Saturday, 3 January 2015

Ancient Cats and Modern Moggies

RequiesCAT in pace, Poppy
A TV round-up of ‘major events' in 2014 reminded us all of the momentous death at the age of 24 of the world’s oldest cat (according to the Guinness Book of Records), Poppy the tortoiseshell from Bournemouth. While I am sceptical, to say the least, that there are not older living representatives of the species felis silvestris catus or felis domesticus, I am now staking a claim to the world record for my parents’ cat Sheba, born early in 1992. She was once our own cat, and her real name is Gas Board (her sadly deceased sister was called ‘Lecky’, or ‘Electricity’).

Gas Board, the oldest cat alive?
The ancient Greeks had much to say on the subject of dogs, but information about cats is much harder to find. The word for cat, aielouros, probably means ‘twisting tail’; my future as a Professor of Greek was probably determined when I was eight and asked my father why our tabby was called Ailoura.

Cambyses, the felines' foe
The most famous cat story in ancient authors is not about Greece at all: it concerns the Persian emperor Cambyses insulting the people of an Egyptian city he was besieging. Cambyses did something unconventional with cats, which the Egyptians of course believed to be sacred: he probably did not use actually use them as missiles, as some artists have suggested, but may have carried them in the ranks or painted them on his men’s shields.

Artemis' Avatar at Vravrona
In one Greek comedy, the Acharnians of Aristophanes, a pedlar arrives in Athens from central Greece  to sell edible flora and fauna, including ‘geese, hares, foxes, moles, hedgehogs, CATS, martins, otters and eels.’ When the satyrs in another play are asking about the newly invented musical instrument, the lyre, which they have heard but not seen, they ask the nymph of the mountain whether it resembles a cat or a panther.


But the untold story of cats in ancient Greece I am convinced has much to do with temple sanctuaries, especially those of Artemis, deity of small furry mammals. When I visited the Athenians’ dazzling sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron (Vravrona), I was met at the gates and escorted all round it by the vocal young female, the goddess’s avatar, in the photo above. And then when I researched vases illustrating Artemis’ Black Sea temple at Sevastopol for my book Adventures with Iphigenia, what did I find but a cat involved in sacred rituals? But nobody has ever explained exactly what the man holding the cat is doing. Suggestions in the comments section, please!

19 comments:

  1. It looks as if he's trying to drown it... Something from a lost comedy?

    Google came up with some comparanda: http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/20-3/Ashmead.pdf

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    1. A fine suggestion, but why would there be a bit of a comic episode on a vase painting otherwise illustrating a single tragedy?

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  2. Given his state of undress, I hope he's not attempting a ritual lustration.

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    1. I know! A thick leather apron would have been a wise precaution!

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  3. Could he be bathing the cat prior to sacrifice, as you bathed piglets in the Eleusinian Mysteries? Or maybe he's just de-fleaing it!

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    1. I really hope my favourite heroine didn't sacrifice kitties, but fear you may be right. Or perhaps it is a sign of how barbarous the local rituals were in Tauris, the Crimea where the play is set! The certainnly would have been a lot of CATerwauling!

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  4. He's about to express essence of cat as one would with a lemon or lime into a xmas sized pre-symposium cocktail - the word 'catatonic' derives from this practice. Cambyses' pussy hurling proclivities gave rise to the word 'catapult'.
    Blwyddyn Newydd Dda, Geraint.

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    1. GIN and essence of feline--must try it! I normally prefer cucumber. The cocktail could be called a Tauris Slammer. I love your new approach to etymology. and Happy New Year to you, sir.

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  5. I would suggest that the young man is obviously in need of some clothes and is about to turn the cat into a useful garment to protect his modesty.

    This is from an account of the difference between the Egyptian and Greek view of cats.
    τὸν αἰέλουρον κακὸν ἔχοντ᾽ ἐὰν ἴδῃς
    κλαίεις, ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἥδιστ᾽ ἀποκτείνας δέρω.

    If you see a cat suffering you cry, but I would quite happily kill it and skin it.

    Athenaius. 7.55 (quoting Antiphanes
    http://platosparks.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/wavy-tail/

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    1. Trying to imagine the garment you mean-some kind of sporran? Were there Scotsmen in the ancient Crimea? The comic fragment quote by Antiphanes does indeed imply that some people ate cats while others saw them as sweet little pets.

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  6. He is explaining what will happen if it jumps onto his lap again.

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    1. Yes; they have to discipline cats firmly in nudist colonies like Tauris

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  7. from ANCIENT HISTORY ENCYCLOPEDIA:
    "Although cats were kept by people in Greece and Rome, the appreciation for the animal as a hunter was not as great in those cultures owing to the Greek and Roman practice of keeping domesticated weasels for pest control. The Romans regarded the cat as a symbol of independence and not as a creature of utility. Cats were kept as pets by both Greeks and Romans and were regarded highly. A first century CE epitaph of a young girl holding a cat is among the earliest pieces of evidence of cats in Rome and, in Greece, the playwright Aristophanes frequently featured cats in his works for comic effect (coining the phrase, “The cat did it” in assigning blame). Among ancient civilizations, however, the cat was probably least popular among the Greeks owing to its association with the goddess of death, darkness and witches, Hecate. A much later development in Greek appreciation for the cat is evidenced in the legend that the cat protected the baby Jesus from rodents and snakes and so is accorded the best of spots in a Greek home but, originally, they do not seem to have been regarded highly."
    http://www.ancient.eu/article/466/

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  8. Thomas, this is very helpful! It explains why cats always sit in the straw in Christmas cribs!

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  9. I was so happy to see another avatar at her temple at Bauron! Anyway, a year and a half ago our cute Tuxie kitten needed a name and I felt her name materialize in my head: Artimidora. She has indeed been a gift of joy.

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    1. Lovely name! Loving cats and ancient Greek do seem to go together.

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  10. What is it with Classics academics and cats? There's a photo of Hugh Lloyd Jones with a hairy one perched on his desk http://www.ulb.ac.be/assoc/aip/lloydjones_150dpi.jpg and E.J. Kenney records in an obituary of Shackelton Bailey in the Independent the great man's passion for felines:

    "He became a cat lover on acquiring Donum, so called because he was the gift of Frances Lloyd-Jones, and displayed his affection to the classical world in the dedication of his magnum opus to DONO DONORVM AELVRO CANDIDISSIMO, "The gift of gifts, whitest of cats". It was indeed generally and credibly believed in Cambridge that his departure from Jesus and return to Caius was occasioned by the refusal of the Master of Jesus, Sir Denys Page, a dog man, to sanction the cutting of an entrance for Donum in the ancient oak (outer door) of his rooms. At Ann Arbor there were to be other cats, but Donum was special: there comes to mind an evening in those rooms in Jesus when the company suddenly became aware their host had disappeared, and discovered him and Donum in silent communion beneath the floor-length tablecloth."

    More recently we have seen Neville Morley of the Sphinx blog (http://thesphinxblog.com/) affectionately cuddling his pet moggy in a Twitter posting. (https://twitter.com/NevilleMorley)

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  11. He is removing the cat which is demonstrating the 'if I fits I sits' feline mentality.
    It's an obvious instruction to look for hidden cats before any ritual.

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  12. You know what? I think that it is entirely plausible. if there was a font, a cat would definitely fancy curling up in it.

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