Curiosity Killed the Cat(ta): Part Two

In Part One, I looked at the mainly visual evidence for cats and mustelids, but for Part Two, it is time to concentrate on the words themselves, both by diving into their etymologies, as well as by looking at some pertinent examples of ancient and medieval literary descriptions. So without further ado, let’s look at the etymologies of the modern words for the mustelids. What will be apparent very quickly, is just how much these animals overlap conceptually and semantically across cultures.

Firstly, on the matter of the very strong odour, the Latin putoris means a foul, rotten stench, from which we have the Modern English ‘putrid’, while one of the common names for this animal, the polecat (which of course also

While the illustration is meant to be of a putorio, the body is very cat-like, the fur is more like an ermine, and the round ears and head are also mustelid-like. Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France, c. 1290. Valenciennes, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 320, fol. 77r.

contains ‘cat’), is derived from the Old French pulent, ‘stinking’; and this has cognates in putois (Modern French), and puzzola (Italian). The polecat also used to be known as a foumart, from the Old English (OE) foul + mearþ, ‘stinking marten’, and in some regional dialects is still called by this name. Other mustelids also have names which derive from their strong odour. The Modern English weasel is derived from OE weosule, and Proto-Germanic (PG) *wisulon, which is related to PG *wisand, ‘bison’, both of which mean ‘the stinking animal’. Indeed, a number of languages have cognates to this word – væsel (Danish), wezel (Dutch), weasel (English), wiesel (German), and vessla (Swedish); as well as the likely cognates in lasica (Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian), podlasica (Slovenian), lasička (Czech, Slovak), łasica (Polish), and laska (Belarusian, Russian, Ukranian). Interestingly, the following cognates – vizon (Albanian, Macedonian, and Turkish), vizón (Greek), vison (French), visón (Spanish), visone (Italian), visó (Catalan), viscucili (Corsican), and bisoi (Basque) – are all words for the mink, which itself is derived from the Swedish menk, ‘a stinking animal from Finland’.

Secondly, we have terms which are used to refer to both the pelt and the living animal: mink, sable and ermine. For the dark-brown sable, almost every European language has a cognate variously spelt sable/sobol/zibel, and

Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini is wearing what appears to be a sable hat and a marten trimmed and lined tabard, while his wife’s houppelande is lined and trimmed with miniver (squirrel). The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434.

even those perennial outsiders, Estonian and Finnish, have cognates in soobel and soopeli respectively. The etymology is unknown, but generally understood to have come into all European languages from Russian, while Russian likely adopted it from the Balto-Finnic languages. It is perhaps more instructive to look at those languages which have a different word for the sable – namely samur (Azerbaijani, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Turkish, and Uzbek) and samóuri (Greek) – which are derived from sermulis (Latvian) and šermuonėlis (Lithuanian), the word for both wildcat and stoat/weasel, thus bringing us full circle with the ancient Greek and Latin words.

But sermulis and šermuonėlis are also the words for ermine in Latvian and Lithuanian, which in turn are themselves cognate with the word for ermine and stoat in other Slavonic languages, harnastaj (Belarusian), hornostay (Ukranian), gornostay (Russian), gronostaj (Polish), and for stoat only hranostaj (Czech and Slovak). Why this substitution took place between the white ermine and the almost black sable, is not understood, though it may have simply referred to the high-value pelt itself, and not specifically to the colour of said pelt. With respect to ermine, most languages have an hermelin-/ ermin-/armiñi cognate which is derived from PG *harman-, the word weasel or shrew (though the OED also posits that it could be derived from Armenius, or ‘Armenian’). Scottish Gaelic has sneachda, ‘snowy’, and this is semantically the same as the taxonomic name M. nivalis, as well as the Bulgarian sibirska belka, ‘siberian white one’. Incidentally, this has a cognate in belka (Russian), bilka (Ukranian), and Białku (Belarusian) – all words for

lady with an ermine leonardo da vinci
The ermine was a symbol of purity and virginity in medieval Europe, as in this painting of Cecilia Gallerani. Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-90.

the squirrel. It is most likely that the conflation arose from the fur trade where white squirrel fur was highly prized and known as miniver, though it has to be noted, that from an ancient/medieval perspective, that one animal was a herbivore and one was a carnivore, would surely have been of lesser importance that the visual similarities (colour, size, fur, movement).

