Egyptian Cats and Greek Curiosity

Alex Tarbet

My cat behaves in strange ways. For instance, I have a candle on my desk. Once, she was so mystified by the shimmering flame that she crept up close. Closer. She gave a curious little sniff, decided to inquire, pushed her face in – and burnt her own whiskers off. I reacted by drawing on Classical wisdom (rather than calling a veterinarian) and informed her that her pain was the result of hubris and curiositas. “You get what you ask for, kitty. You shouldn’t poke your nose into forbidden shimmery magical things, or you’ll get exactly what you deserve. There is a thing called justice in the universe. Know thyself.” I scolded her. In the end she learned nothing by suffering. But she did shoot me a glare and slink off to use my copy of Aeschylus as a litter-box.

The Egyptian cat goddess Bastet, Second Dynasty (early 3rd millennium BC) (Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany).

Classical authors had strange ideas about cats. Aelian (AD c.170–230) thought they would be your lifelong friends if you just kept them fed.[1] (He’s wrong: my cat is both overweight and resentful.) Aristotle (c.384–322 BC) thought that females have sex by scootching backward under males while they stand upright, apparently on hind legs.[2] (That’s just insulting to cats everywhere.) And they must have small minds because they have such tiny faces.[3] (My cat clearly disagrees.)

Freshly-salted cat liver, eaten with a glass of wine under a waning moon, will cure a fever, according to the Roman Pliny the Elder (AD c.23–79).[4] And a dead cat’s ashes mixed with water can be used as convenient household mouse repellent.[5] Cat dung is just sticky enough to help remove a splinter, but a she-goat’s will do it in a pinch.[6] Plutarch (AD c.45–120) thought cats had magical eyes that waxed and waned along with the moon.[7] And perfume makes them enter a Dionysian frenzy and go completely crazy.[8]

A possible reconstruction of Herodotus’ world, on the basis of his Histories.

Herodotus (c.484–425 BC), that curious world traveler, heard something about cats during his trip down the Nile in the 5th century BC, a time when they were unfamiliar animals to Greeks:

πυρκαϊῆς δὲ γενομένης θεῖα πρήγματα καταλαμβάνει τοὺς αἰελούρους· οἱ μὲν γὰρ Αἰγύπτιοι διαστάντες φυλακὰς ἔχουσι τῶν αἰελούρων, ἀμελήσαντες σβεννύναι τὸ καιόμενον, οἱ δὲ αἰέλουροι διαδύνοντες καὶ ὑπερθρώσκοντες τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἐσάλλονται ἐς τὸ πῦρ.

When there is a fire, a divine state seizes hold of cats. The Egyptians stand in a line and hold guard over them but neglect the fire. The cats, rushing through, leap over them and dive right into the fire. When this happens, there is great public mourning among the Egyptians.[9]

Er, what? Herodotus’ tale of ‘cats leaping into fire’ seems suspicious. But given the behavior of my own little candle-sniffer, I can make a guess where it came from. A well-known factoid – ‘cats are not that smart when it comes to flames’ – had passed around the Mediterranean and been exaggerated through the ‘telephone game’ before it perked up the ears of Herodotus, who excitedly scribbled it down in Greek.[10]

Egyptian cat guarding geese, Nineteenth Dynasty (c.1120 BC) (Cairo Museum, Egypt).

Now, Herodotus was an entertainer. He loved flinging out fireworks of wonders from his faraway travels left and right to explode his audience’s minds. Greeks were really into (and would have paid good money for) short packaged tales that were catchy, exotic, or spooky enough to show off at drinking parties. Imagine the oohs and aahs: “Say, did you hear the one about Egyptian cats? Did you know they explode?” “By the dog, you’re lying!” “It’s true, I heard it from an expert!” 

Herodotus was an expert, but not on cats. Rather, he was a great listener, a world traveler, a lore collector, someone fun for people all around the Mediterranean to meet and chat with as his entourage traveled around the world sponging up everyone’s favorite tales about this and that. He did a fair job translating what Egyptians had to say. (A few things they wrote square pretty well with his Greek, so we know he was not making stuff up.) But occasionally something was lost in the process and the result is just weird. The ‘cats on fire’ passage is one of those moments where we scratch our heads: “Huh? What happened there?”

