Old Beliefs About Cats That Prove We've Always Been A Little Bit Afraid Of Them

Cats are spectacularly strange animals, a fact not lost on many historical civilizations. But whatever your feelings about your house cat, or towards the rampantly popular game Neko Atsume (in which you feed and pet cartoon Japanese cats on your smartphone), you probably aren't planning to use your local cats to help in warfare, or blaming them for weather phenomena. We've invested the cat species with a lot of bizarre power and traditions over the years, imagining that they're potentially malevolent, playful, godlike, capable of curing diseases, and out to steal our milk and deliver it to witches. Sounds about normal, actually.

These days, cats enjoy significantly less status than they once had; instead of being overlords, weapons, or supernatural familiars, they're benign house cats whose worst capacity is the killing and dismembering of squirrels on your best carpet. For some reason, though, humanity has remained arrested by the potential of felines throughout its history, so this may just be a lull in our general approach.

Or perhaps the new version of cat-worship is just spending hours on I Can Haz Cheezburger and BoredPanda. I'm pretty sure the feline gods would be OK with that.

That They Could Be Used For Psychological Warfare

It's well-known that the Egyptians loved their cats, and gave them a lot of religious power and symbolism. The untold story, however, is the fact that a cunning strategist used this love against them when it came to a military victory in 525 BC. According to the Greek author Polyaenus, who wrote admiringly of the trick in his book Strategies Of War, the Persian ruler Cambyses II managed to defeat an extremely strong Egyptian army by introducing cats onto the battlefield. Even though they were useless soldiers.

Cambyses' brilliant idea, apparently, was to produce images and real versions of animals that the Egyptians held sacred, and drive them in front of his army. He "ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibeses and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold dear," and got his soldiers to paint cats on their shields. It was extremely effective psychological warfare, at least according to the story; the Egyptians were loath to kill any of their sacred animals, and just let the Persians win the battle and take over Egypt instead.

That Elderly Cats Might Shapeshift Into Demon Prostitutes

Japanese folklore reveals an excellent fate for cats getting a bit old: they might split their tails in two, become demons, and develop the ability to shape-shift. Called bakeneko , folkloric stories around these cats develop along two lines: either they were allowed to reach an unnatural age for a cat, or they were killed by a cruel human and came back to make their life hell. (Fair enough.) They're reputed to do everything from spit fireballs to controlling the dead, but can also get up to innocent or strange capers: one apparently transformed into a human and wanted to try sumo wrestling, and others turned themselves into prostitutes to fool young men. (The men would usually wake up, according to the stories, and discover that they were surrounded by fish bones.)

That Devil-Worshippers Kiss Cats On The Butt

The biggest problem for cats during the medieval period in Europe was a particularly pernicious association. Witchcraft, and the notion that a cat would be a witch's "familiar," led to cat massacres and a lot of feline-related suspicion.

One of the most bizarre beliefs about cat involvement in witchcraft in the period comes from Walter Map, a courtier who wrote a compendium of knowledge and anecdotes published in 1180. According to Map, “the Devil descends as a black cat before his devotees. The worshippers put out the light and draw near to the place where they saw their master. They feel after him and when they have found him they kiss him under the tail.” Yep: medieval witches and warlocks were meant to spend their time kissing the Devil on the cat-anus. Charming.

That Cat Dung Mixed With White Wine Could Cure Vertigo

If you were searching for a medical text in the 1700s, you may well have come across Martin Schurig's De Stercoribus Brutorum, published in 1725. You may then have been very tempted to shut it, because Schurig put a lot of faith in the healing powers of crap. Among his many convictions about dung in all its forms, from the produce of young geese to pigeons or lionesses, was a lot about the possibilities of the feces of your local cat. Mixed with white wine, he instructed, the material was a good cure for vertigo, epilepsy, and fever.

Intriguingly enough, this isn't as odd as it sounds. OK, yes, it still sounds extremely odd, but a study that came out in 2014 identified a bacterium that normally resides in cat poo, Toxoplasma gondii, as a possible future therapy for cancer patients, as it seems to stimulate immune responses. Whether that therapy was available for dung dissolved in wine in the 18th century remains unclear.

That Cats Could Produce Strong Winds By Simply Licking Things

The lore of ships aboard ships deserves a book unto itself; but it's shown up in historical chronicles frequently, particularly in the 19th century. They were thought to be able to "raise a gale," according to one source, by "playing with any article of wearing apparel, by rubbing her face, or licking the wrong way." (Licking was also thought to mean a hailstorm.) A storm engulfing a Confederate warship in the 1860s was blamed firmly on the ship's cat, which had the misfortune to fall or be thrown overboard; but, conversely, a playful or happy cat was meant to mean smooth sailing, and you couldn't possibly get rid of a cat or provoke it. A good life for some.

That "Troll Cats" Could Steal Milk From Cows And Bring It To You

The folkloric status of cats in Nordic countries is pretty high: they pull the chariot of the goddess Freyja. But they're also reputed to be tricksters, and to hide problematic appetites. One brilliant legend is the idea of the "troll cat" which collects milk from cows for its witch-owner: in the form of a small cat or ball of yarn, it rolls between cows in the byre, sucks milk out of their udders, and then takes it home to its owners. You could identify the "cat" as an imposter if you shot it, as its wound would spurt milk (understandably). Spells from the beginning of the 20th century indicate that the "witch" was supposed to gather wood shavings or hair, put drops of blood on it, and then say something about Satanic worship to get the "troll cat" to appear. Possibly it's just a more effective way of using dust bunnies.

Images: Pixabay; John Bodsworth, Stefano Zuffi, Ministry Of Information, Northumberland Bestiary, Sawaki Suuhi, A.W. Eurenius/Wikimedia Commons