For the final group of words based on the pelt, we have to go back to the marten. In about half of our languages the word for a marten is cognate with the English word, itself cognate with the Latin martes. It is postulated that these derive from the PIE *merio-, which does not refer to any animal as such, but is the word for a young woman or bride, as in the Lithuanian marti, ‘bride’. And before this begins to sound outlandish, there is a strong folkloric tradition in Greece and Macedonia which associated weasels (rather than martens) with brides (especially jilted brides), and where, out of jealousy, weasels were wont to rip up and shred the bride-to-be’s clothing. In fact, all over Europe, the weasel seemed to have been closely associated, both etymologically and mythically with young women, as this excellent study on the etymology of mustela shows. Moreover, there are good grounds for a hypothesis that the original name of the weasel was lost in most languages as it was a taboo name to say out loud, and the animal itself was addressed by oblique nicknames. Such displacement is of course, a feature of the Indo-European languages, and it neatly explains why the word for weasel is: doninha (Galician, Portuguese) and donnola (Italian); nyfitsa (νυφίτσα, Modern Greek), nevestulka (Bulgarian), and nevǎstuicǎ (Romanian); and

Portrait of Antea 'La Bella', 1535-37 (oil on canvas)
I would like to think that the title of the painting refers to both the woman and the marten. Portrait of Antea ‘La Bella’, Parmigianino, 1535-37.

menyét (Hungarian) – as these words all literally mean ‘little woman’, ‘little bride’, or ‘daughter-in-law’. In fact, I would go one step further, and suggest that there might even be a similar oblique association between bellus, ‘pretty, fine’, and feles, ‘cat‘. No etymology is usually given for feles, though belau, the Welsh for marten, is generally cited as a cognate. To this, I would add the word for weasel, belette (French) and ballottra (Maltese); ‘pretty little girl’ fits nicely with the previous group of semantically alike, though etymologically disparate names for the weasel.

Shifting back to the marten, in other languages it is known by an entirely different Slavonic word: kuna (Bosnian, Croatian, Czech, Macedonian, Polish, Serbian, and Slovak), and its variants kunica (Belarusian), kunitsa (Russian), kunytsya (Ukranian), kunami (Slovenian), kunadhe (Albanian), kounávi (Modern Greek), cauna (Latvian), and kiaunė (Lithuanian). As is becoming apparent, this word also has linguistic cognates for other animals in other languages: for ferret, kounávi (Greek); for sable, kunadhe (Albanian) and caunāda (Latvian); and for mink, (kanadska) kuna (Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian). This word seems to be derived from either a Proto-Slavic word for ‘golden-coloured’, itself related either to the PG hunanga, ‘honey’, or (less likely) to a PIE word for ‘red’ – probably originlly in reference either to the golden-yellow ‘bib’ of M. martes or the reddish-brown coat of both the Martes.

In a revival of the medieval tradition, the modern currency of Croatia, since 1994, is the kuna.

But, perhaps more importantly, at least in some medieval Slavic countries mainly the old Pannonian lands of Yugoslavia and Hungary, as well as the Kievan Rus, the homonymous kuna was the word for currency, and even the medieval Croatian word for ‘tax’ was marturina, derived from – you guessed it – our old friend, martes. Further to the semantic group of mustelid pelts relating to money, the modern Russian sorok, ‘forty’ (which only displaced the original četyredesęte, ‘four tens’, in the late medieval period), is apparently from the Old East Slavic sorokŭ, ‘bunch of (sable) pelts’, and one suggested etymology is from Old Norse serkr, and PG *sarkiz-, ‘shirt’. The implication is that furs were so ubiquitous that they formed the basis of monetary transactions within the medieval slavic countries.

So much for the modern words, let’s now return to ancient words for cats and mustelids.


