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Why Do We Say Cats Have Nine Lives?

A cat's eyes are wide as it grips onto the side of a surface.
Larisa Lo/Shutterstock.com

A common myth we’ve all heard is that cats have nine lives. Well, clearly they don’t—but where did this phrase come from and why has it been a part of cat lore for so long? Let’s find out!

What Is the Origin of Cats Have Nine Lives Phrase?

It turns out the idea that cats have nine lives has been around for a while, although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly from where it originated.

Some say the phrase came from an ancient English proverb that says, “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.” Others point to William Shakespeare as the coiner of the term in Romeo and Juliet when he wrote the line, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”

Others look away from England toward Egypt for the origin. Cats were revered in ancient Egypt and were believed to possess divine energy. In Ancient Egyptian culture, the sun god, Atum-Ra, who gave birth to the other eight gods, took the form of a cat. The nine-lives connection may have come from this symbolism—Ra plus eight gods equal nine.

Still, other cultures have had this myth around for a long time as well. For instance, in China, cats are also believed to have nine lives, although there the number nine itself is what’s considered lucky. Other countries, such as Germany and Greece, toss around the notion that cats have seven lives, while some Arabic traditions indicate that they have six.

When it comes to the origin of cats having nine lives, things are still a mystery, but it’s likely a blend of mythologies coming together and making it into a global cultural lexicon.

Why Has the Phrase Stuck Around?

Wherever the phrase began, the idea that cats have nine lives is still around today. Why? Our guess is that it’s most likely because of cats’ survivalist behavior. Cats are intelligent and defensive—anyone who owns one knows how easily they scare. They also have lightning-fast reflexes that allow them to escape from dangerous situations quickly.

Cats’ heightened senses are truly incredible. They have excellent eyesight in both light and dark areas as well as a keen sense of hearing and touch. They have every ability to sense danger before it arrives, which gives them extra time to evade life-threatening situations.

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The phrase “cats always land on their feet” may also play a role in the furtherance of this myth. While cats don’t always land on their feet, they are extremely agile and able to recover from situations that could very well be fatal to less flexible animals. All of these characteristics, while not enough to grant them extra lives, certainly help cats get the most out of their current ones.

While we might not be able to totally nail down where this old phrase comes from (and as cat owners, we wish it were true), what seems most likely is that cats’ impressive senses and physical abilities coupled with mythologies have led to this old wives’ tale’s continuation.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Mental Floss and Well + Good, and she recently published her first novel, What it Takes to Lose. When she's not writing, Anne loves to travel (19 countries and counting), spend time outside, and play with her dog, Pepper. Read Full Bio »
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