other. As we’ve seen before, cats in Egypt were associated with pregnancy, motherhood and the feminine and this was also the case in Norse mythology where they were sacred to Freya, goddess of love and beauty and fertility.
Cats in poetry
As the subject of poetry, cats appear across the centuries and from both male and female writers. There are serious poems and playful ones, ones where the cats are adored and ones where the cat is barely tolerated…
The earliest cat poem I found was written in 550AD by Agathias about a cat attacking one of his partridges… Not a great start to a literary career but by the 9th century, in Ireland at least, they were faring better; Pangur Ban tells of a monk and his cat. However, cat poetry seems to have become more popular from the mid 1700s which makes sense when you think about the timeline of cats and humans. Prior to this, they were considered more as pest control than pets and just before this time, they were associated with witches and thus were not popular to keep around.
Again, I just want to provide a few examples to show the scope of cats in poetry:
- T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
- Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat gives us a characteristic rule breaker, showing the more chaotic side of our feline friends.
- Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat, 1868
- William Blake, The Tyger, 1794
- William Wordsworth, The kitten and the falling leaves, 1804
- Emily Dickinson, She sights a bird – she chuckles, 1800s. Don’t you think even the title brings to mind a cat?!
- Eleonor Fargeon (1881-1965), Cats.
- Cat Kisses by Bobbi Katz (at the bottom of the link)
- Black Cat by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926
- Edward Thomas, A Cat. It turns out not everyone is such a fan…
As you can see, there are a very diverse range of cats hiding within the pages of our books and we’ve not even looked at plays and films and tv programmes. Or even cats in non fiction such as Elsa in Born Free. And we’ve only glanced at cats in myths.
You can find out more about big cats as symbols and their role in myths and beliefs in my animal spirit posts:
Who are your favourite literary cats? Let me know, I’d love to hear and I’m always up for book recommendations (about cats or even, I suppose, not about cats).
I will be looking at dogs but first, lets have a look at cats and dogs together, their relationship and cross over areas. It is a bit random in places but I’ve watched and read some interesting and less relevant things that I’d like to share.
In 2011, Americans spent $7.4 billion pounds on their cats and $19.2 billion on their dogs. 56% said their cats were family members and 66% for dogs.
Apparently there isn’t much research about cats and dogs in the same home, instead it tends to focus on one or the other despite the high number of households which have both. However, anecdotally, we know that owners tend to treat them differently and the stats above back this up. Where dogs are expected to interact with their owners outside the house in a variety of situations, it is generally the case that cats are not.
Fighting like cats and dogs?
You might wonder why cats and dogs always fight, well a story from Taiwan has the answer for you.
Actually, in reality, the idea of cats and dogs always fighting is a stereotype and not true, as owners of both will back up. When I was growing up we had a cat and then got a dog as well and they didn’t fight and the cat wasn’t scared of the dog, as most cat owners will testify, the cat became top dog.
In a study which looked at the interaction between cats and dogs in the same household, it was found that there was a high degree of amicability. They stayed in proximity to each other even if they didn’t have to. 75% showed nose to nose contact which is a sign of affection and it has been shown that they understand each others body language, even in cases where what the dog is conveying by doing x has the opposite meaning when the cat does it. Perhaps predictably, the most successful cat dog relationships occur when they meet when they are young.
The phrase itself apparently dates back to around 1550 when I suspect the relationship between cats and dogs and owners was very different. As we saw in the post about cats, this was a period in history where pets weren’t common so the dogs were probably kept as hunting dogs or for protection whilst the cats may have been kept for pest control. It is highly unlikely that they were pampered and food could well have been scarce. In these circumstances, the relationship between cats and dogs is likely to have been more competitive and less amicable.
Another popular phrase, raining cats and dogs, has a possible origin which is a bit grim. If you want to venture forth, you can do so at the Phrase Finder.
Scavenger or hunter?
This is the random part! Cats and dogs, whilst we often treat them similar, are very different. Cats are fine tuned hunting machines who capture their prey with skill and finesse. It’s actually quite fascinating and Dr Frank Mendel talks about it in detail as part of the cats in context symposium. Dogs on the other hand are much more generalist and, as any dog owner knows, will eat pretty much everything and anything.
