Cats are lucky. After all, nothing else in the animal kingdom can boast more than one life—let alone nine! So, do cats have nine lives? While felines display a Houdini-like knack for escaping precarious situations unscathed, we know that, unfortunately, the nine lives thing is a myth. But where (and why) did this common saying originate?
An old English proverb
The details are murky surrounding the origin of the nine lives myth. Most sources simply cite an “old English proverb”—a proverb that mirrors what could arguably be called the three stages of human life, as well:
“A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.”
Or, blame Shakespeare
On the other hand, many people point to Shakespeare as planting the notion in the minds of modern society—namely through his time-honored play Romeo and Juliet. In Act 3 Scene 1, Tybalt asks, “What wouldst thou have with me?” and Mercutio replies, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”
Why 9 lives?
This, too, is up for debate. We love to relate feline lore all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who revered and even worshipped cats. A common creation myth says that the sun god Ra, who took the shape of the “Great Tomcat” or Mau during his visits to the underworld, engendered eight other gods—thus representing nine lives in one.
The number nine has mystical significance in many cultures: In both Christianity and Hinduism, the number nine symbolizes divine completeness; in Chinese culture, nine is a lucky number; in Norse mythology, the universe is divided into nine worlds; and in Greek mythology, there are nine muses.
But nine is not ubiquitous: Elsewhere in the world, cats are said to have seven lives (Spanish-speaking regions) or six lives (Turkish and Arabic legends).
Do cats have 9 lives? Why it’s easy to believe
Cats in particular are known for surviving extremely precarious situations. Here are a few reasons why cats seem to be able to cheat death:
Cats can lengthen their spines by alternately extending and flexing their backs, allowing for extra-long strides that give them the ability to run 20-30 mph for short bursts.
Cats have an incredibly elastic spine with 53 vertebrae (while humans typically have 33). This allows them to rotate their bodies at angles of as much as 180 degrees and contributes to their incredible righting reflex—or their ability to land on their feet almost every time.
Cats’ springy, muscular legs help them expertly absorb the shock of a hard landing. They can also jump as much as nine times their height from a standing position.
Cats also have tiny collarbones, which allows them to flatten their bodies and squeeze through impossibly tight spaces.
So do cats have nine lives? Sadly, no. But the fact remains that cats are incredibly adept at escaping trouble. With this in mind, we can make every day count by cherishing and watching out for our furry loved ones!
Cover photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash