Ancient Greece was no stranger to cats. They likened cats to weasels which were also kept around the home to reduce rodent populations. While they were not as much of a cat-loving culture as the Ancient Egyptians were, the ancient Greeks played a pivotal role in the history of cats as domestic pets. The mythology and lure that came from ancient Greece was a big step in changing cats from the highly worshiped creatures of ancient Egypt to the witches’ familiars of the Middle Ages.

The birth of Heracles ; Disney didn’t quite get it right.

In ancient Greek mythology, the king of all the gods was Zeus. Zeus was a bit of a womanizer and had children with various goddess and human women. On one occasion, he desired to sleep with a human woman named Almene. Almene was a married woman who refused to sleep even with her husband until he returned victorious from war. While her husband was on the way back from his war, Zeus disguised himself as Almene’s husband and presented her with spoils from his victory. The deception worked and Zeus impregnated Almene with Heracles. Not an hour after Zeus left, Almene’s actual husband returned from battle, slept with her and impregnated her with his child as well.

Cats in Ancient Greece Athenian black-figure amphora, 6th century BC, Heracles wrestling with the Nemean lion, Ashmolean Museum

Pottery from the 6th Century BC depicting Heracles fighting the Neaman lion. Photo Credit: Carole Raddato

Upon hearing the news of Almene’s pregnancy, Zeus’ wife, Hera, was not particularly happy about Zeus’ infidelity. She immediately hatched a plan for revenge. Hera convinced Zeus to declare that the next child born in Perseus’ line (Heracles could be that child) would be the high king of the city. Once Zeus made his announcement she conspired with the goddess of childbirth to cause Heracles’ cousin to be born 2 weeks early and to thwart the birth of Heracles.

The goddess of childbirth crossed her arms and legs to prevent Almene from giving birth. Almene writhed in agony as she was in labor, but unable to give birth. A quick witted friend of Almene, Galinthius, decided to help her friend by deceiving the goddess of childbirth.  Galinthius announced to the goddess of childbirth that Heracles had been born (this was not true). Shocked by the announcement, the goddess of childbirth uncrossed her arms and legs just long enough for Heracles and his twin brother to be born.

Enraged by having her plan spoiled, Hera turned Galinthius into a cat. She was cursed to live a joyless life all alone. However, Hecate, the goddess of the moon and magic took pity on Galinthius the cat. Galinthius was taken down to the underworld to live as Hecate’s assistant. The cats of ancient Greece start becoming witches’ familiars are right there. Later in his life, Heracles honors Galinthius by building a sanctuary to her.

The Cats of Ancient Egypt Become the Cats of Ancient Greece

Cats in ancient Greece: Artemis and Oyster

A cat with a statue of Artemis in the distance. Photo Credit: Rebecca Siegel

The ancient Greeks did take notice of the Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet. Though her worship didn’t take off in the same way as it did in Egypt, the Greeks adopted the goddess and called her Ailuros. This is the name from which we derive the Ailurophobia – the irrational fear of cats.

The ancient Greeks felt that Ailuros was a night-version of their goddess Artemis.  Artemis was the virginal twin sister of Apollo; Goddess of the hunt, wild animals, and fertility. She was always depicted as being flanked by animals of all kinds. In one story, the gods are fleeing from Typhon (a large monstrous Titan) and Artemis turns herself into a cat in order to escape.

Later on in Greek mythology Artemis takes a turn toward the dark side. She becomes a practitioner of magic arts. An eerily familiar story begins to unfold as she becomes the unmarried witch that has the ability to shape shift into a cat.

Cats in Ancient Greek Theatre

The cats of ancient Greece made it into some famous Greek plays. Famous ancient Greek playwright, Arisophanes, included cats in his pieces very often. Arisophanes wrote very bold comedy for his time. He wasn’t afraid to parody even the highest ranking politicians. He depicted the cats of ancient Greece as common, friendly household pets. Much like we say “the dog ate it” in reference to paperwork we don’t want to do, Arisophanes coined the tongue-in-cheek phrase “the cat did it” to blame the cat for anything that went wrong. If a character accidentally broke someone else’s family heirloom, they could announce “the cat did it” when the owner of the heirloom took notice.

Do you have a funny story about something your “cat did”?

As for me – During Christmas time “one of my cats” broke the head off of Joseph in the manger scene.