The Nine Lives Of A Cat

We’ve all heard the saying that cats have nine lives. Even Shakespeare makes reference to this piece of folklore in Romeo and Juliet:

Tybalt: What wouldst thou have with me?
Mercutio: Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.

There is also an ancient proverb of unknown provenance:

A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.

Origin

Where does this strange idea of nine lives actually originate? Unfortunately nobody seems to be quite sure.

The best theory appears to be that it is connected with the cat’s great dexterity and its famed ability to “fall on its feet”. Cats can apparently survive mishaps that would be seriously damaging to other animals.

Combine this with the long-standing reverence for cats as possibly psychic, supernatural or even divine creatures and you have a possible basis for the idea that a cat somehow had multiple lives.

Why Nine Lives?

Given that it was assumed cats had multiple lives, why nine? Why does a cat have nine lives and not six or ten? Well, in some countries they do – one of my readers tells me that in Spain cats are said to have seven lives (thanks Ángel). However nine appears to be the most common number in the English speaking world.

One theory is that the nine lives originated from the ancient Egyptian reverence of cats. The god Atum-Ra – who took the form of a cat when visiting the underworld – gave birth to eight other major gods. As such, Atum incorporated nine lives in one.

Another suggestion is that the nine lives theory might have originated in China. The number nine is considered lucky in China and featured heavily in the mythology of Chinese dragons.