Ever heard that cats have 9 lives? You might be surprised to learn that the number that’s used in this common myth varies depending on where you heard it. In some cultures it’s said that cats have 6 lives, in others, 7, and finally, which I think is the most common rendition – it’s also sometimes said they have 9 lives.
Just so things are straight in your head right from the very start – cats only have one life. The idea that they have multiple lives is absolutely a myth and not factual or based in any kind of reality.
We don’t know exactly why this myth emerged, and why precisely it takes the form of three different numbers rather than one. Still, we do have educated and incredibly reasonable guesses that do a good job explaining away why this myth may have emerged, as well as why each of these different numbers may have cropped up in different cultures around the world.
In this article, I’ll be discussing why the myth around cats having multiple lives may have emerged first – what may have led people to believe cats have more than one life in the first place.
Next, I’ll be discussing the discrepancy there is between cultural backgrounds on the precise number of cat lives there are – i.e. why in different cultures the numbers 6, 7, and 9 may have ended up being popular over others.
Why Would People Think Cats Have Many Lives?
Ever watched a cat – whether it’s a house cat, a lion on TV, a leopard at the zoo, jump and run and heck – even fall – all without a scratch?
The fact that cats are so agile, swift, and flexible likely has a lot to do with the myth about cats having multiple lives arising.
Wikipedia points out that:
The myth is attributed to the natural suppleness and swiftness cats exhibit to escape life-threatening situations. Also lending credence to this myth is the fact that falling cats often land on their feet, using an instinctive righting reflex to twist their bodies around. Nonetheless, cats can still be injured or killed by a high fall.
Cats run at speeds quite baffling from the viewpoint of a human. The fastest domestic cats can sprint up to 30 mph or 47 km/hr – that’s ridiculously fast for a little cat!
Imagine seeing a cat speed away from an aggressive dog or wolf, or any other predator picking a fight with him or her, and making it out of a terrible, completely life-threatening altercation, just in the nick of time. I can see why you’d think that type of near-death experience cats face and scramble out of all the time might mean some started to believe cats have more than one life, and they used one up each time they came so close to death.
Then there’s the fact that cats have the ability to right themselves in midair when falling from high places – often saving themselves with little to no physical damage, even if they’re many storeys up in the air.
Sure, not every cat will survive a fall that’s incredibly high – it depends on a lot of factors and a high drop is not something to take lightly, even for cats – but the fact that any feline can drop from such high places without dying, and sometimes without even much injury, is incredible and likely another enormous reason this myth developed.
Again, imagine seeing a cat fall out of a high window, even one that’s one or two stories up, one that a human would definitely get incredibly injured having fallen out of, if not died due to terrible wounds or infections from those wounds that historically couldn’t have been patched up quite easily. The average domestic cat? Lands on it’s feet and injured or not, walks off to live another day. Pretty darn impressive.
Finally, a suggestion I’ve seen floating around that makes quite a lot of sense considering humans got sick so frequently back before we knew so much about hygiene and medicine – cats rarely get sick (in comparison to us), and so the fact that their immune systems were so much better than a humans’ may have led people to believe they have multiple lives as well.
Now, one extra point I’ve come up with on my own relating to this last one – cats rarely ever show pain, discomfort, or illness at all. In fact, your cat could be in pain for ages without you having any clue about it because they just don’t show it the way we humans do. They’ll lick and over-groom a wound, they’ll purr to relieve stress, they’ll maybe behave a little strangely, but there won’t be much crying or meowing due to pain like there would be in humans.
Because of the fact that cats don’t express pain, this might lead people to believe they never get sick or injured, even if they are. Thus, increasing the chances that people might believe cats can live multiple lives because they are never injured or sick – even if they are, humans who saw them probably couldn’t tell at all!
If a cat’s agility, speed, immune system, and ability to right itself in midair to land on it’s feet when it falls from high places all explain away why cats have been said to have multiple lives – what about those numbers? Where did 6, 7, and 9 come from? Let’s take a look.
How Would People Think Cats Had 6, 7, or 9 Lives Exactly?
First of all, let’s discuss which cultures think cats have 6 lives, which have the myth that says they have 7, and which culture states cats have 9 lives exactly in total.
