MINOAN CAT HISTORY
Although ancient Egyptians forbid the export of their beloved cats, determined smugglers stole the prized and worshipped animals to trade or sell. In an effort to reclaim the kidnapped beasts, the ancient Egyptians dispatched whole armies to repatriate them, and in some cases emissaries were even given the duty to buy them back (Jennison, 1937). Unfortunately, these efforts were not enough to keep the rare and worshipped cat confined to
Taken aboard trader ships and sailed across the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy, whether by accident or as prized cargo, the first evidence of domestic cats in the Minoan civilization has been dated to around 1800-1700BC. Minoans had a healthy trade relationship with the ancient Egyptians. Evidence of Minoan ceramics at Egyptian archeological sites confirms this. Additionally, Egyptian scarabs and amulets have been found on Crete at Knossos, and there is evidence that Minoans imported papyrus and fine linen from Egypt.
The Minoans were the first in the Mediterranean to portray the cat in lovely relief on a pitcher and two cups found at the palace of Malia on the island of Crete, while a fresco dating to 1628BC, on the island of Santorini, also includes a representation of a cat. On a
Knossos fresco a cat hunts birds, and at the palace of Agia Triada yet another stealthily stalks a pheasant. A figurine of a snake goddess found at Knossos, dating to 1600BC, has a cat perched atop her head indicating some religious significance most probably associated with
fertility. And found at Palaikastro, Crete, a terracotta head of a cat dates to the 1400’s BC (Engels, 2001).
In addition to these immortalizations of the cat, Minoan seal stones, dating from 1800-1700BC engraved with cats chasing a group of water fowl, are reminiscent of the bird hunting scene in the tomb of the Theban noble Nebamun. Scholars suggest that cats trained to hunt water fowl were introduced to Crete from Egypt (Castleden, 1993).
Unlike the art work of the ancient Egyptians, Minoan frescoes adorning palace walls did not have religious or political agendas; instead, historians believe the Minoans were the first people to pursue art for art’s sake. The beautiful compositions of bulls, octopi, plants, fish, women, men and cats were done seemingly for pleasure and decoration. They had even developed a writing system called Linear A script which includes a letter ‘ma’ represented by a cat’s head (Engels, 2001). Unfortunately, the script has yet to be completely deciphered, but archeologists think that most writings would concern the Minoan’s mercantile endeavors, focusing on facts and figures as in most early civilizations, instead of any true literature. Plagued by natural disasters, notably the eruption of Mt. Thera in 1627-1600BC, it was not long before the Minoans, a peaceful people weakened by this traumatic event, were soon dominated by the conquest driven Mycenaeans in about 1600BC. Even so, the Minoan style continued to influence Mycenaean art.