When I walked onto the grounds of Gachen Lama Khiid at Erdenetsogt in Mongolia’s Khangai Mountains, nearly the first thing I saw was a cat sunning himself outside the temple. Cats are not especially popular as companion animals in Mongolia, but when I thought about it, the cat’s presence made sense. I confirmed my suspicion later as I drank salty milk tea with the monastery’s head lama.
“Is it common for monasteries to have a cat?” I asked.
Our guide, Batana Batu, translated his response. Yes, he said. The cat is there to protect food stores from mice.
Cats have served as pest control at temples and monasteries throughout the world for centuries. Egyptian temple cats were trained to hunt snakes and rodents, reported fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus.
In Cyprus, at the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats, snakes overran the island after a drought. The monastery’s patron, the future St. Helena, had 1,000 cats brought in from Egypt and Palestine to kill the snakes.
An unknown ninth-century Irish monk wrote a poem about his cat, Pangur Ban, that we still read and appreciate today:
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
’Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Medieval monks prized cats not only because they warred against mice to protect food stores, but also because they prevented mice from nibbling on the manuscripts the monks labored to create. The occasional inky paw print on a page was less destructive.
Nuns in convents were forbidden to have pets such as dogs and monkeys – a rule they frequently broke – but there was one exception. The 13th-century “Ancrene Wisse,” rules for nuns, notes in the section titled “On Domestic Matters”: “You shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat.”
Between 1306 and 1467, Exeter Cathedral had a succession of official cats. A penny per week was budgeted to supplement the diet of the cat, who was otherwise expected to chow down on mice and other pests. The north transept wall still has a hole (an early cat door?) through which the cat could enter and exit.
Several cat breeds are reputed to have originated as monastery or temple cats. The legend behind the Burmese is that Buddhist monks regarded the shorthaired brown cats as embodiments of gods.
The Birman, once known as the Sacred Cat of Burma (now called Myanmar), is said to descend from cats that were companions to temple priests in the northern part of the country.
The story goes that a priest named Mun Ha, accompanied by his beloved white cat, was praying in the temple beneath the golden statue of the goddess Tsim Kyan Tse, whose eyes were represented by brilliant sapphires. Marauders in search of treasure broke in and attacked the priest. As he lay dying, the cat rested his paws on Mun Ha’s head and faced the statue. Suddenly, his white fur became tipped with gold, his legs darkened and his eyes changed from yellow to deep sapphire blue, but his paws remained pure white. The next morning, the remaining monks awoke to find that all the cats had undergone the same transformation.
In France, the Chartreux was once known as the monastery cat associated with Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble. The blue cats were believed to have originally come from Syria, brought to France in trade or by returning Crusaders in the Middle Ages.
The cat’s mousing prowess is surely what gained him entrance to contemplative life, but undoubtedly his tranquil nature and love of solitude earned him a permanent home.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com.