Let Us Praise and Honor Cats

They are wondrous in many ways.

Nothing’s as startling as a magnificent black longhair cat flying into your kitchen with claws stabbing down like an angel’s switchblades, twelve pounds of murderous grace pouncing on a piece of lettuce before losing interest in an instant and retreating to a corner to solemnly lick her anus. What the-?! It scrambles the brains to see so much life unfold so fast. This most ordinary of scenes—person standing at counter, listening to podcast, chopping leafy greens—has been injected with a dose of chaos. At once there is drama, then comedy, then a befuddled tenderness as the tiny predator stares up at you with her weird glowing yellow eyes. 

Art by Ellen Burch

You might, at this point, pick up the cat. Perhaps you hold her in the crook of your arm, tight against your chest with her chin tucked just over your shoulder. Probably the cat fidgets and wants to switch sides. Once she settles in, though, the vibration in her small chest cavity echoes in yours, and your skull feels full of warm pudding. If you scratch her brow and she closes her eyes, tucking back her whiskers and ears, her head might look as if it belonged to a befurred Baby Yoda. “How are you even real?,” you might ask. If you said nothing, the cat would keep vibing all the same.

Would it be so strange if a thought then crossed your mind: “Precious cat, holy cat, I am holding a tiny god?” Well, yes. That’s not the kind of thing most people would admit to thinking. It wouldn’t sound much saner if it were followed by a second thought: “no no, not that kind of god, just in the sense that cats embody sacred vibes. More like a forest sprite than Jehovah.” Ahhh. Hmmm. Right. Sensible people get antsy when vibes and animal worship enter the conversation. And yet…

Cats are keepers of sacred vibes and it’s good to revere them like gods. The idea is a bit jarring, to be sure. But if you don’t reject it out of reflex, it becomes an intoxicating thing to ponder. Something about the words feels right when you whisper them inside your skull. The definition of “sacred vibes” may be hazy for now (in time, in time), but, like a blindfolded monk touching an elephant’s tail, you can tell there’s something here. You keep your curiosity to yourself, of course, at least if you have any sense. Developing an interest in sacred cat vibes might not be as bad as developing an interest in QAnon. Still, it probably won’t improve others’ opinion of your mental stability. Mention your new beliefs to a friend and the best-case scenario is they make a joke about the brainworms thing being true. If you reply that cats do not really have mind control powers, or try to explain that while the Toxoplasma gondii parasite does make mice less afraid of cats and thus easier to hunt, in humans the main effect is actually beneficial—Czech and Turkish scientists have suggested the cysts caused by toxoplasmosis reduce people’s levels of fear by pressuring structures in the brain to release more dopamine, like how squeezing a lime tighter yields more juice—your friend is unlikely to be convinced and may stop answering your calls altogether. 

Even fellow cat fanciers can be slow to embrace the notion that cats are sacred beings [1]. While plenty of people are happy to joke about being a “crazy cat lady” on Instagram, such a mantle tends to be claimed in the same spirit that suburban Stepford moms bemoan “anarchy” whenever the toddler spills Spaghetti-Os. Of course it is nice to provide many toys for a cat. But the real archetype of the over-enthusiastic ailurophile, depicted in all her mad and shabby ignominy by cultural lodestars like The Simpsons and A Clockwork Orange, is much less flattering. 

Cherishing cats with too much zeal has carried a social stigma for hundreds of years. L.A. Vocelle’s book Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat (2016) features newspaper clippings from 19th century London concerning a Countess de la Torre who became notorious for her love of cats [2]. The Countess, who’d helped bankroll the great socialist general Giuseppe Garibaldi’s campaign to liberate Italy from the Papists, spent the remnants of her fortune taking care of 21 cats in a sort of proto-shelter. For this she was subjected to fines from the government and hostility from her neighbors, who frequently poisoned the cats. The Countess’ devotion to the animals was considered depraved, unclean. In 1885 the Pall Mall Gazette—a late Victorian Pompous Douchebag Daily that had a brief run as a paper of conscience—sent a correspondent to interview the Countess for a Freak of the Week-type profile. Here is how the original “crazy cat lady” was described:

She is apparently about forty-five years old, with a pale, intellectual face, furrowed by much trouble, a broad high forehead from which her dark grey hair is brushed away. … A grey knitted shawl was fastened around her neck and fell to her waist, where it was joined by a well-worn cotton dress.