Until I started this project, I hadn’t given a second thought to the pet food industry. Admittedly I don’t have a pet but once I started to learn about it I was shocked. Do you have a pet? If you do, have you ever read the ingredients on the pet food or looked at the use by date? In some cases, the food has such a long date on it that it will outlive the actual animal…
Anyway, before we get on to that, I want to give some context. I’m including pet food here because it turns out that households with both cats and dogs tend to give them both the same feeding experience. By which I mean they may have the same food, they may be fed the same amount, and fed in the same place. But because of the differences in the animals, we’ll see that that is not appropriate.
|Scavengers who eat virtually anything||Obligate carnivores and finicky eaters on top of that|
|Social feeders||Solitary feeders|
|Need a minimum of 18% of their calories from protein, 22% for puppies||Need a minimum of 23% of their calories from protein, 26% for kittens|
|Burn protein at different rates depending on circumstances||Burn protein at a high and fixed rate|
|Dogs eat quickly and often all at once||Cats tend to be nibblers, eating little and often throughout the day|
|Will happily eat with other dogs but because of this they do have a tendency to guard their food||Prefer a quiet spot to eat alone|
Because of the above, the type of food we feed cats and dogs needs to have a different make up. For example, cats do not need carbohydrates in their diet.
How we feed our pets is based much more on emotion than science. When choosing your pet food, have you read each bag or given up, overwhelmed by choice, and chosen the one that looks good? You wouldn’t be alone if you did. And actually, pet food labels are not that easy to understand. Marketers use shiny labels and feel good pictures and words to get you to buy their brand.
The documentary I watched, Pet Fooled, was based on American pet food which seems to be a shocking state of affairs and the UK industry does seem to be better. When they looked at different brands, the main ingredients were fillers that were not nutritionally needed by the animals. They also use a variety of words which have technical legal meanings which do not correlate with how the average person interprets them. For example (in the US):
- Chicken flavoured food means there can legally be 0% chicken in it.
- Food with chicken, means has to be at least 3% chicken. So “tasty food with chicken” may not have very much chicken in, and “chicken” says nothing about the quality or type of meat.
- Using the word dinner, nuggets or formula means 25% of the product is the cited meat, again no guarantee about quality or part of the animal.
- Natural – this was a ridiculous one. Basically it was the meat in question but it could legally be processed in many different ways, including cooked at excessively high temperatures. The only thing that wasn’t allowed was chemical alteration.
In the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, a voluntary membership scheme, is one way of quality checking your pet food. Their members follow nutritional guidelines and there’s lots of information for pet owners on their website about what different pets should be eating.
Pet foods are subject to stringent legislation in the UK to ensure safe products of high quality. For instance, the legislation covering pet food ingredients requires that when manufacturers use by-products of the human food industry they come from animals slaughtered under veterinary supervision. The industry has also adopted a number of Codes of Practice which support and in some cases exceed legislative requirements.
So whilst things are better on this side of the ocean, I think awareness still needs to be raised about what we are feeding our animals. At least have a look at the ingredients and see what it is you’re feeding your precious pet. Also, whilst we’re looking at advice, in the wild cats get most of their water from their prey so they aren’t natural drinkers, however a dry food only diet may dehydrate them so if you can, feed them wet food too!
Cats are amazing, just wanted to highlight that particular bias before we jump in…
The history of cats and humans
“The Cat that Walked by Himself” by Rudyard Kipling tells of how the cat made a pact with woman and domesticated itself. Whilst the just so story may not have been how things went down in terms of cat domestication, it’s not the kind of thing we have records of. Instead we have to make educated guesses based on fossil and gene evidence.
We know that about 10-11 million years ago the ancestral cat split off into different species, ranging from the lions to tigers to jaguars and so on. Then, 10,000 years ago, the domestication process took place. This was around the same time that humans were settling down and the agricultural revolution was taking place. Alongside the cat, other species were also being domesticated including cows, goats, pigs, sheep, chick peas, peas, lentils, olives, wheat and barley. All of this was taking place in the fertile crescent, an area of land, predictably crescent shaped, which curves through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt.
It is theorised that as we settled into farming, and hence growing and storing crops that mice like, cats came closer and closer to human settlements. Over time we realised they were good for keeping pests under control and they realised we were good for easy food sources. And slowly they became domesticated. But not all cats were tamable so it was particular types of cats that were the forerunner to the kitty cat we know today. As with the domestication of the dog, pet cats are smaller than wild cats, probably because they don’t need to grow so big to survive. That said, in all other ways, they are almost identical to wild cats, its just the scale that has really changed.