Galē (γαλῆ) is the earliest word used to refer to mustelids, either to the smaller domesticated version, the ferret, or to the category of ‘weasel‘ more

screen shot 2019-01-15 at 5.55.59 pm
In medieval folklore, only the weasel could kill a basilisk – as with this lovely ermine, it’s little black-tipped tail just visible. BL Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r.

generally, and only in later centuries does it refer to cats. Its etymology indicates it referred to ‘skin’ in some way, and is related to the Latin galea, ‘helmet’. There is also a related word for ‘husband’s sister’, galóōs, that expands the semantic group of weasel/bride/female relative words discussed above. There do not seem to be any accepted cognates for galē in modern European languages. (An attempt has been made Czech linguists to derive kolčava (one of two words for weasel) from *kolica, and this from *galei-ā. But this is neither certain nor universally accepted).

Aílouros (αἴλουρος) and aelurus appear in texts referring to both cats and mustelids, though perhaps more often to cats. The etymology of this word is somewhat disputed. Aílouros falls out of use some time between the 4th and 6th centuries CE, and is replaced by a Latin loanword, gata (γατα), from catta/cattus. There do not appear to be cognates of ailóuros in any modern European languages.

Mustela is the semantic equivalent of galē, being for both mustelids and cats in antiquity, though it was used into the medieval period to refer to small

screen shot 2019-01-15 at 9.23.00 pm
An extremely cat-like mustela – note the triangular ears, pupilled eyes, and long sharp claws. The Hague MMW 10 D 7, f. 38r.

mustelids. The usual etymology is to derive it from mus, ‘mouse’, on the basis that these animals were ‘mouse-catchers’; however, Bettini convincingly rejects this, and proposes an alternate etymology from mustus, ‘fresh, new, young’, and musteus, ‘sweet, fresh’, from the nickname that one would use to refer to these animals to avoid using their true name. The only modern cognate I have found is mostela, weasel in Corsican.

Feles was used primarily for cats in classical Latin, and only occasionally for mustelids. No etymology is generally provided; however, I would like to consider fel, ‘bile’, which is not given as related to feles (though I think should be), for its etymology is from either *bhlē-uo-s, ‘yellow, blond, or blue colour’ or *ĝhel-, ‘shine, green, gold, blue’, which would potentially link it semantically with kuna above. It has no cognates in the words for cats in modern European languages (unless we accept belau, belette, and ballottra). The modern English word ‘feline’ only appears from the 15th/16th century onwards, and appears to have been intially used by authors wishing to show off their knowledge of Latin. It of course was used by Carl Linnaeus himself when he first devised the system of taxonomy for both the family and genus of all big and small ‘cats’, or ‘felines’.

screen shot 2019-01-15 at 9.44.14 pm
Weasels were thought to conceive their young through kissing, and birth live young from their ears, then carry them around in their mouths. However, these weasels are, in my opinion, possibly martens, from their bushy tails and not very elongated bodies. The Queen Mary Psalter, BL Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 112v (top) and 113r (bottom).

Martes does not appear to have been used to refer to cats, only to martens. The etymology, referred to above, seems to be from the PIE *merio-, or ‘young woman, bride’. This would make it another word originally coined so that the ‘true’, taboo name did not have to be spoken. It has many cognates – all of the Germanic and Italic words for marten, as well as mörður, the Icelandic word for ferret, and possibly comadreja, the Spanish word for weasel.

Viverra was used to refer to ferrets, when Pliny first used the term to translate the galai agriai (field mustelid) of Strabo. It was not applied to cats. The etymology is not provided, though surely it must relate to vivo, -ere, ‘to live’, as this could give viverra a meaning of ‘lively’ or ‘sprightly’, and be an accurate description of

Here’s another mustela on the right with her kits, staring down a mouse, while on the left is a red squirrel. Note how very similar they appear here, with difference being their diet (mice vs acorns) and their tails. Bodleian Library MS, Bodley 602, f. 24r.

a ferret’s/polecat’s bounding movement. I would also suggest that miniver, the archaic English word for the fur of a squirrel (or weasel/stoat in regional dialects) – and therefore also its cognate, the French vair, ‘fur’ – may have come from viverra. Viverra also has many cognates, but, except for eòrna, the Scottish Gaelic for ferret, and voverė, the Lithuanian for marten, all of them are words for the squirrelvjeverica (Bosnian, Croatian), veverica (Macedonian, Serbian, Slovenian), veverička (Slovak), veverka (Czech), veveriƫǎ (Romanian), vāvere (Latvian), wiewiórka (Polish), gwiwer (Welsh), iora (Irish), and feòrag (Scottish Gaelic).