Chances are you’ve never seen a photograph of the Countess, but you can probably picture that drab visage quite clearly. The Pall Mall Gazette’s correspondent did go on to paint a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the Countess’ fondness for cats—despite the neighbors’ claims that the animals posed a public health hazard, the correspondent “did not detect anything unusual [outside the house], however one might regard the Countess as a next-door neighbor, it is ridiculous to say that her establishment is a nuisance to the whole square.” But the final words of the Countess’ profile make it clear that her affection was deemed, at best, tragically misguided: “Some day [the cats] may devour the Countess. There may be no gratitude either in man or beast. It would be a sublime ending.” 

However, cats may be sublime in other ways besides eating our dead bodies [3]. Their presence affords us “contact with the abnormal,” as Victor Hugo wrote in the preface to his play Cromwell. The sheer unpredictability of a cat’s behavior—the startling meows and yowls, the fantastical leaps of their play, the impossible shapes in which they contort their bodies to sleep or bathe—jars us into awareness. A cat can evoke both the grotesque and the beautiful in a single stretch of his limbs. Each day, a human who lives with a cat experiences a hundred little disruptions to their ordinary routine, and it’s in these moments that we get a glimpse of “something purer, grander” than the world of work and bills and household chores. Sometimes the contrast is created by an all-four-paws jump, other times by an incongruous poop. This is part of the bargain. “We need a little rest from everything, even the beautiful,” said Hugo, and cats are most accommodating in this regard.

What It Means to Revere a Cat Like a God

Cats are keepers of sacred vibes and it’s good to revere them like gods. The longer the idea ripens in your mind, the more ambrosial it becomes. It’s a bit absurd of course. But—and perhaps this thought just now occured to you for the first time in a long while—why is absurdity a thing to be shunned? Why should it be considered the same as “badness” or “wrongness”? Why? Why?! Think of the people you know. Do those who demand constant realism seem happier to you? Are they the ones whose company you enjoy most? Embracing the idea that cats are holy may offer you new ways to be delighted and surprised by life. Rejecting the idea gets you… what, exactly?

It’s reasonable to ask what revering cats like gods might require in practice. Most people have a vague awareness that cats have been worshipped in various ways throughout history. The ancient Egyptians, in particular, were renowned for the cat-idolizing cult of the goddess Bast (who was later merged with the better-known Isis, a deity often depicted with a retinue of black cats). But this did not always work out well for cats. The terrifying cat necropolis of Beni Hasan, for example, was stuffed with 80,000 mummified felines buried as far back as 2000 BCE. In 1888 CE, the crypts were exhumed in a frenzied search for treasure. Revered and Reviled recounts the testimony of an English baron who witnessed the event: “The path became strewn with mummy cloth and bits of cats’ skulls and bones and fur in horrid positions, and the wind blew the fragments about and carried the stink afar.” In the end, 20 tons of cat-mummies were dug up, shipped to England, and sold as fertilizer. It would be better for both cats and humans if that wasn’t repeated.

If the type of contemporary cat reverence currently under consideration has little in common with the temples and sacrifices of ancient times, so too does it differ from the “cats as magic beings” model developed during the Middle Ages. In fact, the latter idea existed more in the fantasies of sexually repressed religious authorities than in the hearts of genuine believers. The 12th century Welsh writer and clergyman Walter Map gave a fine example of this in De nurgis curialium (Trifles of courtiers) when he described a ceremony of the heretical French Cathars, who were accused of worshipping cats:

[The] groups sit waiting in silence… and a black cat of marvelous size climbs down a rope which hangs in their midst. On seeing it, they put out the lights. They do not sing hymns… but hum through clenched teeth and pantingly feel their way toward the place where they saw their lord. When they have found him they kiss him, each the more humbly as he is the more inflamed with frenzy—some the feet, more under the tail, most the private parts.

There is, hopefully, no need for a explanation of how cats can be revered without performing oral sex on them. Nor is there space here to unpack how the association of cat reverence with witchcraft and lurid conspiracies was part of a patriarchal Church-state crusade to stamp out competing ideologies (especially pagan and/or feminine ones whose vision of power relations threatened feudal hierarchies). Fortunately, you don’t need to remember anything in particular about past conceptions of cat reverence. It would actually be better if you forgot it all and started fresh.

Cats are keepers of sacred vibes and it’s good to revere them like gods. To arrive at this ecstatic truth—to let it enrich your life in countless ways—all you have to do is observe a cat. “Observing” something is different from “watching” or “looking at” it. You can watch a cat play with a used Q-tip and feel little more than a sense of mild amusement. When you observe the cat’s play, though, and let yourself be absorbed fully by each leap and swat, you might be surprised by where your mind goes. To revere a cat like a god simply means to give great attention to her ways and marvel at the wisdom that is revealed.

