I have often wondered why do we say cats have nine lives? Particularly when they clearly have one like the rest of us. But the saying was recently raised in my thinking while listening to an introduction to his music by Michael Cretu from Enigma. He was talking about his album Seven Lives Many Faces and why he used the number seven. He commented, as an example, that cats have seven lives. My first reaction was ‘that’s not right! Cats have nine lives’. I started looking into it. This is what I found.
Why Do We Say Cats Have Nine Lives?
One of my favourite cat jokes is a cat appearing at the pearly gates with a punch card with the numbers 1 to 9, several of which have a hole punched through them. He hands the card to St Peter who punches a hole in the next number and hands it back to the cat who goes on his way.
Some of the speculation about the origins of the saying relates to the Egyptians. We know that cats were worshipped as gods in ancient Egypt. The sun god Ra always appeared as a cat but he gave rise to eight other gods so actually represented nine beings/lives. So that is one theory.
It is not hard to imagine a cat being worshipped as a god. Stevie Mouse would love it!
Fast forward a long time and William Shakespeare used the expression ‘nine lives’ in his play Romeo and Juliet as follows:
“Tybalt: What wouldst thou have with me?
Mercutio: Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.“
So by the time Shakespeare was doing his thing the saying was in common use. Staying with England for the moment, there is also an old English proverb that states:
“A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays”.
But Why Nine Lives?
The story about Ra makes some sense in terms of why ‘nine lives; became associated with a cat. But the number nine was also considered to be a magical number in ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Greek belief systems. Nine is a lucky number in Chinese culture. In both Christianity and Hinduism, the number nine symbolizes spiritual/divine completeness. So the number ‘nine’ is quite significant.
But This Is Interesting
In parts of Spain, Germany, Brazil and a few other places, however, it is believed that cats have seven lives. This explains the comment by Michael Cretu I mentioned at the beginning of the blog as he is Romanian-German. Actually, to add another twist, Turkish and Arabic legends say cats have six lives. Confused? Well. I have heard Italians say that cats have seven lives or nine lives depending upon whom you speak to. But then in Italy a black cat is considered unlucky!
So, why do we say cats have nine lives? Well it is as clear as mud frankly. But personally, I rather like the Egyptian theory. Does it matter? No, not a bit. But it was fun trying to find out.
Before you go
My name is Dorothy Berry-Lound an artist and writer. You can find out more about my art and writing at https://dorothyberryloundart.com.
Thank you for reading!