I have deliberately left one group of words for last – that of the ancient Greek words iktis,(ἴκτίς), ktis/katís (κ(α)τίς), kattês (κάττης), and kattos (κάττος); and the Latin words ictis, cattus/catta, and gattus/gatta – as I would like to argue that all of these are cognates.

Iktis is not provided with an etymology, though a common ancestor has been suggested in ikteros, ‘jaundice’. This situation is similar to what I proposed for fel and feles above, where there is a yellow colour word underlying the connection, and there is also a similar bitter quality that (if we accept the connection) may be linked to the apparent stench of some mustelids. Iktis seems to have only been used to refer to martens in Greek, as for instance in Aristotle, who says it is similar to the galē in appearance and behaviour, but bigger – more the size of the Melitaean miniature dog (which is roughly correct for both wildcats and martens). The Latin ictis of Pliny is a direct loan from the Greek, and he notes that this animal lived in the forest. The iktis of Aristotle is described in similar terms to the ktis in two 12th century scholia to Aristophanes, and importantly, here the ktis is equated to the later Greek katis:

δύο γένη τελοῦσι γαλῶν, τό τε ἄγριον – ὅπερ διττόν ἐστιν· ὅ τε καλούμενος αἴλουρος καὶ σμικρὸν ζῷον ἕτερον πυρρὰν ἔχον τὴν χρόαν – καὶ τὸ ἥμερον. ἥμερον δέ ἐστιν ἡ παρ’ ῾Ομήρῳ μὲν κτὶς καλουμένη, κοινῶς δὲ κατίς  καὶ τοῦτο δέ σοι ἰστέον ὡς καὶ τὸ “κτίς” τὴν παρ’ ῾Ομήρῳ λέξιν αὐτῆς οἱ τοῦ θείου ἐκείνου ἀνδρὸς λεξιγράφοι μὴ συνιέντες, ὅτι συγκο-πὴ τοῦ “κατίς” ἐστι, ζῷον τοῦτό φασιν εἶναι ὀρνιθοφάγον καὶ πανοῦρ-γον κακῶς ἤτοι αἴλουρον.

There are two kinds of galon, one is wild, which is twofold. It is called an ailouros and another small animal which has red skin. And there is also a hêmeron. This is the creature which homer calls a ktis but is commonly called katis … You should also know that the ktis, according to the language in homer, the lexicographers of that divine man do not understand, is a syncope for katis. This animal, they say, is a birdeater, and a complete troublemaker, like an ailouros.

Scholion ad Aristophanes, Plutus, 693

νῦν δὲ οὗτος ἀσκαλαβώτην φησὶ τὴν μικρὰν καὶ πυρρὰν ἀγρίαν γαλῆν, οὐ τὸν αἴλουρον οὐδὲ τὴν ἥμερον γαλῆν, ἥτις ἐστὶν ἡ κτὶς καὶ ἡ κατίς, περὶ ἧς καὶ ῞Ομηρος λέγει· κρατὶ δ’ ἔπι κτιδέην κυνέην εὔτυκτον ἔθηκεν. ἀσκελῶς δὲ καὶ ἡ ἀγρία γαλῆ ἀναρριχᾶται καὶ περιτρέχει τοὺς τοίχους.

Now he says that the spotted lizard is the small and red wild galē, not the ailouros or the hêmeron galē, this is the ktis or also the katis about which Homer also says “he placed a hat well made from a ‘ktidéen’ on his head.” This wild galē scrambles up and down and runs around the walls.

