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Distributed for Bodleian Library Publishing

Literary Cats

A light-hearted journey through the history of literary cats.
From Puss in Boots to T. S. Eliot’s Jellicles, cats have long inspired an incredible range of fiction, memoir, and poetry. This book celebrates the connections between our favorite feline friends and the literary imagination, diving into ancient myths and fables, much-loved children’s books, classic literature, and contemporary novels.

Featuring famous fictional characters such as Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, Beatrice Potter’s Tom Kitten, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Pluto, Literary Cats explores the role of felines across literary genres. This light-hearted history also uncovers their domestication, early cultural beginnings, and religious associations. The collection also reveals the history of several real-life cats such as Bob, the famous London street cat, as well as cats belonging to authors Ernest Hemingway, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, and more. A section on cats in world literature introduces narrator cats and cat companions from Japan, Eastern Europe, France, Greece, Germany, and Finland, demonstrating their enduring worldwide appeal.

208 pages | 15 halftones | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2022

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

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"Everything you ever wanted to know about cats in books. A wonderful idea, beautifully executed."

Viv Groskop

Table of Contents


Felines of Note
Classic Cats
Poetical Cats
Books for Kittens
Talking Cats
Authors and their Cats
Cats in Fact
Cats in Translation
Further Reading


Cats feature as characters in the very first books that are read to us as children, right through to the timeless literary classics which readers everywhere have known and loved. They accompany some of the most famous human characters in writing of any genre, be it literary fiction, science fiction or poetry. When we look back to the earliest examples of storytelling – the myths and legends that form the foundation of our literary culture today – cats make a regular appearance and are portrayed as rich and entertaining characters. If we pay close attention, we can discover paw prints in the most unexpected of places. Our mission in writing this book has been to make visible the indelible imprint that cats have left on the literary world throughout the centuries.

Across the globe, cats have established themselves firmly in our human world, sharing our homes as beloved pets. But before we delve further into the pages of a multitude of cat stories, we should ask ourselves: where did the shared journey of humans and cats begin, and how did the cat come to be such an integral part of our imagination?

Felines and humans share a turbulent history, their relationship ever-changing. Cats have been both worshipped and persecuted, adored and detested in equal measure. Today, we may recognize them as intriguing animals and adorable pets, but at various stages in the past humans have viewed cats as magical beings, as incarnations of goddesses or the Devil himself. What remains today of these beliefs are stories, myths and legends which still influence our contemporary attitude towards our feline companions.

The origin of the domesticated cat lies on the African continent, more precisely in Egypt. In their usual elegant and discreet fashion, the wild ancestors of the domesticated cat surreptitiously sought out Egyptian villages to hunt mice and other rodents, as well as snakes. People realized how useful and pleasant these animals were and so the wild cats were slowly domesticated and adopted as members of the family. As early as 1950 bce cats started to appear in Egyptian depictions of everyday life. It is here that the cat first emerges as a pet, cherished and enjoyed by all members of the family. By 1450 bce the cat was a popular, if not the most popular, domesticated animal in Egypt. Images of cats started to appear on tomb walls and reliefs, as participants in domestic life. Often, these artistic depictions showed cats sitting under chairs, especially a woman’s chair. This is evidence of the long association between women and cats, a relationship which took a darker turn in medieval times, as we explore later.

As Egyptians became more familiar with their newly domesticated feline companions, they noticed the animals’ extraordinary physical abilities, which far exceed those of humans and can, at times, seem almost supernatural. Their senses are highly developed; cats were believed to be able to predict the weather, earthquakes and even death. Egyptian society therefore assigned the cat a mystical and spiritual depth which ultimately elevated them from their domestic status to something much more complex and intriguing. Egyptians believed that all of nature was suffused with a divine spirit and interpreted the cat’s extraordinary abilities as manifestation of this spirit. This transformation can be seen as the origin of the cat as a literary character – when humans began to weave stories, myths and legends around this creature that shared their homes. The animal began to transcend its existence as a mere pet, evolving into a being of higher order and even an incarnation of certain deities.
The most prominent of those feline deities was Bastet, or Bast, who was regarded as a protector of women, children and the home, forming a strong association with fertility, childbirth and motherhood. Every year, the city of Bubastis hosted a magnificent five-day festival celebrating Bastet. The Greek historian Herodotus gives an account of witnessing these celebrations and claims that 700,000 people attended, which indicates how cherished the goddess was.

As domesticated cats thrived in Egypt, it was unavoidable that this popular animal would travel beyond Egypt’s borders. International trade, especially via ships, allowed the animal to spread to the European continent, initially via Greece, and further afield, spreading through Persia and India to the Far East. In Greece cats made frequent appearances in arts and literature from around 500 bce onwards. The beliefs and characteristics associated with the animal travelled with them, to some extent, and were absorbed into local cultures. Herodotus himself, in his account of the celebrations in Bubastis, points to this amalgamation of beliefs, as he refers to Bastet as the Greek goddess Artemis. Artemis, daughter of Zeus and twin to Apollo, was also connected to fertility and childbirth, as well as the hunt, and was known to turn herself into a cat at times. Artemis later became associated with Hecate, goddess of the night and the underworld. Ovid’s Metamorphoses tell the story of Galinthias, servant to Alcmene, who brought the wrath of Hera, Zeus’ wife, onto herself. Alcmene was due to give birth to Zeus’ son Hercules, but Hera was doing her utmost to prevent the birth. Galinthias intervened and tricked Hera’s helpers, allowing for Hercules to be born. In her anger, Hera transformed Galinthias into a cat (or a weasel in some versions of the story) and Hecate eventually took pity on her and adopted her as a priestess, further emphasizing the cat’s connection with the underworld. The worship of these goddesses also translated into Roman society, finding its equivalent in Diana, who reflected many of the attributes of Bast and Artemis, and other associated deities.

The attributes and associations which were assigned to the cat in ancient times, through religious beliefs and mythology, seem to have had an influence on the cat in folklore in Europe and beyond. As we will see, many of the feline characteristics described above continued to fascinate humans, so much so that their fascination found expression in popular folk tales and fables.

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