A Feline Mystery: Why Cats Are So Deeply Associated With Spirituality
Updated: Aug 14, 2018
Throughout history, cats have traditionally been treated with respect and reverence by many civilizations. The reason lies not only in their adorable tiny faces, but also thanks to their range of abilities, which have often been associated with gods and the supernatural. Many believed – and still do believe – that cats are more attuned to certain auras than any other type of animal.
Even in the modern day, cats often react to people and circumstances in seemingly unusual ways. Most cat owners have experienced those moments when you’re sitting quietly with your cat and all of a sudden they look up and stare intently at… absolutely nothing. For ages. Just staring into blank space, completely enraptured.
What is it about cats?
Anyone who has spent time around or living with cats knows the difference it makes having them around. They make a home feel relaxed and peaceful – at least, they do when they’re not causing mayhem. But there’s also genuine research to suggest that cat owners live longer. Maybe being a ‘crazy cat lady’ isn’t so crazy after all...
Here’s an interesting fact: cats purr at a frequency of 26 Hertz, which is also the frequency scientists use in vibrational therapies to promote tissue regeneration. There is an old veterinary saying which goes thus: “If you put a cat and a pile of broken bones in the same room, the bones will heal”.
Maybe strategically placing a purring cat on your broken arm isn’t the best way to fix it, but cats certainly have other healing powers: they reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and reduce your risk of developing heart disease. No wonder past civilisations thought they were enchanted.
Cats in folklore
Cats have been observed in cultural representations dating back nearly 10,000 years. It’s not all been good – tales of soul snatching, bearing misfortune, and colluding with the Devil abound. Even today there remains superstition around black and white cats in particular, who are thought to bring good and bad luck respectively.
In Celtic mythology there is a grey cat called Grimalkin, who was believed to have magical powers. He’s featured in various works of literature, including Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where he helps the three witches look into Macbeth's future. In Norwegian fairy tales, cats are often written as mystical creatures, sometimes goblins in disguise, whose eyes are portals to other worlds.
The story changes with Christianity. Early Christians held the belief that if a cat sat on someone’s grave, it meant the devil had possession of their soul. They later came to be associated with witchcraft – particularly black cats – who were seen as ‘familiars’. Not an ideal time to be a single female cat owner.
Why cats were sacred in Egypt
The Ancient Egyptians very much initiated the cat craze. At the time, cats were associated with the goddess Mafdet, and later with the goddess Bastet. Mafdet was thought to offer protection against venomous bites, especially those of snakes and scorpions, while Bastet was the goddess of warfare and protector of cats. The latter in her later form was a cat-headed woman, and cats were seen as the physical embodiment of her spirit.
It’s theorised that both Mafdet and Bastet may originate from the legend of a divine jungle cat named Mau (meow?) who famously defended a sacred tree from the serpent Apophis. Needless to say, harming a cat was totally forbidden in Ancient Egyptian culture. Even when they died, they were afforded the same mummification and burial rituals as people. If your cat died, it was a shaving your eyebrows affair.
But on a much more practical level, cats were domesticated because they kept vermin under control – rats, mice, even cobras. And for this reason too, they were sought after and revered.
The ultimate zen masters
Cats are some of the greatest Buddhist teachers around. They eat when they’re hungry and sleep when they’re tired: a radical way of life that many of us humans have yet to grasp. They can hold a single point of focus for an extended period of time, seemingly in some sort of trance. A cat’s purr, like chanting, has a deeply calming effect, which might explain why cats purr when they’re stressed, as well as when they’re happy.
Cats live in utterly in the moment, always aware of what’s going on around them – even while napping. More importantly, they have zero ego. They may know where they want to go, but they’re rarely in a rush to get there. I admire the way my cats are willing to suspend their disbelief when confronted with a laser pointer. They see it in my hand, they know where it comes from – but hell, they will chase after it anyway.
Simply being around cats (and other cute animals) can make us more productive and positive.
Meditating with cats
In light of all this, it comes as no surprise that meditating with cats offers some pretty unique benefits. Practising mindfulness meditation in the presence of cats is instantly calming, whether they sit beside you and purr or simply perch nearby. They sense the shift in energy and will often react by staying close.
If you meditate while a cat is sitting on you, you’ll sometimes find that your breathing becomes unconsciously synchronised, also known as a meditative coherence state. It seems there’s a good reason that stress symptoms tend to be lowest in cat owners, compared to dog owners or people without pets.
The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle famously said: “I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats”. Likewise, the French critic and historian Hippolyte Taine said “I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior”. If the last several millennia are to be believed, there may be more to our cute and incomprehensible companions than meets the eye.