Scholion ad Aristophanes, Clouds, 169a

When this leap of iktis (ἴκτις) = k(a)tis (κ(α)τίς) has been made, a further bridge to the later kattês (κάττης) and kattou (κάττου) is surely not that troublesome (unlike the ktis itself!). The author of the two scholia distinguishes the ktis/katis from the ailóuros, and a ‘small, red, and wild’ animal, though he notes that all three are also types of galē. The most logical answer to this particular schema of treating them all as mustelids is that: the unnamed ‘small, red, and wild’ animal is a weasel; the ailóuros is the common polecat/ ferret; and the iktis/ktis/katis is a marten. Other ancient authors note that the ktis was like a weasel, but bigger, and lived in a forest rather than near people. The katis is also named here as a hêmeron galē. It is very tempting to see a relationship between this hêmeron and the words for the ermine discussed above, a connection that is strengthened by the hat made from some part of the hêmeron, as this was a very common use for marten fur in northern Europe. The only similar word I was able to find was hêmeros, ‘civilised, tame, gentle, cultivated’, which may relate to Aristotle’s comments that the iktis was easily tamed.

The word katis/katos/kattos/kattês only appear in Greek from around the 6th century CE, and swiftly begin (at least in common speech, if not as quickly in scholarly or court Greek) to replace the semantic niche of ailóuros, as with the late gloss that the kattês was “a domesticated ailóuros“. It is usually stated that this Greek word is a loan from the Latin cattus/catta, and it is to these which I will now turn.


Firstly, cattus. This Latin word, from about the 5th century onwards, started to be used in place of both mustela and feles. Scholars invariably see this a simply a word for ‘cat’, without any conflation or confusion with mustelids. But I would disagree, for at least in the 4th/5th century CE, cattus seemed to only be another synonym for a mustelid. The earliest example of it use is from a late 4th/early 5th century CE work on how to run a farm by (Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus) Palladius:

Mense martio carduus seritur. Terram stercoratam et solutam diligit, quamius in pingui possit melius provenire. Et hoc illi contra talpas prodest; so pangatur in solido, ne terra ab inimicis animalibus facilius perforetur … Contra talpas prodest cattos frequentur habere in mediis carduetis. Mustelas habent plerique mansuetas.

The cardoon is set in March. It likes a manured and loose soil, although it might grow better in rich land. And this is of service against moles; if it is set in hard ground, that the earth may not be easily perforated by these hateful animals … It is of service against moles, to have catti in the middle of the thickets of cardoons. Many have tame mustelae.

Opus Agriculturae, 4.9.1, 4.9.4

The cardoon, or artichoke thistle, was cultivated from antiquity not just for the flower, with which most people are familiar (globe artichokes are very closely related), but also for the stalks, which are still popular throughout southern France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and other Mediterranean lands. Here, to combat moles, both catti and mustelae are suggested. Moles are of course almost entirely subterranean animals, and while individual cats may

screen shot 2019-01-15 at 9.58.58 pm
Usually cited as an example of ferreting – but if you look closely, you can see a rather bushy tail on the animal about to enter the rabbit warren, and I think this is actually showing a tame marten. Queen Mary Psalter, BL Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 155v (top) and 156r (bottom).

well hunt moles from the surface, it was historically more common for ferrets to be used for the hunting of moles (and mice and rabbits) as the latter would dive directly into their burrows. I think that Palladius’ description does not require the catti to be cats, and its ambiguity puts it firmly in the tradition of linguistically conflating cats and mustelids. (Certainly, by the later middle ages, as this delightfully phrased 15th century verse translation of Palladius shows, cattes were not the same as wesels, at least in English.) A century or two on from Palladius, cattus had become more common, and in some dialects of Latin it was beginning to be pronouced as gattus; this pronounciation influenced the Greek kattis; which is why the modern Greek word for cat is gáta. Isidore even provides it with two faux etymologies:

Musio appellatus, quod muribus infestus sit. Hunc vulgus cattum a captura vocant. Alii dicunt, quod cattat, id est videt. Nam tanto acute cernit ut fulgore luminis noctis tenebras superet. Unde a Graeco venit catus, id est ingeniosus, APO TOU KAIESTHAI.

The ‘mouser’ is so called because it is troublesome to mice. Common people call it the cattus from ‘catching’. Others say it is so named because of ‘cattat’, that is, ‘it sees’ – for it can see so keenly that with the gleam of its eyes it overcomes the darkness of night. Hence cattus comes from Greek, that is ‘clever’, from ‘lit up’.

