We all know that cats are the true epitome of chaotic neutral.
In a single breath, the internet’s favorite fuzzy creatures go from cuddling against your chest to clawing at your face.
Millions of people find their pouncing, purring and prowling fascinating - others find it downright unnerving And it’s not just the modern world that’s obsessed with cats.
Not quite deities, and definitely not human, cats have stalked our cultural imagination since ancient times.
As demons, defenders, evil sidekicks, and sleek companions, they play many roles in culture and myth.
But what makes cats so enduring, and what does our feline fascination tell us about human nature?
With cat references scattered all over the ancient world, it’s impossible to determine a single origin point for our obsession.
Prehistoric art reveals some striking felines, from a painted red lion gracing the Pech Merle cave in France, to 7000-year-old stone leopards circling the temple of Uvda in Israel.
Other depictions show some unexpected cat-human contact.
At the settlement of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, which thrived around 7000BCE, a woman is shown in a birthing position - her hands resting on the backs of leopards for support.
Another nearby site , has yielded figurines of pregnant women and new mothers nursing leopards.
These examples draw a direct line between cats and mighty motherhood.
And while it’s still debated whether the mother-cats were deities, there’s a cat woman lurking in pretty much every pantheon.
Some goddesses take cats as their co-conspirators, like the Hindu figure of Durga.
Riding on her lion, Durga is worshiped as both nurturing mother and menacing warrior.
Flanked by lions, the Roman and Anatolian goddess Cybele also guards the victims of war - while reserving the right to inflict some serious harm.
The Norse goddess of love, Freya, rode in a chariot pulled by giant cats.
Her trusty steeds are suggestive of Freya’s grace and affection.
But she could also turn fearsome as the leader of the all-female band of warriors, the Valkyries.
But not all feline protectors are tied to femininity.
Chinese guardian lions come in male and female form and have long guarded Buddhist temples.
Assuming either a smile or a snarl, these lions are agents of righteousness that you definitely don’t want to cross.
These figures all embody the paradoxical idea that tenderness and destruction are two sides of the same coin.
Like their divine counterparts, cats could be the object of both admiration and fear – associated with the most formidable forces even as they were gradually welcomed into the home.
For a key example of how cats straddled the domestic and divine, we can turn to Ancient Egypt.
The Ancient Egyptians may be the most committed cat people of all time - but this love was rooted in a degree of practicality.
Between 4000 and 2000 BCE, more and more grain was stored in Egyptian towns – drawing rodents and, ultimately, cats.
Far beyond pest control, cats came to be worshiped in their own right.
An entire branch of government was dedicated to their protection, and any outsider who harmed a cat was sentenced to death.
Archaeological digs have recovered thousands of mummified cats, amulets and statues, as well as cemeteries filled with pets who accompanied their owners to the afterlife.
[iv] They were often depicted on the laps of the dead – but just in case you thought humans were in control here, cats could also be found terrorizing the underworld and presiding over human life.
In addition to their animal forms cats were theophanies, or IRL manifestations of the Egyptian gods.
With the body of a woman and the face of a lion, Sekhmet destroyed the enemies of Ancient Egypt.
Often crowned with a sun disk, she burned her foes to the ground and could spread war and plagues.
At the same time, she was honored as a great physician and was thought to oversee the conception of the Pharaohs.
On the other hand, Bastet, another cat goddess who also had the body of a woman but the face of a cat, was more of a cat goddess of the people, associated with childbirth, music, and dance.
Like Sekhmet, she was linked to the sun – but more in terms of warmth and safety, rather than blazing destruction.
While every cat loves a stint in the sun, the Greek goddess Artemis worked by the light of the moon.
Occasionally depicted in cat form, Artemis was the goddess of hunting, animals, and childbirth – who could swiftly slay any living thing with her golden arrows.
As predators and protectors who could be associated with darkness and light, these mythical figures concretize the dual nature of the feline.
For many, this ambivalence was a source of awe and fascination.
For others, it raised some hackles.
E: Many mythologies frame cats as a threat rather than an asset.
In Persian Zoroastrian mythology, cats were created by the Evil Spirit and believed to spread treachery.
