Q&A: Why do cats have nine lives?

Why do cats have nine lives?
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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's cats and curiosity…

Q: Hi AWC, why do cats have nine lives?

A: Well, you do realise they don’t ACTUALLY have nine lives.

Q: Yes yes, but then WHY do we say that they do?

A: Good question.

Q: I thought so.

A: First up, this belief goes back thousands of years – with ancient Egyptians big fans of the number nine as it related to their sun god, Atum-Ra.

Q: Why nine?

A: First up, they believed that Atum-Ra took the form of a cat while on day-trips to the underworld. They also believed that he birthed eight other gods. Some simple maths led them to the number nine.

Q: Hmmm one god, with lots of gods underneath. Sounds like an Egyptian pyramid scheme to me.

A: Haha, cute. Anyway, the Egyptians believed that cats had supernatural powers, so this honorary longevity of “nine lives” probably made a lot of sense.

Q: Hey, what type of money did explorers find in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs?

A: Ummm…

Q: Cryptocurrency!

A: Oh dear. 

Q: So Egyptian beliefs are the answer then? Easy.

A: Well, we’re in de-Nile about that as many actually believe the nine lives thing started in China.

Q: Wait, are you China make this more difficult?

A: Not at all. You see, in the Chinese language, the number nine sounds similar to “long lasting”. This is similar to how “four” is often considered unlucky as it sounds like “death”, while “eight” sounds like “to prosper”. You get the gist.

Q: Gist has been got. So both the Egyptians and Chinese seem to have a case.

A: Nine is a pretty big deal in many other religions too – where much importance is placed on what Greeks call “the trinity of trinities”.

Q: Ah, 3×3, got it. Nice. 

A: Although cats don’t have it quite as good in many Spanish-speaking cultures – they attribute just seven lives to them there. Meanwhile, Turkish and Middle East legends say they have six.

Q: But “nine” seems to have persisted into Western culture, right?

A: That’s right. The proverb first shows up in English in the 1500s, even getting a shout out during Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio says to Tybalt, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”

Q: Juliet had two lives. Romeo, just the one.

A: Haha, true. And they both used them up.

Q: All this talk of cats having so many lives. And yet a cat can be killed quite easily by “curiosity”, right?

A: Very nice! You refer of course to the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat”. It didn’t debut until the late 1800s, possibly brought to America by Irish immigrants and meaning what it still does today – that too much enquiring might land you in trouble. 

Q: Is that a threat? I mean, I know I ask a lot of questions…

A: Not at all. By the way, the phrase was likely derived from a much earlier saying, “care killed the cat”, from a 1598 play that Shakespeare himself acted in.

Q: Shakespeare?? I’m sure he was no DiCaprio.

A: No, he was a Taurus. Born late April.

Q: Hardy har har. So, are there any other things related to cats and the number nine?

A: It’s unrelated, but there is the late-1600s invention of the “cat-o’-nine-tails”…

Q: Hmmm, is that the result of some unfortunate radiation accident?

A: Nope, that’s the fish-o’-three-eyes. A cat-o’-nine-tails was a rather barbaric weapon.

Q: So it had barbs?

A: Oh, okay, no. Bad choice of words. It had nine pieces of knotted cord attached to a handle. It was used to flog people across the back. It was used by the British Navy as a legitimate form of punishment for almost 200 years.

Q: Ouch. So to recap, cats having nine lives probably came from the ancient Egyptians, although the Chinese and other cultures have also gifted cats with long and multiple lives. Yeah?

A: Correct. Today, the term “a cat has nine lives” is often related to a cat’s uncanny knack for landing on its feet and its general ‘hard to kill’ agility. For example, a cat is on record as surviving a fall from a 32-storey building.

Q: Sure, but what about a 13-storey treehouse?

A: Cats do love trees, so probably that too. Of course, in reality, cats actually get just one life like the rest of us, so don’t test this theory at home. 

Q: And especially not if you live in a high-rise apartment.

A: Exactly.

Q: I’m actually not so sure about cats having just one life. After all, have YOU ever heard a cat say “YOLO”?

A: Let’s paws the discussion right there.

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