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Ever Wondered Why Cats Are Said To Have Nine Lives?

By: Justine Hankins

April 2003

Or how they always seem to land on their feet after a fall?

The proverbial curiosity doesn't usually kill cats. The inquisitive feline has a knack of dodging death by a whisker. Cats are intrepid explorers and fearless acrobats. After all, a creature with nine lives can afford to take risks. According to Brewer's Dictionary Of Phrase & Fable, a cat is said to have nine lives because it is "more tenacious of life than many animals."

The clumsy biped is understandably impressed by the feline arts of stealth, poise and athletic prowess. But why nine? Nine, a trinity of trinities, is a mystical number often invoked in religion and folklore. The cat was once revered in Egypt, and this is probably where its nine lives began. The priesthood in On - known to the Greeks as Heliopolis and now a suburb of Cairo - worshipped Atum-Ra, a sun god who gave life to the gods of air, moisture, earth and sky, who, in turn, produced Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. These gods are collectively known as the Ennead, or the Nine. Atum-Ra, who took the form of a cat for visits to the underworld, embodied nine lives in one creator. A hymn from the fourth century BC says, "O sacred cat! Your mouth is the mouth of the god Atum, the lord of life who has saved you from all taint."

Vestiges of this ancient, cat-worshipping religion lingered in Europe until at least the middle ages. The cat was no longer divine but was still regarded as magical and otherworldly. The ailuromorphic gods are long forgotten, but the cat's resilience still inspires fascination, which is why the myth of the cat's nine lives has endured for so long.

Medieval Europe was a tough place to be a cat, and they were sometimes thrown from high towers. The origin of these rituals is obscure but the cats often survived the ordeal and seemed to walk away unscathed, much to the amazement of spectators.

Legend has it that Baldwin III, Count of Ypres, threw some cats from a tower in AD962. The Belgian town still marks the event with an annual cat festival. A procession celebrates cat history and cats are thrown from the 70-metre Cloth Hall tower. But there is no need to write to your MEP, only toy cats are used these days. Live cats were used until 1817, when the keeper of the town recorded that, "in spite of the height of the fall, the animal ran off quickly so that it might never be caught again in a similar ceremony."

The miracles of the middle ages became the science of the 19th century, when the cat's remarkable ability to survive a fall was finally explained. In 1894, the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey held a cat upside down by its legs and dropped it. The resultant film, captured by a camera that took 60 images a second, demonstrates how a cat lands on its feet. As the cat falls, an automatic twisting reaction begins and the cat manoeuvres its head, back, legs and tail to lessen the impact. Cats, it seems, have an instinct for physics. Install your own CCTV cameras to see how your cats jump around all over the house!

Don't try this at home, though. Cats aren't all that tough; they don't always land the right way up, which is why your average pussy cat jumping from the garden fence will occasionally come home limping, bruised or fractured because of a badly timed fall. Still, studies on cats falling from skyscrapers suggest that up to 90% survive, albeit with broken bones and sore paws. The distance is crucial. Too much and the cat will splat, just as we non-feline mortals would. Too little and the cat doesn't have time to correct itself. There is much to admire in the cat's grace and agility. But don't forget to close the upstairs window, just in case.

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