My own curiosity was piqued recently when I found out that the OED entry for the Modern English cat is listed as a common Indo-European word of unknown origin, with the oldest cited example being an uncommon Latin word – catta. So uncommon, that I had to go to my Lewis and Short to see what it said, since the only Latin word for cat with which I was familiar was feles. My suspicions were confirmed: this dictionary defined the word catta as “an unknown species of animal.” Moreover, the OED provides both catta and cattus as interchangeable nouns, which struck me as somewhat odd. Yet when we look to most modern European languages, some variant of ‘cat’ appears in very many of them – but not all. Having grown up speaking both Slovak and Czech alongside English, I had not until now given much thought to why the word for a cat – respectively mačka and kočur – is so different between the two languages. How is it that two languages which are so similar ended up with two very different words for a common animal? Any why was the Slovak word so different to other European languages who all have related words like gat(t)o (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, etc), chat (French), and katze (German)? And, returning to the Latin, why had feles seemingly disappeared? While I didn’t quite smell a rat – yet – something did not sit right, and I had to investigate this multi-layered conundrum further.
The ancestor of all modern domestic cats is the Wildcat, Felis silvestris, which has two modern sub-species whose range covers Europe and the Near East – Felis silvestris silvestris, the European Wildcat, and Felis silvestris lybica, the North African Wildcat. Modern genetic studies on cat lineages have shown that F. s. silvestris and F. s. lybica diverged some 230 000 years ago, while the putative ancestor of Felis silvestris cattus (or Felis domesticus, in
texts with outdated nomenclature – I’m looking at you OED!) and F. s. lybica diverged some 130 000 years ago. Sometime between 10 000 and 4000 years ago, the ancestors of all modern domestic cats, F. s. cattus, make their appearance in Neolithic Near-Eastern settlements. A handful of isolated skeletal remains of cats – from Cyprus c. 9000-8500 BCE and c. 7500 BCE; Jericho c. 6700 BCE; as well as evidence of cats in or near Neolithic settlements in the previously cat-free islands of Sardinia, Corsica, Crete, and the Balearics c. 6000-4000 BCE – have been used as evidence for the earlier ‘domestication’ of cats. But these Neolithic cats were likely to have been exploited as sources of meat, with other functional purposes, perhaps vermin control, being of secondary importance (though this does not mean that people could not form personal attachments to animals which they later consumed). The cat was never deliberately domesticated, but instead was probably only a tolerated free-loader in Neolithic societies. Indeed, even though it is outside of the scope of this study, there is evidence that cats were independently domesticated in China c. 3300 BCE and the Indus valley c.3000-2300 BCE, as both these ancient populations were genetically distinct from both F. s. lybica and F. s. cattus.
Archaeology does not have all the answers here. F. s. cattus bones are generally small and fragile and can/have been overlooked in previous excavations; the physical differences between F. s. lybica and F. s. cattus are generally held to be minimal, as are distinctions between feral F. s. cattus populations, domestic F. s. cattus populations, and true wildcats; even when they are used for their skins, they are generally not captive sources of meat (except in times of privation), and therefore their remains tend not be found in middens; and because of cat behaviours – ie, their solitary tendencies mean they are likely to live and die away from centres of habitation – they generally remained unfound, unburied, and thus, with some exceptions, unexcavated.
Cats only become common in statuary and depictions in the New Kingdom period in Egypt – from the middle of the second millennium BCE. They appear on tomb walls in hunting scenes and in domestic settings. It is likely
that the domestication of cats in Egypt is directly related to developments within their religion after c. 2000-1500 BCE: amuletic inscriptions of cats begin to proliferate – the sun god Ra acquires a cat manifestion, Miuty (such a wonderfully onomatopoeic name!), and his consort Hathor also acquired a cat manifestation, Nebethetepet. And despite Bastet being the most famous deity represented as cat, she actually began as a lioness-headed goddess and was not associated with cats before c. 945-715 BCE. Over the next millennium, cats were considered to be sacred in Egypt “in the same way that modern Hindus hold cows to be sacred”. These Egyptian cat populations of the first millennium BCE, were the first domesticated cats of the F. s. cattus lineage. The earliest depictions
of cats outside of an Egyptian context are from Greece c. 500 BCE onwards. (There are some isolated examples of cats in Crete and Palestine c. 1700-1500 BCE, but these areas should be considered as being under Egyptian authority at this time, and in fact it was forbidden to deliberately smuggle cats out of Egypt.) Both in ancient Greece and Rome, cats seemed to have been very much a novelty animal, kept for their status primarily rather than for any utilitarian purpose – so no different to today, really!
It is perhaps only from the Medieval period onwards that cats seem to become a common part of urban and rural life, as domestic companions (especially in monasteries it seems – Pangur Ban anyone?), as a source of fur, and generally as the go-to animal for rodent control, including on board ships. Within Islamic culture they were considered to be ritually clean (unlike dogs), but in medieval and early modern Europe, the relationship between cats and people was just as frequently antagonistic as favoured. The brindled coat pattern of F. s. lybica remained common in F. s. cattus populations throughout the medieval period, and medieval cats were on the whole smaller than modern domestic cats; indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that cats have been
tamed for most of history, but domesticated only in the last 400 or so years at most. The first deliberately bred coat was the blotched tabby, and this only appears from the 15th/16th century onwards, probably originating in the Ottoman court. F. s. silvestris have different coats – much darker and greyer, with more prominent transverse stripes, a dark dorsal stripe, and very bushy tails. They are also more aggressive, bigger, and less social in their habits than F. s. lybica. This may perhaps indicate some genetic influence from F. s. silvestris on early Continental F. s. cattus populations, since some ancient Roman cats may have been significantly larger and better rodent-hunters than modern domestic cats. There is also some localised evidence of apparent hybridisation between F. s. silvestris and F. s. cattus populations.
So, at least in the near East and Mediterranean, cats have coexisted with humans for millennia – but how is this reflected in the language? Does the linguistic evidence mesh with the archaeological/iconographic evidence that F. s. cattus originated in Egypt in the middle of the second millennium BCE, spread to the Near East, Greece and Rome from the middle of the first millennium BCE, and did not seem to become common in Europe north of the Alps before the middle of the first millennium CE?
There seems to have been only one Egyptian word for the cat – the onomatopaeic miw which meant ‘one who miaows’. This does not seem to have influenced either the primary Greek or Latin words for cats: aílouros (αἴλουρος) – which was also borrowed into Latin as aelurus – and feles. There is also, from the early medieval period onwards, catta/cattus to contend with. However, this is where I’ll have to take a long digression, because alongside these words are the following which need to be discussed – galē (γαλῆ), iktis (ἴκτις), mustela, martes and viverra.
They all describe members of the Mustelidae (a large taxonomic family found in Africa, both the Americas, and Eurasia, which also include badgers, otters and wolverines) – and specifically members of the genus Martes and Mustela. If we only consider the species likely to have been encountered by speakers of European languages, the Martes are:
- the (European) Pine (or Yellow-Breasted) Marten, M. martes – 640-800mm (total average adult body + tail length),
- the Beech (or Stone/House/White-Breasted) Marten, M. foina – 600-900mm,
- and the Sable, M. zibellina – 420-680mm;
while the Mustela are:
- the Steppe (or Masked) Polecat, M. eversmanii – 400-1040mm,
- the European Polecat (also known as the Forest Polecat, Common Ferret, and Fitch), M. putoris – 380-620mm,
- the Ferret, (which is the domesticated European Polecat) M. putoris furo – 400-500mm,
- the Mink, M. lutreola – 500-620mm,
- the Stoat (also known as the Ermine when displaying its winter coat), M. erminea – 230-440mm,
- and the (Least) Weasel, M. nivalis – 130-350mm.
Furthermore, if we are to specifically consider only those mustelids which would have been known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, then we probably ought to exclude M. zibellina, and M. lutreola, as range of these animals is limited to the northernmost forests of Europe, in Russia and Siberia and they only became well-known to most Europeans from the late Medieval period. This leaves us with the martens, polecats/ ferrets, and weasels/ermines/stoats as the three types of mustelids known in the first millennium BCE to CE.
Why have I introduced all of these animals which are not cats? For the simple reason that in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, all (or most) of these animals were regularly confused/conflated with cats and vice versa. Lazenby, Lewis, Mayor, and Schodde are just a few of the scholars who have written about the cat vs mustelid question (while also including an excellent selection of primary sources in their articles).
Now, from the perspective of modern knowledge, it can be hard to understand how or why this could have been the case – but we must be more sympathetic to people in the past. As discussed above, before the 5th/6th century BCE, there is simply not the evidence – archaeological, iconographic, and literary – for the cat (outside of an Egyptian context) as a common animal in the Graeco-Roman world. It also seems highly likely that either weasels or ferrets (or both) were known in Greece for some time before cats. This is how the galē, iktis, mustela, aílouros/aelurus, and feles have been described in texts dating from the 7th century BCE to the 5th century CE:
- frequently associated with household pest control (mainly rodents and snakes), but they also had a noted tendency to indiscriminately kill other small animals, mainly poultry;
- described as being secretive/furtive, fierce, mischievous, curious, even malicious, and with a propensity for thievery;
- but also known as indolent lap-animals, and the favoured pets of women.
