It’s a common myth that a cat has nine lives (although in some cultures it only has seven). However, no one has come up with a definitive explanation of how this myth started. There are many stories and legends about how this saying came about, mostly citing ancient beliefs and superstitions.
One tells of an old Irish legend that witches can bedevil humans by transforming into cats then back into people for eight times. On the ninth time, on August 17 (considered a yowly time for cats), they cannot transform back into people. A book called “Beware the Cat” written by William Baldwin (also known as G.B.) in 1854 has a line that says “It is permitted for a witch to take her cat’s body nine times”.
Another source that’s often brought up is Egyptian mythology. The sun god Ra, in the form of the evening sun god Atum-Ra would visit the underworld as a cat (although he is also depicted as a serpent, mongoose, lion bull, lizard or ape). Atum-Ra gave rise to nine gods referred to as the Ennead (The Nine), including Shu and Tefnut, their children Geb and Nut and their children Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has Mercutio telling Tybalt, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.” An ancient proverb says, “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays”.
Still another tale tells of a hungry and selfish cat that ate nine fish cooked for nine starving children. The children died of hunger and the cat from overeating. God punished the cat by throwing it out of heaven and letting it fall back to earth for nine days. For its selfishness, the cat must die nine times before becoming permanently dead.
Most people, however, agree that the saying “A cat has nine lives” is due to its ability to land on its feet after falling from great heights and surviving in situations that would kill other animals. The “nine” (the trinity of trinities) part of the saying may be attributed to the mystical qualities associated with the number in many western and asian cultures. Experiments have been conducted to validate the cat’s resiliency and its capacity to survive falls. In 1894 a French physiologist demonstrated that a cat twists as it falls maneuvering its head, back, legs and tail so it lands on its feet and lessens the impact of the fall. Cats also possess a natural healing mechanism associated with its purring. In 1987, the Journal of the American Veterinary Association carried an article about cats falling from high rise apartments, suffering severe injuries and surviving. This has given rise to another adage among veterinarians that “If you put a cat and a bunch of broken bones in the same room, the bones will heal.”
Whoever first said that the cat has nine lives must have been so impressed with the feline’s abilities for survival that his or her observation has survived through the centuries.
About the author:
Mel is an animal lover and travel writer. For him the ideal way to combine work with travel and also keep the company of animals is by house sitting in different parts of the country for people with pets. His favorite house sitting site is http://mindahome.com