Isidore, Etymologiae, 12.2.38

As for the actual etymology of cattus, I’m afraid that my research has not yet yielded any results beyond the ‘unknown origin’ found in various

Here, some of the text is taken directly from Isidore, and the cattus and the mustela are understood to be different animals. The Aberdeen Bestiary, Aberdeen Uni. Lib. MS 24, f.23v.

dictionaries, all of which cite one another in a self-referencing futile circle. But if we are to look for cognates, then I would suggest the Latin catus, ‘clever, shrewd’, from the Proto-Italic *kato-, which would potentially fit the behaviour of mustelids, and it from the PIE *kē(i)-, ‘to sharpen, whet’, which may also link to either their claws, or to the skinning of these animals for their pelts. But this is simply my own conjecture.

Cattus is the ancestor of the word for cat in almost every major European language group – Romance, Germanic, Slavonic, Finno-Baltic, Greek, and even non-European languages like Arabic, Armenian, and Georgian have a word cognate to cattus, as can be seen in my little map. There are, however, two words which are etymologically cognate to the cat words, but do not mean cat: kateritsa, Bulgarian for squirrel; røyskatt, ‘rock-katt’, is the word for weasel, stoat, and ermine in Norwegian; and in Icelandic the living weasel is vesla, but weasels/stoats, and especially when they are ermines, are hreysiköttur. Now, as a medievalist, the first thing which springs to mind when I think of cats in medieval Scandinavia, is the famous description of Þorbjörg the völva in the Saga of Erik the Red:

Hon hafði á hálsi sér glertölur, lambskinnskofra svartan á höfði ok við innan kattarskinn hvít … Hon hafði á fótum kálfskinnsskúa loðna ok í þvengi langa ok á tinknappar miklir á endunum. Hon hafði á höndum sér kattskinnsglófa, ok váru hvítir innan ok loðnir.

On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a black hood of lambskin, lined with kattar-skin … She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of kattar-skin, and they were white and hairy within.

Eiríks saga rauða, 4

This is of course generally translated as a catskin-lined hood and gloves, but in light of the preceding discussion, I no longer think of them as catskin, but rather as the valuable, white winter fur of stoats – ermine. And even though the remains of a few cats have been found in viking contexts, the lack of linguistic differentiation between cats and weasels/ermines is telling. Furthermore, recalling the medieval depictions of both F. s. cattus and F. s. silvestris, one would not say that their pelts could be described as white, as

Some of the ‘cats’ on the back of the Øseberg wagon. They look like weasels or polecats to me. Image credit.

Þorbjörg’s hood and gloves were. This in turn causes me to at least doubt that when Frejya’s chariot was pulled by köttur, that cats must be the translation (it’s also curious that it is specifically male cats which are said to pull her chariot) – as it could be just as plausible that a mustelid was involved. There may even be archaeological evidence to support this idea, for the early 9th century Øseberg wagon has some rather oddly-shaped stylised cats carved onto its back panel. It would in fact be far more plausible, simply based on their sinuous, elongated bodies, triangular heads, and small, rounded ears, to see these köttur as mustelids, and possibly one of the Mustela rather than the Martes.


Finally, I would like to look at catta separately from cattus, as the former occurs only a handful of times, and only in the later example do I think that it describes a cat, when Rufinius, in his mid-late 4th century translation of the Greek Pseudo-Clemens’ Anagnōrismoí (Recognitiones), used catta for the Egyptian sacred cat, where once Herodotus had used ailóuros. The other two instances of catta, though, are arguably not related to cats, but to mustelids only. One example is from the Letter of Jeremiah, an anonymous polemical Jewish text from the Septuagint on the prevention of false idolatry:

π τ σμα ατν κα π τν κεφαλν ατν φίπτανται νυκτερίδες, χελιδόνες κα τ ρνεα, σαύτως δ κα ο αλουροι.

Supra corpus eorum et supra caput eorum volant noctuae, et hirundines, et aves etiam similiter et cattae.

Over their bodies and above their heads, flutter owls and swallows and birds, and likewise even aílouroi/cattae scurry [about].