[ix] Some of the most sinister Japanese yōkai, or supernatural beings, are also cats.
In one tale, a young man named Takasu Genbei (Tah-kah-su Gen-bay) had a cat who vanished – just as his mother retreated from family life.
When he finally pried open her bedroom door, Takasu saw not his mother, but a monstrous feline demon curled in her clothes.
He aimed to save her by slaying the beast, but the carcass only morphed into his missing cat.
Weeks later, he found his mother’s bones under the floorboards.
Takasu’s mother was plagued by a yōkai known as bakeneko, demons who devour their owners and inhabit their body.
Bakeneko are formed when an ordinary cat drinks blood, licks too much lamp oil, or even if their tail becomes too long.
The bakeneko can become another feline yokai, the two-tailed nekomata which is even more dangerous, growing to enormous sizes and hurling fireballs at humans when it’s not busy devouring them.
As malevolent cats, these yokai represent an enduring fear of the unknown– and what happens when we let it into our homes.
Ancient Greeks were also plagued by invasive cats, most notably the Nemean lion.
The offspring of monsters with an impenetrable hide, razor-sharp teeth, and a taste for human flesh, the lion was only defeated when Hercules barricaded it in its cave and strangled it with his bare hands - you know, because he’s extra.
He wore the skin of the lion thereafter, where it remained a terrifying sign of his outsized power.
When Hera learned that her husband Zues had impregnated Alcmene she sent the goddess of childbirth Eileithyia to delay the birth.
Alcmene’s midwife, Galinthias, managed to distract Eileithyia while her child Hercules was born.
Hera was so furious that she turned Galinthias into a cat and banished her to the underworld.
There she became the companion of the goddess of magic and discord, Hecate.
With the rise of Christianity, this image of the unpredictable woman with her cat infused fears of paganism and so-called dark magic.
The suspicion of cats endured for centuries: from Pope Gregory IX denouncing cats and black cats specifically as agents of Satan in the thirteenth century, to the rise of witch hunts in the Middle Ages and beyond.
In 1658, the cleric Edward Topsel wrote that “the familiars of Witches do most ordinarily appear in the shape of Cats, which is an argument that this beast is dangerous to soul and body.” At a time of high paranoia, woe betide any single woman who happened to be a cat person.
Across different cultures, cats give shape to some of our most primal fears, perhaps the most famous example being black cats’ association with bad luck, evil omens and the possibility that an unknown enemy lurks in our midst.
On the other hand, some myths suggest that welcoming the unknown can be a good thing.
In the early seventeenth century, a cat invited the Japanese lord Ii Naotaka to shelter in the Buddhist temple of Gotokuji.
In gratitude, Ii Naotaka dedicated the temple to all cats.
This legend is said to be the birth of the maneki-neko, or Japanese beckoning cat.
Widely seen clocking their paws in temples, shrines, businesses, and homes, the beckoning cat is a feline of good fortune.
As predator and prey, trickster and tormentor, mythical cats can rarely be reduced to pure good or absolute evil.
It’s telling, then, that cats are often associated with liminal spaces – particularly the ghostly line that separates the living from the dead.
Depending on who you ask, cats can help or hinder the journey of souls to the next life.
Certain Buddhist sects believe that the soul is transferred to a cat for safekeeping,while in Finnish folklore cats were tasked with transporting the souls of the dead to the underworld.
Other mythologies are less trusting.
The Celtic creature Cáit Sith appears as a black cat with white markings on its chest, and tends to sneak up on mourners and steal their beloved’s soul.
And then there’s the Japanese Kasha, demonic corpse-catcher…but you can look to Monstrum for that one.
Today you can find a cat in more domestic liminal spaces - camping out in sock drawers, squeezing through doorways, and curling up in that space between shelf and floor that never quite gets clear.
Even as they’ve become stalwarts of our homes, there’s always something bewildering about these creatures and their stare can be… haunting.
Centuries on, we struggle with the same questions as our ancestors: Are cats fully domesticated, why are they looking at us like that, and what is that sound they’re making?
In the end, the intrigue of cats stems from their mystery – and while we’re no closer to solving it, it’s clear that the feline imaginary can’t be tamed.