So far, if the text does not include a physical description, one would be hard-pressed to differentiate between cats and mustelids. And even when there was a physical or behavioural description, it can still be hard to differentiate:
- both cats and mustelids have roughly triangular-shaped heads and furry bodies;
- females will make their nests in similar sorts of nests, often reusing and re-purposing hidden and/or isolated parts of man-made structures or the burrows of other animals;
- all wildcats and mustelids are solitary animals;
- both wildcats and wild mustelids are obligate (and opportunistic) carnivores, even when domestic cats and ferrets have a reputation for being fussy about their sources of protein;
- and the young of both cats and mustelids, whether kittens, kits, or cubs, are virtually indistinguishable in the first few weeks of life.
The most important point which I want to make here, is that from the point-of-view of an ancient Greek or Roman, especially one who may have been familiar with the habits of either cats or mustelids, but not with both, that any comparative distinctions would have been unnecessary, and redundant. It’s also important to note that our modern classification of animals into family, genus, and species, is not the approach of ancient and medieval people: without the knowledge of comparative anatomy, genetics, evolution, and so forth, animals that were similar visually and/or behaviourally would have been conceived of as similar. Comparisons would only have become useful once both animals were commonly known; and it is then that we ought to find fuller textual descriptions, as well as perhaps the appearance of new words in the Greek and Latin lexica. Some of these comparative differences are:
- unlike the other mustelids, M. martes have semi-retractable claws (and spends much of it time in trees), while cats have fully retractable claws;
- where the Mustela have small, round ears that sit close to the skull, and cats have triangular ears, the Martes sit somewhere between the two;
- Both wildcat species have green-pupiled, reflective eyes, while all the mustelids have round, black, bead-like eyes and noses, except for M. p. furo and M. foina who have pink noses;
- cats (especially F. s. lybica) are, on average, a little longer and larger than the Martes, although some truly huge feral F. s. cattus individuals have been recorded; polecats and ferrets are noticeably smaller than the average cat and have elongated necks and bellies and short limbs; while weasels and stoats are the most ‘cylindrical’ of the mustelids and are much smaller than cats;
- and finally, cats move in a number of different ways – walking, stalking/crawling, trotting/loping, and sprinting; while all the Mustela are decidedly twitchy and move by bounding, with M. putoris sp. even maintaining their distinctively arched backs whilst running; the smaller stoats and weasels are essentially living quicksilver.
The featured image of this blog post is generally considered to be one of the earliest depictions of a cat outside of Egypt. But, when it’s posture is examined more closely, there has to be some room for doubt: the size of the animal (ankle- to shin-high), especially in comparison with the dog, could be anything from a small cat, a marten, or a large polecat/ferret; the highly arched back is more suggestive of a mustelid rather than a cat; especially as the ears are not flat, as an angry/scared cat’s would be, but rounded, and more inquisitive looking. That the date of the relief is the last quarter of the 6th century BCE makes it only just plausible that it could be an exotic Egyptian cat, while tamed mustelids were arguably more common at this date. You be the judge:
Another major point of difference between cats and mustelids is that the latter, especially the Mustela species, are notorious for their incredibly strong, pungent odour. Like seriously strong. Cats do of course have a slightly musky odour themselves, and this is more apparent to humans when they are in heat – but the mustelids are apparently some next level stuff. M. putoris is the best and most notorious example of this. And finally, the last point of difference is one which will become more important further below, and that is that the mustelids are all famed for their pelts. Cats were certainly hunted and killed for their skins at various times and places, but in the fur trade, the mustelids were far more valuable. This excellent discussion gives one an idea on the range of furs used, as well as how they were used for clothing in the late medieval period. Our four types of animal can all be easily differentiated based on their coats:
- F. s. silvestris has a silvery coat striped with dark grey, and a bushy, black-tipped tail; while F. s. lybica has a similar ‘mackerel’ pattern tending more towards the brown hues with a slender tail;
- M. martes has a uniform mid to dark reddish-brown coat with a yellow-gold ‘bib’, and very bushy tail, while M. foina has a similar, though light to mid ashen-brown coat with a white ‘bib’ and somewhat sleeker tail, and both have very soft fur;
- M. eversmanii, M. putoris and M. p. furo all have a yellowish-white undercoat which is most visible on the belly and in winter, and a very dark brown, coarse-haired overcoat, with short, bushy tails;
- and M. erminea and M. nivalis both have a very pronounced dorso-ventral line, with reddish-brown heads, backs and limbs, and a white belly and throat, and the only visual difference between the two species, apart from size, is that M. erminea have black-tipped short tails.
And that brings Part One of this blog post to a close, as I think that I’ve pondered the similarities and differences between cats and mustelids sufficiently for now. I hope that I’ve been able to show some of the reasons why in the ancient world, they were so often confused and conflated. In Part Two, I’ll be looking at the etymological evidence that cats and mustelids were conceptually very similar in the ancient, and indeed, into the medieval period.