holy cats!

“Holy cats!” is an exclamation of surprise, amazement or bewilderment. Nobody seems to know when or where it originated. It might, or might not, be a minced oath or euphemism for “Holy Christ!”

On the other hand, it might, or might not, be related to the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats on the island of Cyprus, which was once, and is once again, a home to hundreds of cats. The story of the monastery, however, is worth relating.

The monastery was founded by Kalokeros, the Byzantine Roman governor of Cyprus, in CE 327. The mother of the Emperor Constantine, St. Helena, was named patron of the new foundation.

Not long after the monks took up residence, a terrible drought led to the island being overrun by snakes, some poisonous. The infestation became so severe that many villagers fled the island and the monastery itself was unsafe to visit.

St. Helena had 1,000 cats shipped to the island of Cyprus to combat the snake epidemic. The cats hunted and killed most of the snakes in the Akrotiri Peninsula, which soon came to be known as the “Cat Peninsula.” For more than 1,000 years, the cats kept the snake population at bay and took regular meals in the monastery.

Chroniclers say that the monks called the cats to their morning meal with the ringing of a bell and when the meal was over they would ring the bell again to send the cats out for their snake warfare. I can believe that cats could be trained to come for food at the ringing of a bell, but not for permission to hunt snakes. Cats are natural hunters and would need no encouragement for that task.

However, in 1570, the Ottoman Turks invaded the island with an army of more than 60,000 warriors. The Christian Greeks and monks were slaughtered, their lands given to Turkish peasants and merchants.

The monastery was rebuilt and abandoned several times, and in 1983, assigned to a group of nuns. Unfortunately, the snakes had come back in the intervening years, but the nuns knew what to do. They acquired new cats, took care of them, and turned them loose on the snakes. The cats of St. Nicholas are back on duty and a Google search for St. Nicholas of the Cats will show pictures of them lounging about the monastery in the warm Cypriot sun.

I have another suggestion for the origin of “holy cats!” It was probably Robin of the Batman TV series, noted for his many catch-phrase “Holy…” exclamations.

And yeah, surprise, surprise, there’s a band called The Holy Cats. Holy cats, man!

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