Cats are said to have nine lives, an idiom used to describe someone that has cheated death, and common enough English that it was referenced in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio threatens Tybalt saying: “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives”. One possible answer to the origin of this saying is the Celtic legend of the Cat Sith (Irish: Cat Sidhe), a large black cat who can be identified by the singular white patch on its abdomen. The cats were feared, with legends saying that if a Cat Sith walked over a corpse before the burial, it could steal the soul, and rituals to distract the Cat Sith sprung up as a result of this belief. Houses that were awaiting burials would spread catnip in all the rooms except the one that housed the body and would not light a fire to prevent the Cat Sith being drawn to its warmth. Some stories told that the Cat Sith were really witches that possessed the ability to transform into cats. The catch was that they could only perform this feat 8 times; if they transformed a ninth time, they would remain a cat forever. One issue with this theory is that it hinges on the number nine, and while the notion of cats having multiple lives is cross-cultural, the number of lives they are allotted isn’t. Cats in Spain are said to have 7 lives, while those in Turkey and in Arabic myths only get 6.
In ancient Egypt, we find a culture that revered the humble domestic cat and worshiped it in the form of the goddess Bast. Cats were important to the functioning of Egyptian society because they kept the food stores free from rats and mice, which was imperative in a country that had a relatively short agricultural growing season. Cats also actively hunted the poisonous snakes that populated the country, animals who were often associated with evil. In the mythology of the Book of the Dead* we find a connection between cats and resurrection in the journey of the sun god Ra. Each night Ra must enter the underworld as the setting sun and do battle with the evil Apophis, and it is only after he defeats Apophis each night that he can rise again in the morning. In the depictions found on the walls of the pharaohs tombs to guide them through the underworld, Apophis is always depicted as a giant serpent, so it followed that Ra would often take the form of a giant cat to win his nightly battles and be reborn again in the morning. Again, there are issues with this theory, while we can see a definite connection between cats and resurrection, the cat’s lives would have to be infinite in this case. If the number of times a cat could live were finite, Apophis would eventually win, the sun would not rise, and we would all be doomed.
*[Properly the Amduat, literally “That Which is in the Afterworld” a.k.a. “Text of the Hidden Chamber Which is in the Underworld” or “Book of What is in the Underworld”. Beach reading.]
[Egyptian mythology is replete with Cat Goddesses, many associated with Ra (Sekhmet and Bastet come to mind)].
It is possible that the phrase is related to another cat saying, that they ‘always land on their feet’. This refers to a cat’s uncanny ability to stick landings most other creatures can’t. There is a basic physical explanation for this phenomenon (which is technically called a ‘righting’ ability), which is due to their incredibly flexible backbones and absence of collar bones. This oft-observed skill may have started permeating the mythology of cats, with the exact number of lives being determined by local number symbolism.
Whatever the origin of the myth, if cats need more lives to keep the sun rising, they’ve got our vote!