You’ve probably heard about cats having nine lives before, which is kind of funky, because it’s not like we can keep track of how many times any given cat has died or whatever. Regardless, we’re pretty sure cats don’t actually live nine times–not entirely sure where that comes from though. Just a hunch. But where did the belief come from; why do we think cats have nine lives?
The myth of cats having multiple lives is most broadly associated with their ability to seemingly escape from life-threatening situations all the time. Either because they are lucky, or just super speedy–as well as their seemingly supernatural righting reflex. But why nine though?
Nine Gods for Nine Lives
Even if you aren’t an anthropologist, you’re probably at least kind of aware that ancient Egyptians found cats to be sacred animals. Who can blame them? Look at us now, we film cats doing things all the time. Future civilizations might also find that we worshiped cute animals too.
Some people point to the Sun God, Ra. Ra is broadly considered to be one of the most (if not the most) important gods in the Egyptian pantheon and is most closely associated with the noon Sun. The Sun itself has multiple aspects, represented by different deities. Another Sun deity is Bastet, who protects Ra in the form of a cat. She’s also often taken as a deity of our feline friends.
Anyway, Bastet is created by Ra and outside of the cat thing, is well known for decapitating Apophis (the serpent god of chaos). Ra created two other gods, named Sekhmet and Hathor. Sekhmet is also often depicted as a cat like her sibling, though Hathor normally isn’t.
Now, Ra’s identity is also often connected to other deities, like Amun–a god of the wind. In Upper and Lower Egypt Amun and Ra were often combined to create Amun-Ra. There are four other deities whose identities merged with Ra’s, leaving five composite gods. Plus the three created by Ra and Ra himself, that makes nine.
That math might have just been done by some people who wanted to turn it into a saying, though. We couldn’t find convincing records of Egyptians counting cat lives up to nine.
One of the most common first-written records of cats having nine lives cited dates back to 1597 with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Here’s a reference in act 3: scene 1 where Mercutio challenges Tybalt to a fight.
“Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives, that I mean to make bold withal, and, as you shall use me hereafter…” ~Romeo and Juliet Act 3: Scene 1.
There’s also William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1561). In it, we find the following passage:
“For witches have gone often in that likeness – and thereof hath come to the proverb, as true as common, that a cat hath nine lives (that is to say, a witch may take on her a cat’s body nine times.”
Now, here’s where things get interesting. In Spanish, cats have seven lives (this is also how it’s translated in the Spanish version of Romeo and Juliet). The same goes for Italy, Germany, Greece, and Brazil. In Turkish and Arabic cultures, cat lives only go up to six. The broad argument is that these were just the culturally significant numbers people latched onto, since while being superstitious about cats isn’t regionally specific, numbers are.
We all like cats, so here are some cats in funny costumes.