The cat has been an object of mystery to many cultures throughout the ages. The ancient Egyptians worshiped the animal, and hundreds if not thousands of cats were accorded the rites of mummification, a complicated funerary practice typically reserved only for the nobility. Cats were held in such high regard in this culture that one could incur the death penalty for killing one of these four-legged citizens. Ancient Egypt was not alone in revering the cat. In many African and South American cultures, big cats, such as the jaguar or the leopard, were viewed with a commingling of fear and awe, and they became mythologized as gods, demons or agents of the spirit world.
In the Middle Ages, cats had become objects of terror for many, associated with the Devil and witchcraft. In the time of the witch trials, it was not uncommon for cats to fall under suspicion of nefarious practices. Many witches were accused of keeping familiars, demonic spirits that assumed the shape of common animals, typically cats, dogs or toads. During a time when Europeans were singling out fellow villagers and torturing them by the thousands under suspicion of witchcraft, cats were believed not only to act as familiar spirits but also to work for Satan even without the influence of a presiding witch. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX issued a Papal Bull declaring all black cats to be agents of the Devil. Subsequently, thousands of cats were rounded up and burned alive in an attempt to protect the world from the influence of Satan.
Perhaps ironically, the wide-spread slaughter and mistrust of cats during this time period may have left certain areas more vulnerable to the Black Plague, as rodent populations boomed in the absence of industrious felines. Some of the original fears of witchcraft were inspired by a belief that certain antisocial members of a community were visiting sickness and disease upon their neighbors either out of jealousy or revenge. Killing cats that were suspected of witchcraft was an attempt to bring order and health back to troubled times. Given that rats and mice tended to carry the fleas that spread disease, this course of action, of course, had the exact opposite effect.