Ancient Greeks and Cats. Friends or Foes?

Introduction

Cats have a long history of cultural significance in ancient Greek society. While they were often kept as utilitarian pest control, cats were also respected and revered in mythology, art, and literature. The ancient Greeks had a complex relationship with cats that revealed their attitudes and beliefs.

In this article, we will explore the multifaceted role of cats in ancient Greece. We will examine how cats were viewed as mythical creatures, domestic pets, religious symbols, and literary subjects. Through an overview of cats across Greek culture, we can gain insight into how these enigmatic creatures captivated the ancient Greek imagination.

Cats in Greek Mythology

The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats as sacred animals associated with the goddess Bastet. Bastet was depicted as a cat goddess or occasionally as a lioness. She was the daughter of the sun god Ra and a protector goddess associated with pleasure, fertility, music, dance and happiness.

When the Greeks conquered Egypt under Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, they were exposed to the Egyptian reverence for cats and Bastet. The Greeks syncretized Bastet with some of their own goddesses, associating her with Artemis and Diana. Bastet became linked with the lunar deities of these Greek goddesses. The Greeks admired the Egyptian worship of cats and Bastet, and also kept domestic cats as pets.

According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bastet, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BCE about the high status of cats in Egypt:

“When a house catches fire, the Egyptians bewail the cats lost in the conflagration as if they were human beings. On discovering a cat that has died a natural death, they shave their eyebrows and smear mud over their heads as a sign of mourning.”

The Greek adoption of Bastet and cat veneration from Egypt shows the cultural blending that occurred as Greek culture encountered ancient Egyptian religion and customs.

Cats as Pets

Cats were first domesticated by the ancient Egyptians, but they were also kept as pets by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks appreciated cats mainly for their ability to hunt vermin such as mice and rats. Rodents could be a major problem in ancient homes and granaries, destroying food supplies and spreading disease, so cats were valued for their skill as mousers (Cats in the Ancient World).

Evidence suggests that domestic cats were present in Greece since the 5th century BCE. Greek art from the 6th century BCE shows images of collared cats, indicating they were kept as pets. Cats are also frequently depicted in Greek pottery and paintings hunting mice or playing with human owners. Several Greek authors like Herodotus and Aristophanes make references to domestic cats in their writings (THE CAT IN ANCIENT GREECE).

While the ancient Greeks appreciated cats as mousers and kept them as pets, they did not attain the exalted status of gods like cats did in Ancient Egypt. The Greeks favored larger cats like lions and leopards which they considered symbols of power and valor.

Cats in Greek Art

Cats were commonly depicted in ancient Greek art, especially on pottery and mosaics. On pottery such as drinking cups, plates, and storage jars, cats were often painted as decoration or as part of scenes showing daily life. Many examples come from Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Cats are shown prowling, hunting birds and mice, curled up sleeping, and interacting with humans.

One famous piece is the archaic Greek “Bacchic” krater from c. 480 BCE showing a man carrying a cat. The man is likely the Greek god Dionysus (source). Another example is a 4th century BCE ceramic askos from Athens decorated with a cat hunting a bird (source). Greek pottery provides insight into how cats were incorporated into daily routines and mythology.

Cats also appear in Greek mosaics, including as central subjects. The 3rd century BCE “Unswept Floor” mosaic from Pergamon shows a cat beneath a dining table. The Hellenistic “Black Cat” mosaic from Pergamon also highlights a lounging feline as the focal point (source). These mosaics reveal cats were valued as household pets and expressions of artistic whimsy.

Cats in Greek Literature

Cats are mentioned in several ancient Greek literary works. In Aristophanes’ comedy The Wasps, the character Philocleon returns home drunk and is afraid of attacking the household cat. In a fragment from a lost play by Anaxandrides, a hungry cat meows loudly to be fed (1). The philosopher Socrates was known to love cats, and was said to stop and admire stray cats in the street (2). The playwright Aeschylus made references to Egypt being the land of cat lovers. Cats were sometimes included in similes, such as in a fragment from the lyric poet Anacreon where young women’s eyes were compared to cats’. Overall, housecats were becoming more common sights in Greek literature by the 5th century BC.

(1) https://www.thegreatcat.org/the-cat-in-ancient-greece/

(2) https://www.reddit.com/r/AncientGreek/comments/od8fi8/cat_in_ancient_greek_%CE%B1%E1%BC%B4%CE%BB%CE%BF%CF%85%CF%81%CE%BF%CF%82_vs_%CE%B3%CE%B1%CE%BB%E1%BF%86/

Stray Cats in Greece

Greece has a large population of stray and feral cats, especially in major cities like Athens and on the Greek islands. It’s estimated there are hundreds of thousands of stray and feral cats across Greece [1]. These cats are often seen roaming the streets, alleys, parks, and ruins of Greece.

