Q: How and when did someone ever come up with the notion that “a cat has nine lives”?
A: Among my dozens of cat T-shirts is one that has a golden puss on a pedestal with a message that starts: “The Ancient Egyptians Worshipped Cats as Gods.”
Then, thinking of every cat’s supposed finickiness, it adds snidely, “Cats Have Never Forgotten This.”
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Therein, say some historians, lies the answer to your question. They say the Egyptians revered the number nine because they associated it with their sun god, Atum-Ra. According to one version, Ra gave birth to eight other gods. Since Ra often took the form of a cat, people began associating the nine lives (Ra plus eight) with feline longevity, and it has persisted ever since.
Whether you believe this theory is up to you, but other cultures have credited cats with having multiple lives, too. In China, for example, it’s also nine, supposedly because the number is so well divided — the trinity of trinities — that it’s considered lucky. Others, however, are less generous. Italy, Germany, Greece, Brazil and some Spanish-speaking regions apparently grant them seven while according to Turkish and Arabic traditions, it’s reportedly six.
In English lore, though, it has been nine for centuries. In fact, if you know your Shakespeare, you may remember when Mercutio becomes irked just after the opening of Act 3 in “Romeo and Juliet,” which was written about 1595.
“Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you go fight me?” he challenges.
“What do you want from me?” Tybalt inquires.
“Good King of Cats,” Mercutio responds, “I want to take one of your nine lives, and, depending on how you treat me after that, I might beat the other eight out of you, too.”
But gods aside, there’s a more universal and down-to-earth logic behind how the multiple-lives idea came to be. If you know anything about cats, you’ve probably heard that when they fall, they usually land on their feet. In scientific terms, they have what is called a “righting reflex” — the ability to twist around quickly in mid-air if they fall or are dropped from a high place.
People undoubtedly noticed that they survived situations that would have killed or severely injured other animals. Because of this uncanny ability to walk away from disaster, the English came up with the proverb “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.” In other words, its hardy nature allows it to survive to a ripe old age lying in the sun after its early years of chasing mice and roaming.