THE CAT IN ANCIENT GREECE

The cat made its way to the shores of ancient Greece in several ways.  First, the Greeks and Phoenicians traded scarabs and amulets with the ancient Egyptians, particularly in Egypt’s delta region near the ancient Hyksos capital of Avaris or modern day Tell el Daba (Turcan, 1996). And it stands to reason that cats were most probably included in this trade, albeit illegally.   Often times the pharaohs enlisted the aid of Greek mercenaries, and they could have also helped in the spread of the cat to Greece.  Known to have sailed the Mediterranean, especially during the New Kingdom, ancient Egyptians  even settled in small Greek communities, no doubt in some cases, bringing along their beloved cats.  Furthermore, Diodorus writes of a country called Numidia, modern day Algeria, where he says that Agathocles, in around 307BC, after conquering Pkillena, Mishcela Hippaci and Miltene, led his army over a mountainous area so crowded with cats that no birds could be found for miles.  He adds that the soldiers captured some of the cats and took them to Greece (Repplier, 1901).  It is also claimed that Mount Hermon, in modern day Israel, “….was named Suner…Sunar or Sinnaur … the Chaldean (Babylonian) name for cat.  It was named this by the Amorrheans, or the Mountain of Cats.” (Dureau de la Mallu, 1829 p. 309)  These cats could have made their way with Phoenicians to the shores of Greece as well.  We cannot of course forget the fact that the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Etruscans and Tarentines had already obtained the domestic cat from the Egyptians through their trade, giving the animal, even though still rare, a foothold in both Greece, its surrounding islands and Italy.


Unfortunately, compared to its height of worshipped goddess in ancient Egypt, the domestic cat played a rather small role in the history of Hellenistic Greece.  As Repplier writes of the Greeks in The Fireside Sphinx, “This race (the Greeks) so admirably endowed, with ambitious ever unsatisfied, modeling, in insatiable pride, its gods after its own likeness, and forcing Olympos to bear a part in its quarrels; this superb race was far too arrogant to permit the cat to participate in its apotheosis.” (Repplier, 1901, p.15) Instead, grander cats such as the cheetah, lion and panther played a more prominent role in early Greek art and mythology.  This is partially attributed to the fact that in early times, the domestic cat was not yet the important rodent killer in Greece that it had been in Egypt.  Greeks, too, for religious and cultural reasons held no natural affinity toward cats as did the Egyptians.  Prior to the importation of the cat from Egypt, Greeks used weasels, ferrets, martens and pole cats to reduce the damage done by invading vermin. 

Pole cat

Pole Cat
Photo Courtesy of Malene Thyssen

These animals, however, did not take to any sort of domestication and preferred to roam wild and wandered away from the granaries eventually leaving them unprotected.  They were also quite vicious to humans.  In fact, some states in America ban the ownership of ferrets to protect people against possible attacks.  So when the cat entered the scene, the Greeks immediately realized that it was a much better protector of granaries, as the cat could be domesticated and would stay near its food source, the ravaging rodents.  After recognizing the utility of the cat and its becoming nature, the Greeks allowed themselves to be seduced by its crafty wiles, but never to the extent that the ancient Egyptians had. 

 

           

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