Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Vejle Kunstmuseum, section of painting, Albert Bertelsen: Persian Cat

Our sweet little cat is nothing less than a mini-tiger. But in spite of the close kinship to a dangerous carnivore like the mighty tiger it is the most charming and friendly little pet. Like other cats the domestic cat is an individualist. It has kept its independence and its wild instincts uninfluenced by humans although it has been a pet during thousands of years.

The cats nice paw-tracks lead back to Egypt where it was a common domestic animal in the period around 1600 BC according to old inscriptions. In the 19th century a temple on the river Nile was excavated and a graveyard with 300.000 mummified cats were found. They were sent to England and sold as a fertilizer, but fortunately a few made it into museums. Some scientists mean that the Egyptians in the beginning only used the cats for religious purposes and later discovered their utility value.

In Egypt it was once believed that the life-giving rays of the sun were kept in a cat's eyes at night for safekeeping. Sacred cats kept in a sanctuary in ancient Egypt were carefully tended by priests who watched them day and night. They made their famous predictions by interpreting the smallest purr, stretch or whisker twitch.

After the Roman had conquered Egypt they brought cats to Rome and later the cat was spread with the Roman armies and traders to all of Europe and Asia. In the East the cat was domesticated later that by the Egypts, probably about 4000 year ago in China and ab. 1600 years agot in the rest of Asia. The American continent first knew cats when Columbus brought ships cats with him. In Rome the cat also had a religious significance sine the Queen of Heaven, the moon goddess Diana ( Greek mythology Artemis), was often pictured with cats at her feet as a symbol of freedom. In Rome the cat races were mixed and thus the European domestic cat came into existence.

A Japanese myth says that cats turn into super spirits when they die. According to Buddhistic religion the body of the cat is the temporary resting place of the soul of very spiritual people. A Thai legend tells of cats that guarded a temple from Burmese invaders. They saved the temple treasure, a golden goblet belonging to the Buddha, by hooking their tails around it and not letting go. This accounts for the kink at the end of almost all Thai cats. Another story is that when a princess went to bathe and gave her rings to a cat to guard it, kinked its tail so they wouldn't fall off.

Traits associated with cats include cleverness, unpredictability, healing and witchcraft, since in ancient times it was believed that witches took the form of their cat at night. Folklore has it that if a witch becomes human her black cat will no longer reside in her house. It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches or even witches themselves. Partly because of the cat's sleek movements and eyes that glow at night they became the embodiment of darkness, mystery and evil, possessing frightening powers. If a black cat crossed a person's path without harming them this indicated that the person was then protected by the devil. Often a cat would find shelter with older women who were living in solitude. The cat became a source of comfort and companionship, and the old woman would curse anyone who mistreated it. If one of these tormentors became ill, the witch and her family were blamed.

In the 1500s houses had thatched roots - thick straw, piled hight, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm , so all the pets - dogs, cats, and other small animals, mice, rats, bugs lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying: "It's raining cats and dogs."

In the mountains of Transylvania and other eastern European countries it was common wisdom that if a cat jumped over a dead body the unfortunate corpse was doomed to eternity as a vampire. Immigrants from eastern Europe surrounded the coffins of their dearly departed loved ones with hundreds of blazing candles to keep the curious cat from leaping over it and preventing the spirit from resting in peace.

Findings of cat skeletons by Dannevirke show that the cats came to Denmark in Roman Iron Age ( ab. 1 -600 AC) At this time the Scandivanians were trading with the Romans who had conquered Germania. From the same period are found cat remains in Sweden. It is presumed that the cat was a very welcome animal because the black rat was a big problem at the farms. In the Viking period the cat had found its place in the Norse mythology as a fertility symbol and as a follower of the witches of both sexes. Freya, the goddess of love and fertility, drove in a chariot pulled by two black cats. Some versions claim they became swift black horses possessed by the devil. After serving Freya for 7 years the cats were rewarded by being turned into witches, disguised as black cats.

But when Christianity came to the North in the end of the Viking period the cat went into a gruesom future. The monks who came to the Scandinavia could not impress the Vikings with gold. Therefore they started a savage persecution of everything connected to the old world of the old gods. Unfortunately the cat was the follower of the witches and Freya's special friend and a symbol of the old religion which the monks and priests now wanted to exterminate . During the Middle Ages the cat was hunted with all means and considered the devil's messenger and a vermin. Later when the witch burnings took fart black cats were burnt at the fire together with the witches.

The history about the cat is a long and dramatic story, from a wild animal in pre-historic time, during centuries where it was worshipped as a holy creature and after this degraded to be a tool of the devil. But today the domestic cat is a popular and beloved pet. Its popularity as a house pet is both because of its beautiful looks and its inner qualities. There is an atmosphere of peace and quiet from a sleeping cat in on the soft blanket in the best armchair. Worth much in our rush of modern life.

Vejle Kunstmuseum

photo Vejle Kunstmuseun january 2009: grethe bachmann

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