The healing and sanitary effects of cats have been recognized since time immemorial. As cats domesticated themselves (yes they are autonomous), strolling into prehistoric villages, the first agricultural communities of the Near East and Egypt, some 10,000 years ago, they became protectors of mankind and early civilization by feeding on grain-stealing and plague-invested rodents. In Egypt they stuck around the granaries, while their grateful keepers sat around the flesh pots and ate bread to the full, giving them leftovers and caresses.
So they not only protected our provisions, but probably also stopped the spreading of diseases. The Egyptians also considered them useful protection against poisonous snakes. The historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE), recorded their use as snake-exterminators in his ‘Library of History’: “The cat is a very serviceable against the venomous stings of serpents, and the bite of the asp.” As such the cat can be regarded as a pre-emptive antidote.
Their role as lifesavers is perhaps not the sole reason why cats were revered in the ancient world, but it was definitely why they were protected by law. It is a fact that in Egypt the killing a cat, even by accident, was punishable by death. Foreigners who visited Egypt were very much astonished about this practice. A Roman visitor in the Kingdom of Egypt at the time of Diodorus’ stay made the mistake of killing a cat:
“One of the Romans killed a cat and the multitudes rushed in a crowd to his house, neither the officials sent by the king [Ptolemy] to beg the man off nor the fear of Rome which all the people felt were enough to save the man from punishment, even though his act had been an accident. This incident we relate, not from hearsay, but we saw it with our own eyes on the occasion of the visit we made to Egypt.” ―Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 1.83.
· The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
· Donald W. Engels, Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat (1999, ed. 2000/08).
· James Bradshaw, Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed (2013).