History of the Cat Background:

The Dark Ages were a time of great turmoil and instability.  Hegemony over territory and religion were the driving factors in the ongoing conflicts of the age, and amidst this upheaval, the plague of Justinian claimed all those it could. Tribal kingdoms remained in continuous conflict over territory, and with the beginning of the Islamic era, Islam and Christianity competed for power and influence in Europe and Asia.  The years 500-1000 AD saw a gradual shift from Paganism to Christianity amongst the various barbarian tribes in Europe and the British Isles, and brought about the slow and continual demonization of the female goddesses and their companion cats.

The struggle for religious domination between Christianity and Paganism, which had begun in the 4th century, continued on throughout the Dark and Middle Ages.  Ruthless Christian fanatics in their quest for Pagan conversion began to systematically discredit their beliefs.  As St. Patrick headed to Ireland to convert the Irish in the 5th century, St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, had a vision of the goddess Isis as a devil (Engels, 2001).  Goddesses and, by association, the cat came under constant attack.

Pagans believed that all creatures had spirits, and Christians believed all these spirits were evil.  Paganism and Christianity represented opposing ideologies which led to diametrically opposed faiths:  polytheism versus monotheism, man versus woman, nature versus man, freedom versus control.  During the Plague of Justinian 541-7, Christians surrounded by nothing but death, knew that they, and especially the non-believers, had angered their god.  And while the plague that killed over 5,000 people a day in Constantinople, and ultimately over 50-60% of the total European population was ravaging his own empire, Justinian sent his emissaries to spitefully mutilate the Isis Temple on the Island of Philae (Engels, 2001; Thompson, 1908). According to Procopius, a Byzantine historian, the 6th century plague started in Pelusium, Egypt (Zahler, 2009). Ironically, this was the site of Cambyses’ wily defeat of the Egyptians by driving cats and other holy animals in front of his army.

Tommaso_Laureti_Triumph_of_Christianity cat in history, history of the cat

Triumph of Christianity
Tommaso Laureti
Palazzi Vaticani, Rome

The Roman Christians knew that a fragmented empire meant eventual destruction, so Christianity became a vehicle for conquest and unification. Using the Christian religion as their ideological sword, they set out to convert and thus control their two most powerful adversaries, the Vendels (550-793) and the Franks.  From the north, with their Norse Gods Odin, the god of war; Thor, the god of thunder; and Freya, the goddess of love who rode in a cat drawn carriage, the Vendels threatened the weakened Roman Empire and hindered the spread of Christianity.  But as the Vendels, and later the Vikings, came into contact with Christians through their attacks, especially on the British Isles, they started to convert because of intermarriage and the fact that only Christians were allowed to trade goods.  Clovis, (466-511) the king of the Franks, converted to Roman Catholicism in the early 6th century, and he encouraged his Germanic tribal leaders to embrace Christianity too. In 530-35 the Byzantines took control of Italy and spread Christianity through the building of churches.  St. Benedict of Nursia founded the Abbey of Monte Cassino on the site of the former temple to the Greco-Roman god Apollo. In 596, Pope Gregory, who was said to have always had a cat on his lap, (Winslow, 1900) sent a group of forty Benedictine monks called the Gregorian mission to convert the Saxons in Britain.  A year later, the kingdom of Kent converted.   The mission was successful, and missionaries based in Britain headed for Europe to convert the Pagans of the Netherlands and Germany.  Paganism was to be eradicated.

St. Benedict of Nursia writing the Benedictine, history of the cat

St. Benedict of Nursia writing the Benedictine rule, portrait in the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria. Portrait (1926) by Herman Nieg (1849-1928) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the demise of Paganism the nature goddesses slowly lost their power and importance.  Threatened by female cults, the patriarchal Christian church wished to totally crush them. The cat, inextricably linked to the female goddesses Isis, Artemis, Diana and Freya, also became demonized.  The goddesses of the moon became goddesses of the devil.  Luna became lunatic.  Pushed out of their roles of authority, women had to submit to the patriarchy of the church.  The Canon of Eposcopi (892), a list of regulations for bishops, stated,  “It is also not omitted that some wicked women perverted by the devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess themselves, in hours of the night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night to traverse great spaces of earth, and to obey her commands as of their mistress and to be summoned to her service on certain nights.” (Waddell, 2003, p.84) But not all tribal leaders accepted the new faith. They simply pretended to convert for their own advantage while continuing to worship their forest gods and goddesses.  Christianity’s stronghold was in the cities, while the Pagans kept to the countryside where deep in the forests their rituals continued.  And so, Christians considered the old faiths that the Pagans continued to adhere to as forms of magic (Erman, 1907 p.237).


Prior to St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland, cats were worshipped in a cave in Clough and Knowth (Graves, 1966).

The emblem of the Burgundians was the wildcat and Clothilde of Burgundy, Clovis’ wife, used an emblem that pictured a sable cat killing a rat on a gold background (Oldfield Howey, 2003, p.231).


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Laura Vocelle


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