Stories about exotic animals and their behavior floated all around the ancient Mediterranean, over tongues and through ears, before they settled into Greek as ‘weird science’ or paradoxography. (A paradox or παράδοξος meant a marvelous thing, such as a dragon, ghost, vampire, unicorn, werewolf – all of which Greeks and Romans heard whispered rumors about from faraway lands).[11] Folk love a good story, especially one performed with some flair. ‘Flaming cats’ may have been a fun thing to pass around for audiences of all ages. (I wish I could believe it was more than a coincidence that the word Herodotus used for ‘fire’ was πῦρ – purr.)

Egyptian ring with cat and kittens, Third Intermediary Period (late 2nd / early 1st millennium BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

But what Egyptian told the tale? Herodotus tells us nothing about his informant except that he was a ‘priest’. That hardly helps. Temples had thousands of personnel, from groundskeepers to cooks to guards to the high priest himself. Many of these had seasonal priesthoods only for three or four months of the year with temporary prestige and pay. Perhaps Herodotus had a brief encounter with a farmer, merchant, craftsman, local guide, tourist-trapper, traveling bard, streetside raconteur – any of them a ‘priest’ only part of the year.

When someone, say, a metalworker or fishmonger, worked in a temple for a few months as a priest, creative lore from his daily home life could easily trickle in with him. Fresh stuff sourced from the family household: children’s tales, fables, rumors, jokes, myths, news, gossip, insults, spells, problems with the neighbor’s cats – you name it. And then it trickled out. Herodotus could have heard anything anywhere.

Cat with kittens on damaged box for animal mummy, Late Period / Ptolemaic Period (640–30 BC) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Egyptians were diverse, and some of them would not have intended or cared to share feline biology facts with a nosy foreigner from a distant empire. Many were too busy farming. Or weaving. Or making jewelry. Or brewing beer. Or writing love songs. Or fishing. Or tending the kids.

Public storytelling was unofficial and unlearned, non-literate, talkative, playful, wide-ranging in register. And so were myth and religion: playful, sexual, humorous, private, open for improvisation – yet also political, religious, official, patriarchal behind temple doors, all at once. Our little cat tale came from somebody with their own private life, a family world, a sense of self and self-reflection, a profession or craft of their own, with their own style and horizon of imagination. (And it was certainly not the high priest.) So what was on their mind?

Egyptian cat mummy, probably from Bubastis, Mid-Ptolemaic Period (2nd cent. BC) (Penn Museum, Philadelphia, PA, USA).

Cats were venerated as goddesses by Egyptians. (They still know this.) Priests solemnly embalmed thousands and sold their mummies to pilgrims wishing to make offerings to the cat goddess at her temple. There must have been great celebration and lamentation for their little burials. (Humans have historically tended to be obsessed with or even enjoy cat death for one reason or another.)[12]

But ancient cats could be cute little morons too. On Egyptian craftsmen’s drawings we see a clear sense of humor, playfulness, and farce, maybe even social satire. Have a look for yourself. (I particularly like the masterpiece ‘Regretful Shitty Kitty – the one that seems to be looking back and saying whoops!) Somebody did not take pets all that seriously. And of course not! Cats are funny, universally speaking. And sometimes not so brain-smart. This is known.

Ostraca from the workers’ village at Deir el-Medina, reproduced from Patrick Houlihan’s
Wit and Humour in Ancient Egypt (Rubicon, London, 2001) 76–85.

In popular Egyptian storytelling, felines were devious agents of humor and chaos. To wit, in the Petese Stories (c. 3rd cent. BC), a necromancer compels a ghost to tell him how long he has to live. With only forty days and forty nights left – desiring to spend it drinking and having sex with his wife, of course – he crafts a cat golem out of wax and sends it to terrify his boss, and extorts a solid 500 silver from him.[13]

In Setna I (AD c. 1st cent.), a horny sorcerer searching for a forbidden book has a nightmare in which the numinously gorgeous mystical lady Tabubu – in response to his many appeals for sex – hurls his children out of a window into the street to be eaten by strays.[14] So cats were associated in Egyptian ‘horror fiction’ with sexual desire, curiosity, and horrible divine vengeance, should magicians poke their noses into the forbidden.

Ancient Egyptian drawing from Deir el-Medina (c.1500-1100 BC), reproduced in Patrick Houlihan’s Wit and Humour in Ancient Egypt (Rubicon, London, 2001) 83.