There are many theories for why Greece has such a large stray cat population. Some believe it traces back thousands of years to when cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt and spread around the Mediterranean. Greece’s mild climate allows cats to survive and reproduce outdoors year-round. The large numbers of tourists feeding strays also enables the population to grow. Furthermore, spaying/neutering is not commonly practiced, allowing the stray cat population to rapidly reproduce [2].

While some Greeks view the strays as a nuisance, many have a soft spot for the cats and leave food out for them. The cats have essentially become part of the urban landscape of Greece.

Cats as Symbols

Cats were associated with freedom, grace, and stealth in ancient Greek culture. The goddess Artemis was often depicted with cats because of their ability to move quietly and hunt effectively. Artemis’ association with cats imbued them with an aura of divinity and power. Cats were seen as independent, self-reliant animals that personified feminine wiles and cunning. Unlike dogs, which were depicted as obedient and loyal, cats represented the free spirit that bows to no master.1

In addition, cats were believed to possess psychic abilities due to their mysterious nature. Greeks thought cats could predict the weather and give warnings about threats or dangers. There are myths telling how cats protected babies and small children from snakes and other menaces. As a result, they came to symbolize protection and discernment when it came to unseen realms and forces.2

Overall, the grace, stealth, independence, and psychic power attributed to cats in Greek legends and myths established them as symbols of femininity, freedom, and protection in ancient Greek society.

Cats and Religion

In ancient Greece, cats were seen as having a sacred association with the goddess Artemis. Artemis was the Greek goddess of the hunt and wildlife. Cats were appreciated for their role in protecting granaries and grain stores from mice and rats that could otherwise contaminate or destroy the grain.

The Greek island of Cyprus was particularly known for its worship of cats. Cats were seen as sacred animals on Cyprus due to the important function they served in controlling vermin from granaries. The fifth century BCE Greek historian Herodotus wrote that it was forbidden to kill cats on Cyprus and that when a cat died, the entire household would go into mourning.

Cats were so revered on Cyprus that they were sometimes buried ceremoniously in sacred pots dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet. Killing a cat was considered a terrible crime and could result in the death penalty for the offender.

While cats may not have been universally worshipped in ancient Greece to the extent of Egyptian cat worship, they were respected and valued for their usefulness in protecting stores of grain from being contaminated by rats and mice.

Source: https://www.thegreatcat.org/the-cat-in-ancient-greece/

Breeds of Cats

Two cat breeds that originated in ancient Greece are the Egyptian Mau and the Aegean cat.

The Egyptian Mau is one of the oldest cat breeds in the world. Mau is the Egyptian word for “cat.” These cats were first documented in Egyptian artwork around 1500 BC, where they were revered for their hunting abilities and distinctive spotted coats. Egyptian Maus were imported to Europe in the 19th century and eventually made their way to North America in the 1950s. They are known for their affectionate personalities, athleticism, and luxurious spotted fur in colors like silver, bronze, and smoke.

The Aegean cat is a breed native to the Greek islands, including Crete, Rhodes, Santorini, and Mykonos. They are medium-sized cats with semi-long, silky coats that can be blue, brown, orange, cream, black, white, and various patterns. References to Aegean cats have been found in ancient Greek literature dating back thousands of years. Unlike the Egyptian Mau, they do not have any distinctive spotted or ticked fur. Aegean cats are prized as skilled hunters, and they have playful, social personalities. Two distinct populations of Aegean cats have been documented – one in the Cycladic islands and another in Cyprus.

For more information on ancient Greek cat breeds, check out: [1]

[1] https://greekreporter.com/2023/12/08/native-cat-breeds-greece-cyprus/

Conclusion

In summary, cats seem to have played a small but notable role in ancient Greek society and culture. While they were not revered to the extent of bigger cats like lions, they were still viewed as useful for controlling pests like mice and rats. Cats were also featured in some Greek myths and literature, though not very prominently. They were sometimes depicted in Greek art, mainly as exotica or as pets in domestic scenes. Overall, cats appear to have been valued for their practical abilities rather than being greatly culturally significant. The ancient Greeks did not seem to have strong religious or symbolic associations with cats.

Based on the sources examined, it seems that the ancient Greeks had a pragmatic attitude toward cats, appreciating their hunting abilities but not venerating them like the ancient Egyptians did. Cats were present but did not hold a major place in Greek mythology, literature, art, or religion. They were useful helpers but not figures of great cultural importance.

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