The History of the Cat in Persia:
Before reaching the Far East, cats travelled through Persia and India via the Silk Routes where Persian Zoroastrians, in stark contrast to the Arab Muslims, considered the cat evil and treacherous. During the Sassanian Empire (224-651), the cat in Zoroastrian mythology was said to have been created by an Evil spirit based on a myth in the Dadestān ī dēnīg†, where Jamak mated with a demon and thus gave birth to a cat (West, 2009, p.419). Moreover, if a cat urinated in water, all the fishes in the sea would die (Omisdsalar, 1990). In contrast to the Muslim beliefs mentioned in the Hadith, Zoroastrians, much like Christians of the time, believed that even if a bowl from which a cat had eaten were washed seven times, it would still be unclean. Finally, eating food that had even touched a cat’s whiskers caused one to waste away (Boyce, 1977 p. 163 n. 51).
Even though demonized, Zoroastrians still kept cats as pets and mousers. In the 7th century, the king of the Sassinands, Khosrow Parvez (590-628), wanting to destroy the city of Ray because it was his enemy’s home town, sent a newly appointed governor there who ordered all the cats to be killed. With the merciless murder of all the cats, the mouse population went unchecked, forcing the people to abandon their homes. And as the wicked King had wanted, this ultimately threatened the collapse of the city. However, by persuading the king to remove the governor with the playful antics of a kitten, the queen saved the city and the cats again took up their vigilant guard against the mice (Omisdsalar, 1990).
Arabs and Berbers often ate cat meat even though laws forbid it. According to both Persian and Arabic sources, eating the meat of a black cat offered protection from magic. Furthermore, a consistent diet of cat’s meat inspired amazing feats of courage because cats habitually attacked prey much larger than themselves. For this reason, Isma’ili assassins regularly ate cat meat (Omisdsalar, 1990).
Not everyone was a connoisseur of cat meat, and several stories of Persians and Sufis fondly keeping cats as pets survive. Kittens were more valuable than adults, and women often fawned over them so exceedingly that they even dressed them up in earrings and necklaces, dyed their fur, and would allow them to sleep with them. In addition, the Deylamite prince Rokn-al-Dawla (947-77), became so attached to his cat that petitioners tied their written requests to the neck of his favorite pet in order to make sure that the prince would notice them. Even a Sufi sheikh had tiny shoes made for his cat that slept on his prayer carpet to protect it against the pampered feline’s sharp claws. When one of the Sheikh’s servants found cause to beat the cat, the sheikh demanded that he apologize to the discontented animal (Omisdsalar, 1990).
In Persian folklore black cats and even white were often manifestations of Jinn or even the devil himself. Because of this, Persians believed the cat was an ill omen especially if seen first thing in the morning. And if a cat appeared in a dream, it was considered a symbol of thievery.
Persians used cats in many medicinal concoctions just as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks had. A cure for a fever was to use cat’s dung mixed with oil, and cat’s blood was said to cure leprosy. A Persian proverb states that because the cat realized that its dung was useful as medicine, our recalcitrant feline decided to bury it. Because of the cat’s close association with fertility and child birth, stories of its ability to cure infertility were well known. To cure infertility, a woman held the placenta of a cat over her head while pouring water on it. The water running over the woman’s head cured her. Another cure was to take cat hair, game meat and a string of seven colors to the bathhouse and put them into an oven (Omisdsalar, 1990).
† 9th century Persian Zoroastrian religious judgments.
Omisdsalar, Mahmud, “Cat I. In Mythology and Folklore,” Encyclopedia Iranica, Online Edition, December 15, 1990, Available at: http://www.iranica.com/articles/cat-in-mythology-and-folklore-khot.