The Myth of the Distant Goddess might give us a clue about ‘cats plus fire’. The goddess Hathor (or Tefnut) has an argument with her father, the Sun. Annoyed, she stomps off into the desert and metamorphoses into a cat. Desperate for her return, the Sun sends the crafty baboon Thoth to calm her with beer and humorous stories. Success! Soothed from rage and resentment, kitty feels homesick. But Thoth begins to lose ground. She becomes enraged again and – well, ignites.

She changed in her appearance into an angry lioness… her coat gave off smoke and flame; her back was blood-colored, and her face had the brilliance of the Sun Disk. Her eyes had a fiery glow, and her stares glowed like flame, casting fire out like the light of a summer day. She shone from within her entire body… she stamped with her paws, and the mountain produced a cloud of dust.[15]

A messy retelling of a ‘cat and fire’ myth may have been mangled beyond sense, or miscommunicated, or mistranslated, or spoken offhand if Herodotus was in some hectic spot along the Nile. Egyptian families enjoyed cat fictions not only as deep ritual lore, but as evening delights, part of their earthy world of family celebrations, leisure, relaxations, play and performance.

The obsequies of an Egyptian cat, John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886 (Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand).

The Nile was a thriving hotbed of creative storytelling. Thousands of Egyptians celebrated festival lore around a ‘return of the distant cat goddess’ to her home city, Bubastis, and drank more grape wine on a single day than all the rest of the year (so Herodotus says). They played musical instruments, clapped their hands and danced, while women sailed up the Nile on boats, flashed their vaginas at women on the shore, and shouted all sorts of obscene things at them.[16] Greek women emulated this in their own secret ceremonies for Demeter, full of jokes, insults, wine, and genital-shaped cakes.[17]

The ancient world was a lively and intense mix of all sorts of imaginations, stories, and cross-cultural meetings. The idea that cats scorch themselves to death was a bit of creative runoff from Nile storytelling as it trickled into the rest of the Mediterranean imagination, something purred up from Bubastis and muddied into Greek science. Reading Herodotus is like rummaging through a mixed bag full of gems. Our little investigation here may have only burned our whiskers. But surely a spark of curiosity about other cultures, past times, and distant peoples is what Herodotus really wanted to cultivate in his audience.[18]


Alex is a first-gen PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. His work explores Egyptian folk humor in Herodotus and later Greco-Roman works.


Further Reading

Serge Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt (trans. Ann Morrissett, Evergreen Books, London/New York, 1960).

Laurie O’Higgins, Women and Humor in Classical Greece (Cambridge UP, 2003).

Dominic Montserrat, Sex and Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Routledge, London, 2012).

Patrick Houlihan, Wit & Humour in Ancient Egypt (Rubicon, London, 2001).

Jacqueline Jay, Orality and Literacy in the Demotic Tales (Brill, Leiden, 2016).

Kim Ryholt, The Petese Stories II (Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen, 2006).

Notes

Notes
1 On Animals, 4.44.
2 ὀρθός, History of Animals, 540a.
3 Physiognomics, 811d.
4 Natural History, 229.
5 Natural History, 160.
6 Natural History, 245.
7 Isis and Osiris, 376ff.
8 Advice to the Bride and Groom, 144d. Were Romans wearing catnip? Some Latinist out there please get back to me on that.
9 Herodotus 2.66.3. My translation of the Greek text from A.D. Godley’s Loeb (1920).
10 Ancient lamps and candles could scorch off curious whiskers just as easily as those today. A plump mouse hunched on top of lamps was a common decoration, probably intended to remind the owner to close the lid, lest rats and mice nibble at the wick. This would be especially important during Nile flood seasons, when they emerged in plague hordes: the cats were valiant protectors of the light who (maybe) burned their noses in humorous ways. See further Philip Kiernan, “The Bronze Mice of Apollo Smintheus,” American Journal of Archaeology 118 (2014), 613–14.
11 To read some original sources, see Christopher Nichols, Ctesias: On India (Bristol Classical Press, London, 2011), and Gregory McNamee, Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press, San Antonio, TX, USA, 2012).
12 From Tom and Jerry to the medieval French. See Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (Basic Books, New York, 1984).
13 Ryholt, 2.
14 Vinson, 125.
15 Adapted from a translation by Steve Vinson (2018) 265; see also Jay, 225–44.
16 Herodotus 2.60.
17 See O’Higgins (2003) 19.
18 A special thanks to T.G. Wilfong, Sara Forsdyke, Ian Moyer, Katherine Davis, and Sara Ahbel-Rappe for their help, and to everyone who works to make Demotic and other ancient languages available to students.