Deep contemplation of cats is a sure path to revering them, and this sentiment can be expressed in divers ways. There is no need for mummification or any bestial rites. An extra spoonful of tuna, a gentle rub of the belly, or a paper bag left unattended on the floor can all make a fine homage to a cat. Conversely, it’s possible that all of those things would be displeasing to a different cat. There can be no real prescriptive guidelines for reverence of this cat or that cat. No such guidelines are needed, though, since you can determine what a cat will appreciate just by paying close attention to the little creature.

While observing the daily life of a cat can give clues as to the unique ways she may be revered, it also has a more important function of clarifying why the cat should be revered. In other words, observation reveals the sacred vibes embodied by the cat. These are five in number, and they are:

  1. Cultivating a deep connection to one’s place—a cat is constantly strengthening his bonds to his home
  2. Balancing one’s needs with the needs of others—a cat will compromise, but only to a point
  3. Making wise discernments—a cat recalls the situations when she can safely relax, and when she must be vigilant
  4. Drinking in the world—a cat seeks to imbibe every aspect of his surroundings
  5. Giving and accepting love without craving—a cat shows love to others when she is moved to do so (and only then), and receives the love of others when it feels good to do so (and only then)

The Five Sacred Vibes of the Cat

In Nikola Tesla’s 1939 memoir A Story of Youth Told By Age, the Serbian-American inventor recounted how an encounter with his boyhood cat Macak inspired his insights into the nature of electricity. “In the dusk of the evening, as I stroked Macak’s back,” wrote Tesla, “I saw a miracle that left me speechless with amazement. Macak’s back was a sheet of light and my hand produced a shower of sparks loud enough to be heard all over the house.” His father said there was in fact nothing miraculous about this small-scale demonstration of electrical currents, but Tesla’s curiosity could not be extinguished. “Is nature a gigantic cat?,” he wondered. “If so, who strokes its back?” Amusing as this anecdote may be, meditating on the sacred vibes of cats doesn’t require any particular interest in the metaphysical, nor does it necessitate anthropomorphization. All it takes is curiosity about what’s going on around you.

Consider the first sacred vibe of cats: cultivating a deep connection to one’s place. As anthrozoologist John Bradshaw explains in Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet (2013), cats are constantly marking and re-marking their territory through a series of scents, even when they have no existential need to monopolize food or mating opportunities. Their brains just produce less of certain stress hormones when the environment “smells like home.” It can be amusing to spot a cat making her daily rounds, rubbing her cheeks against every piece of furniture in the room and turning around for a quick shake of her upright tail before heading onto the next object. To a human in a hurry this may seem like a primitive, senseless ritual. But a careful observer sees the cat’s actions in a different light: she is patiently doing the work needed to be grounded in her physical surroundings, tending with attention each day to her garden of soothing smells.

This brings us to the second sacred vibe of cats, which is balancing one’s own needs with the needs of others. Bradshaw notes that humans’ domestication of cats is both relatively recent—the fossil record suggests the process began around 10,000 years ago, compared to at least 20,000 years ago for dogs—and surprisingly incomplete. Because cats’ “work” of catching mice has always been done independently of people, we have never been able to shape feline behavior in the same ways as other domesticated animals like horses, cows, or pigs. Our partnership with cats has been limited and dependent on mutual convenience. If a human had a large store of grain which attracted rodents, a cat might’ve been willing to take advantage of the concentrated prey on a more or less full-time basis. If the human provided a dish of cream, some soft places to sleep, and a warm lap, some cats might’ve accepted the offer of companionship as well. But the relationship lasts only as long as the conditions that supported its creation. If a kitten finds your attempt to rub his belly amusing, he will happily wrestle with your hand. When the game ceases to be fun for him, he will squinch himself into an upside-down U with a question mark tail and spring into the air. Enough! It’s fine to indulge others, but not at the cost of one’s own sanity.

The third sacred vibe of cats is the making of wise discernments. While humans have a tendency to agonize over hypotheticals, cats take a more direct route when making decisions. Bradshaw puts it thusly: “Often, we find that cats can solve what appear to be difficult problems by applying much simpler learning processes.” Vacuuming a home where a cat is present can provide a clear illustration of this. The first time a cat encounters the noise of a vacuum, she may be seized by a terrible panic. Such cacophony must surely signal the end of all things. Fifty vacuumings later, the cat will simply retreat to higher ground and wait for you to turn off the machine. She has learned how much fear is warranted by the scenario and how long her alertness must be maintained. She remembers what is necessary to make life pleasant, or at least bearable during its more aggravating bits, and does not exhaust herself with pointless analysis.

