Why does a cat have nine lives and not five or ten or any other number? The phrase, as we know, means that a cat is resilient, smart and athletic – being able to get out of life threatening situations but why nine times?
See cat falling – one way to use up one of those nine lives.
In an earlier post made some time ago I said it was because in ancient times the number nine was considered lucky as it was based on the “trinity of trinities”1. The trinity is one God existing in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three times that is nine.
It is interesting that there is another well know phrase: the cat ‘o nine tails that contains the number nine. Is there a connection with the nine lives of a cat? There would seem to be.
This as we know is the whip with nine thongs that was used to punish sailors. Why nine strands to the whip, though? Incidentally, the term “cat” when referring to this instrument of punishment must have come simply from the fact that the strands were like a cat’s tail and at the time ships cats were commonplace (to keep down rodents on board).
Going back to the religious context, it is said that Jesus was whipped with a cat o’ nine tails (before being crucified). Although it was a far more damaging whip than the one used against sailors as it had glass or some other such material attached to the strands of the whip that tore the skin. He was whipped 39 times it is said. This form of whipping usually killed the victim. I am not sure if it is true that the whip had nine “tails” but it is a neat connection with the trinity of trinities theory.
In an 1830s book, An analytical dictionary of the English language.. it is said both of the above phrases are associated with witches who assumed the shape of cats which they could do nine times in succession; surviving death in each of the preceding metamorphoses. The idea of witches doing these strange things at night is said to come from the caterwauling of cats, the erie calls of cats at night. Here is a clip from this book:
Where does this leave us? Slightly confused…! The number nine has significance. It has been adopted in various ways and for that reason it probably goes back to early times, which supports the theory that it originates in Christianity. The concept of purification through punishment (my idea) from flogging with a cat ‘o nine tails may also support the biblical connection.
If anyone knows better, I would be pleased to hear from them – please leave a comment.
1. Cat Watching by Dr Desmond Morris.