Back to Wikipedia for an excellent overview:
According to a myth in many cultures, cats have multiple lives. In many countries, they are believed to have nine lives, but in Italy, Germany, Greece, Brazil and some Spanish-speaking regions, they are said to have seven lives, while in Turkish and Arabic traditions, the number of lives is six.
So we’ve got the vast majority of countries and cultures that believe in the 9 lives myth. We’ll take a look at this number more closely later.
Then, in the second-most-popular spot, we have Italy, Germany, Greece, Brazil, and some Spanish-speaking countries and regions who state cats have 7 lives. Again, we’ll take a closer look at this number later.
Finally, there are a few cultures that have the myth cats have 6 lives – particularly Turkish & Arab nations and traditions.
So where did these hyper-specific numbers come from? Here are the theories…
The following is a translation from this particular Super Interssante article, titled “Qual é a origem da lenda de que os gatos teriam sete vidas?” in Portuguese, and translated to “What is the origin of the legend that cats would have seven lives?” by Google Dictionary into English:
But why seven and not another number? The curious thing is that the number of lives varies from one part of the planet to another. In English-speaking countries there are nine, instead of seven lives. The two numbers have a special mystical significance in different cultures and religions. In the cabal, seven is one of the digits with the greatest magic power and nine is not far behind, representing life and abundance.
Although it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origin of the legend, it is believed to be in the Middle Ages, when it was thought that witches associated with cats, especially blacks. In 1584, in the book Beware the Cat, the English writer William Baldwin said that “witches are allowed to possess the body of their cat nine times”. Another Englishman, John Heywood, assembled, in 1546, a collection of proverbs, of which one said that “the woman, like the cat, has nine lives”. The Arabs and Turks, on the other hand, had nothing against cats (Muhammad was surrounded by them) and their sayings speak of seven lives. It is likely that this version was passed on to the Spanish and Portuguese in the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors – which began in the 8th century and lasted almost 800 years. From Portugal, the myth of the seven feline lives soon arrived in Brazil.
Thus, while we can’t know for sure why these specific numbers were picked it seems that…
The Cats Have 9 Lives Version Likely Comes From…
Cats and witches seem to have historically thought to have had a connection. Either way, they’ve been associated together for a very long time, it seems.
In the 1559 book Beware the Cat by William Baldwin, it states:
For witches have gone often in that likeness – and thereof hath come to the proverb, as true as common, that a cat hath nine lives (that is to say, a witch may take on her a cat’s body nine times.
Thus, it may be that something to do with a witch being able to possess a cat 9 times had something to do with the myth being so popularly connected to the number 9 in English cultures.
As the quote also points out, in John Heywood’s proverbs (again, goes way back, being published in the year 1546), there’s a line alluding to the myth about cats having 9 lives that says, “A woman hath nine lives like a cat.”
So this myth goes pretty darn far back, even with the specifics of the number nine. And truth be told, while we have guesses with regards to where these specific numbers might have emerged – we may never know! It might turn out these sources came way after the myth emerged and spread, and built on the already-existent myth of cats having 9 lives.
The Cats Have 7 Lives Version Likely Comes From…
The fact that the number 7 is thought to be one of the most “mystical” and “magical” numbers out there, so cultures that didn’t have a problem with cats or actually revered or worshipped them (I’m thinking of the Ancient Egyptians here), might have thrown this number onto the myth because it was, even then, the most popular and common “lucky” or “magical” number.
Just a guess!
The Cats Have 6 Lives Version Likely Comes From…
Finally, we have the myth that cats have six lives. And this one, for some reason I couldn’t find any guesses or information on.
I have a feeling that the fact that cats were thought to be associated with witches and hexes, evil and bad luck, made the number 6 spring up because, Biblical, the number 6 is also associated with evil, as well as Satan/the devil.
If you already have a bad or negative representation or idea of cats, it makes sense to couple the myth with a negatively thought of number, at least this is the theory I’ve come up with that makes the most sense to me.
Your Thoughts on How Many Lives Cats Have?
What do you think about the myth that cats have many lives?
Which version have you heard – 9 lives, 7 lives, or 6? Have you heard of multiple? From which sources (if you can remember)?
Do you have any theories on why people may have thought these specific numbers were the amount of lives cats have? Do you like or dislike any of the theories presented here? Have you heard any other information on the topic of the specific number of cat lives?
Love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!