What of the fourth sacred vibe of cats: drinking in the world? This may be one of the most endearing cat behaviors to witness—particularly in the form of the flehmen response, which cat behaviorist Dr. Sarah Brown describes in her book The Cat: A Natural History (2020). You can observe the flehmen (German for “to bare the upper teeth”) response when you hold your finger just above a cat’s nose. Pay close attention to his top lip as he inspects you. He is imbibing your essence, so to speak, through his Jacobson’s organ. Located in the roof of the cat’s mouth, this is a secondary olfactory organ not attuned to the smells of food or prey, but musks of a social nature: whiffs of kindness, age, fear, and so on. A cat who encounters an intriguing person, animal, or object “will open its mouth slightly… and ‘lap’ its tongue over the scent to send it toward the opening of the Jacobson’s organ,” in the words of Brown. To witness a cat’s flehmen response is to be reminded of all the meaningful things we cannot see, hear, or touch—but can still somehow sense, if we are alert.

The fifth and final sacred vibe of cats is giving and accepting love without craving. In The Cat: A Natural History, Brown lists the many ways that cats show affection to both humans and other animals. Whether it’s a gentle head butt (“bunting”) or a soothing tongue-bath (“allogrooming”), cats learn which forms of affection are most appreciated by their companion [4]. They don’t belabor the point, though. When a cat decides to show care for her human, she may thonk her skull against the person’s shin with great zest. But once the task is done she continues about her day. She has other roles in life to play aside from “giver of love.” Likewise, when a cat accepts care from another, she does so without clinging to that display of kindness. She may ask for it by purring: as Bradshaw explains in Cat Sense, a cat often rumbles “not to show that it is contented, but instead to prolong the circumstances that are making it so,” or perhaps to bring about those circumstances. Purring—the most obvious manifestation of a cat’s sacred vibes—”seems to convey a general request: ‘Please settle down next to me.’ [5]” A human may acquiesce and pet the cat’s fuzzy belly, which may be pleasing to the cat. But even the most exuberant display of love, on its own, cannot make the recipient content forever. At some point the cat will get up and go away to pursue her other needs. 

Cats are keepers of sacred vibes and it’s good to revere them like gods. Repeated often enough, these words begin to sound less like a lunatic mantra and more like the promise of a marvelous surprise. It’s often said that ours is a soulless era, and there’s some truth to that. But perhaps the answer to our existential angst isn’t to be found in a revival of the old spiritualisms. What if it were found in the form of a cat? What if we cast aside our fears of social stigma and paid attention to how we feel when a tiny paw is placed on our wrist? Why should we be ashamed to take delight in our fellow living beings and all they have to teach us? The cat is a wondrous creature—she chooses of her own free will to dwell with us, and in all the cat’s deeds she reminds us to be alive and awake. How fortunate we are! How blessed is life with a cat!

[1] Here, the term “cat fanciers” is used in the vernacular, referring to anyone with a fondness for cats. No association is intended with the 110-year old Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, the United Kingdom’s premier pedigreed cat registry.
[2]  Vocelle’s Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat is, admittedly, a somewhat amateurish book. A talented editor would’ve done wonders for the prose and perhaps tempered the author’s oddly cavalier mentions of famous historical cats whose names involved the N-word (egads, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Scott). Still, the book contains a fascinating collection of cat-related cultural artifacts from throughout recorded history.
[3]  The legend that ungrateful cats will feast on the flesh of their deceased caregivers acquired a veneer of scientificity when a 2020 study from the Forensic Investigation Research Station at Colorado Mesa University produced footage of two feral cats eating human corpses. The study’s authors were quick to clarify that such cases were unusual. As they said, “[There’s] no reason for people to panic about an epidemic of pets eating people. And the other thing that’s important to recognize is that just because animals will eat part of a corpse does not mean that they will eat you when you’re alive.”
[4] Humans’ poor sense of smell means we miss many of the other messages cats are trying to send us. It must be frustrating for a cat to give her human detailed olfactory hints about her mood each day and never get a response.
[5]  The “healing powers” of a cat’s purr are a matter of debate but may be significant. In 2001, bioacoustician Elizabeth von Muggenthaler published a study that found cats produce strong purrs at frequencies of 25, 50, and 100 Hz. These frequencies are often used in therapy to promote bone growth, the healing of wounds, and pain relief (among other things). In 2009 another study in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology found that people who lived with cats had much lower risks of cardiovascular disease. Sadly the study did not specify if or how purrs might be responsible for this. The authors did note that living with a dog provided no similar benefits.

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