The Meaning Behind Cats And Nine Lives Explained

All it takes is one look into a cat’s eyes to know that it’s a magical creature, though it’s hard to say whether those supernatural abilities are being used for good or evil. Over the centuries, quite a number of myths related to a purring feline‘s mesmerizing abilities have circulated through their human slaves, from speculation regarding the way that cats almost always land on their feet to the belief that they can see in total darkness, like that Riddick guy.

What about this whole nine lives business, though? While you’ve probably figured out that your cat doesn’t legitimately get nine chances to be daring before the timer runs out, it’s intriguing to ponder where this old tale might’ve started in the first place.

Purrfect magic

Even though it’s unlikely that people ever truly believed that cats got multiple swings at the ol’ bat of life, this myth has persisted for countless centuries, across many cultures, according to TheGuardian. Shakespeare even referenced this feline semi-immortality in Romeo and Juliet, so you know these stories have been around for a long time. Now, the most likely reason that so many cultures have spoken of cats as superpowered animals, in this regard, is the fact that these creatures have some crazy survival abilities. As Pet Central explains, felines possess lightning fast reflexes, high intelligence capabilities, and flexible bones and ligaments that aid them in maneuvering about a dangerous world. If you’ve ever seen some of the situations they come away from unscathed, especially when it comes to falling great distances, it’s not hard to imagine why people might chalk this up (whether seriously or not) to them having multiple lives to run through. Makes sense, right?

As for the U.S. “belief” in nine lives, it may be the outgrowth of an alleged (though unsourced) English proverb, as described by the Belleville News Democrat, which goes: “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.” Which, when you look at it that way, could just as easily apply to humans, dogs, or any other animal. But hey, it fits especially well with cats, right?

Not every cat gets “nine” lives. Some only get six.

The number nine has often been regarded with magical importance, particularly when it comes to Norse mythology. That said, while cultures all across the world have told stories about cats surviving great falls due to their multiple lives, the connection between this and the number nine, specifically, is not ubiquitous. 

For instance, PetPlan claims that within Turkish and Arabic cultures, cats have been said to only have six chances to kick the bucket … which sounds meager, until you remember that you only have one. The felines of Spain, Italy, Greece, and Germany, on the other hand, are said to aim for the middle ground, according to WNYC, by possessing seven lives.

A lot of wacky cat beliefs have circulated over the years

Now, to be clear, while semi-immortality is the superpower most widely attributed to felines, it’s not the only one these furry creatures have claimed. Over the centuries of human history, cats have been both worshiped and feared for their magical might, as Mental Floss documents. For instance, during those superstitious Middle Ages where people believed in dragons, some also considered cats to be demonic creatures that carried souls down to Hell. Oooh, creepy. Others accused them of being responsible for the plague, and later, there was an English belief that cats could suck away a baby’s life force. 

The Japanese, meanwhile, generally considered cats to be lucky creatures (with some caveats). In Egypt, according to The Vintage News, cats were deemed sacred, and only Pharaohs were allowed to have them as pets. Killing one of these godly creatures, even by mistake, would lead to a person’s execution. 

Nine lives of popular culture

That said, among all the various myths, legends, and superstitions surrounding cats, the old “nine lives” trick is the one that seems to appear in popular culture the most, and not just in corny dad jokes. For instance, in the 1992 film Batman Returns, the iconic DC antihero Catwoman is portrayed as surviving eight near-death experiences over the course of the film, implying that she either scored nine lives from her initial cat resurrection, or is just insanely lucky.

Later, Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld played with this trope in the 2016 comedy flick Nine Lives. It was also referenced in the graphic novel Garfield: His Nine Lives, and yes, there is a longstanding pet food brand called 9Lives, which has been producing kitty chow since 1959. Anyhow, the point is, anywhere cats are referenced, a shout out to their multiple lives will follow soon afterward. It’s like magic. Kinda.

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