By 7500 BC, we know that cats were buried in human graves in Cyprus, an island where there are no naturally occurring cats so it is assumed that humans intentionally introduced them.
Jumping to ancient Egypt, we find cats being worshipped as symbols of femininity, fertility, pregnancy and motherhood. Tom cats are depicted in ancient Egyptian art as a manifestation of Ra, the sun god, destroying the serpent of darkness. We have Sekhment, a goddess with human body and lionesses head and Bastet, half hippo, half lioness. We also find examples of cats being mummified as offerings to the goddesses.
By 1200 BC, at least the Egyptian aristocracy were keeping cats in their homes and when they died, cats were mourned. If you were to harm a cat, you’d pay the cost and would likely get mobbed by a gang in the street. Egyptians felt very strongly about their cats and when Persians attacked, they threw cats at the Egyptian city to demoralise them.
In Ancient Greece, ferrets were used for pest control instead of cats so there was a slightly different relationship to that of the Egyptians. Cats were slow to expand out of the middle east but there is evidence of them being kept as pets in Greece.
By the middle ages, the reign of the cat was over. No longer worshipped and revered, the cat had become a target of hatred. The Christian church had made the cat a target, possibly as a scapegoat when they were trying to convert pagans to the new religion. Organised persecution became to occur, justified by saying that the devil was in cats and they were killed en masse, such as in a village in Belgium where there was a regular fete involving throwing cats from a tower. Cats were also burned alive and killed in other horrific ways.
There was also the association with witchcraft and cats suffered there as well. At this point in history we were far removed from the cat as goddess and now in a time where the cat was the devil himself. The cat, with it’s tendency to cross between domestic and wild realms, may have unsettled people at the time and challenged the natural law and separation of man and beast as they saw it. The cat was also associated with unbridled feminine sexuality and, as happens still today, patriarchy likes to quash that as it threatens the system.
In the 17th century, it was identified that cats were a source of allergy and asthma attacks.
By the 18th century, the emerging middle class came to the rescue of cats and started keeping them as pets.
As science developed in the 1800s, animals were beginning to be seen in a different light. Industrialisation meant they were no longer a commodity as such and we were able to start forming different relationships with them. Industrialisation also meant that certain groups in society had more time to spend looking after pets and so pet ownership in general increased at this time.
Over the 20th century, developments in medication, in flea treatments and vaccines made it easier for us to bring cats into our homes and the burgeoning pet industry made it easier for us to meet their needs. Interestingly the number of cats as pets overtook dogs in the mid 1980s, perhaps because more people were working longer and cats were seen as more amiable to that lifestyle.
Today, in the 21st century, there are millions of cat owners and cat lovers across the world and we are back to loving this wonderful creature. So much so that the internet is filled with cat videos and memes.
Cats today can be categorised into:
- Feral and strays – in the US there are almost as many feral cats as there are owned cats
- Outdoor owned cats, such as farm and barn cats
- Indoor/ outdoor cats
- Indoor only cats – purebreds tend to be indoor only
Cats are hunters. They are obligate carnivores and they need to eat meat. They are built to hunt. So it is no surprise that when they can, they hunt and kill. You might think that little sooty is not going to kill anything because she is an indoors only cat who is well fed but trust me, she’s probably attacked at least a spider or a mouse. Anyway, because of this, when they get outside, they go after local wildlife, including species that we don’t want them to. They don’t know that that yummy looking bird is endangered, they are just fulfilling their biological drive.
In Australia, where cats are not native and the local wildlife has not had time to adapt and evolve to defend themselves from cats, cat curfews exist.
Cats were introduced to the area about 200 years ago by European settlers and bred and spread rapidly across the Australian continent and New Zealand. According to one estimate, the approximately 20 million cats in Australia kill around 75 million native animals a day.
Australia is thought to have one of the worst extinction records in the world, losing about 29 native mammal species since the European arrival. It now lists some 1,800 species as under threat.
– The Independent (2015)
The cat as wildlife killer creates conflict between wanting to protect vulnerable species and wanting to let the cat carry out its natural behaviour. Some people argue that all cats should be kept indoors to protect birds and other prey but this ignores the fact that cats will kill in the house, whether it’s a mouse in the kitchen or a bat in the loft space. I’m not going to go into the details right now but cats are built to kill and their skills are pretty impressive! If you want to know more about how cats hunt, or about cats more generally, have a look at the Cats in Context symposium.