Cats, Gods and Weasels in Ancient Greece

αἰλουροπρόσωπος: [ailouroprosôpos] “cat-faced”

αἰλουρόμορφος: [ailouromorphos] “cat-shaped”

A student in my myth class spontaneously asked about which deity would be the patron of cats in Ancient Greece. As is my custom—when I have no idea—I admitted I didn’t know but then added from my knowledge of ancient Greek (αἴλουρος, the word for “cat”, felix domesticus did not come readily to mind) and Greek literature (where cats appear rarely apart from fables) it was my intuition that cats would not have featured prominently in Greek religion and culture. (I also added that dogs appeared as close to men in Homer; whereas cats are a mostly later addition.)

Since we live in the miraculous age of information, I was fact-checked. According to the internet, since Artemis was associated with the Ancient Egyptian goddess related to cats (Bast(a)), then Artemis was a deity of cats. Alas, I responded in class, this makes some sense, but, I added, since Artemis is the potnia thêrôn (queen of wild beasts), her identification with felix domesticus was a bit incomplete. And over the weekend, a student reminded me about the subject:

The best ancient source for Athena and cats? A later Greek author Antoninus Liberalis who lived sometime between 100 and 200 BCE. In his Metamorphoses (26.7) he describes how the gods ran away from Typhon and disguised themselves as animals: Ares become a fish, Dionysus a goat and Artemis a cat. The internet also reports that Ovid describes a servant of Alcmene aiding in the birth of Herakles—the goddess, enraged, turned her into a cat and made her a priestess of Hekate. But this is not actually true. Instead, the creature in question is a weasel or polecat.

(And for good modern fun, check out Rudy Giuliani’s fear of ferrets).

It seems that in ancient Greece, a weasel (probably closer to our ferret) was domesticated and used for rodent control. In fact, in the Batrakhomuomakhia (the “Battle of Frogs and Mice), when the mouse speaks of its greatest fears, it does not, contrary to what we might expect, mention a cat.

“But I do fear two things over the whole earth:
the raven (?) and the weasel who bring me great grief
and the grievous mousetrap where a deceptive fate awaits me.
But I fear the weasel more than anything, that beast who is best
At ferreting a hole-dweller out of his hole.]”

51         πλεῖστον δὴ γαλέην περιδείδια, ἥ τις ἀρίστη,
52         ἣ καὶ τρωγλοδύνοντα κατὰ τρώγλην ἐρεείνει.
53         οὐ τρώγω ῥαφάνους, οὐ κράμβας, οὐ κολοκύντας,
54         οὐ σεύτλοις χλωροῖς ἐπιβόσκομαι, οὐδὲ σελίνοις•
55         ταῦτα γὰρ ὑμέτερ’ ἐστὶν ἐδέσματα τῶν κατὰ λίμνην.

I do appreciate the student question, because I had always just assumed that domesticated cats were a part of Greek life. While it seems that they did become much more common during the Hellenistic period and later, it is clear from the language and literature that weasels fulfilled their cultural (and poetic) roles. The overlap between the function of the animals leads to confusion: some times the word for weasel (γαλέη, galea) may actually indicate a cat. There is a good old-fashioned article laying much of this out. Cats appear in Greek imagery as early as the sixth century BCE; they are still paired with weasels by the time of Plutarch (1st Century CE) and gatta appears in Greek by the 5th century BCE.

The modern Greek for cat (Gata), in fact, represents a break with the ancient Greek Ailouros. The former, which is likely related to the same root that gives us modern “cat” (French, “le chat”; Spanish el gato; German Katze etc.), is a later addition to the language. But the latter gives us ailourophobia (“fear of cats”) and ailouranthrope (“catperson”)!

But, if the later Greeks did adopt cats and they knew the tale recorded by Antoninus, then it seems it would be fairest to let Artemis have here. Hekate gets the puppies anyway.

thanks to this post, I have the following horror in my head:

5 thoughts on “Cats, Gods and Weasels in Ancient Greece

  1. Indeed sir, the Hellenic preference for dogs over cats is one of the surest tokens of the excellence of Greek insight. If Argos were Odysseus’ cat, he would not have come home to a faithful companion waiting for one last glimpse of his benevolent master, the depiction of which forms the most affecting scene in all of Western literature, but would rather have been greeted by the spectacle of a house barren of suitors, who found that they could not stand the suffocating odor of cat urine, which would have undoubtedly been applied rather liberally to all of the finest furniture throughout the whole of the twenty year period. Conversely, one might imagine that the tale of Acteon would have required no intervention from Artemis to reach its grim conclusion; a pack of cats would have undoubtedly driven the poor hunter to suicide long before he experienced the perilous pleasure of gazing upon the goddess.

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