The Letter of Jeremiah, 22.

The original text of the Letter itself is probably Greek, and may date from anywhere between the 6th and 2nd centuries BCE, though c. 300 BCE is a probable date. The Latin translation likely dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE. The Letter describes how the rituals of ancient Babylon were perceived by their monotheistic neighbours; the heads and bodies in the quoted line are those of the statues of Babylonian gods and goddesses, and the animals in question are being deliberately portrayed as behaving sacrilegiously. But here the verb volo, -are can mean more than just ‘to fly’ – ‘flutter’, ‘float about’, and even ‘wander about’ can all be acceptable translations. Which is why I have translated the verb twice – as ‘flutter’ when the birds are doing the action, and as ‘scurry’ when the cattae are the subject. Moreover, if we recall that all mustelids, the smaller Mustela especially, move like greased lightning, then perhaps volare is not so odd a verb to use after all. I would also recall the earlier description of the hêmeron galē, aka katis/ktis, which “scrambles up and down and runs around the walls.” Of course, anyone who owns cats will attest that they can scramble up onto most things, and perch in the oddest of places, but I still think that the (Latin) verb here is more appropriate to the fluid bounding of the smaller mustelids.

The second – and earliest by far – example of catta is found in Martial:

Pannonicas nobis numquam dedit Umbria cattas:
mavult haec domino mittere dona Pudens.

Umbria never gave us Pannonian cattae.
Pudens prefers to send these as presents to our Lord [ie, emperor].

Epigrammata, 13.69

Books 13 and 14 of the Epigrammata, though they are now put at the end of most editions, were actually probably his earliest publication in the winter of 84-85 CE – a collection of witty epigrams meant to accompany a luxury item that was given as a gift during the week-long feast of Saturnalia. Together, Book 13, Xenia (‘Gifts to Guests’), and Book 14, Apophoreta (‘Gifts to Take [away]’), form a unified work, with Book 13 being almost entirely comprised of delicacies, both edible and drinkable, and Book 14 likewise almost solely describing exotic, rare, and highly prized objects. Almost. For in both volumes, there are items which appear ‘out of place’, with a handful of inedible objects amid the consumables (13.4, 13.15, 13.126, and 13.127), and edible things amid the inanimate objects (14.69, 14.70, 14.71, and 14.72), and living animals that were clearly not meant to be either eaten or used for their valuable body parts (13.98, 14.74, 14.75, 14.76, 14.197, 14.198, 14.199, 14.200, 14.202, and 14.216). I would add our Pannonicas cattas to the first list: that is it is an inedible, luxury object.

Why do I think this? Well, firstly, there is no tradition of eating either cats (except in times of intense privation, such as in a siege or famine) or mustelids within ancient Rome (or Greece for that matter). This means that for Martial, the value of the catta lay not in its meat, but in something else; and the only thing of any real value from either cats or mustelids was their pelt. Furthermore, we have to ask, which animal pelt would Aulus Pudens have been more likely to send directly to the emperor? The answer has to be a mustelid pelt. Now, furs were not commonly worn in ancient Rome, being considered fit for only peasants and barbarians. The exceptions were the legions’ standard bearers, each of whom had a different ceremonial animal pelt; but that is not what is being described here. Fur was probably not valued as an item of clothing during the golden age of Rome from the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE because it was not needed – the climate in these centuries was warmer then than it was in the later empire. It is only from the mid 3rd century CE onwards, once the climate begins to cool, that we start to see fur being used in aristocratic dress. But of course, fur does not have to be worn for it to have value, and the use of furs for draping over seats, walls, floors, and bedding was far more common (as well as subtle way in which to signal your consumption of luxury items while not having to wear them). Martial wrote that ‘Umbria never gave them Pannonian cattae‘, and I would argue that his precisely chosen comparison was deliberate. It suggests that cattae could be had in Umbria (itself a famously forested province of the empire) – but that Pannonian ones were superior.

Pannonia was the Latin name for the region north-west of the Alps, roughly between the Danube and Sava, and is roughly coterminous with modern-day western Austria and Slovenia, southern Slovakia, eastern Hungary, and 820px-ChartaPannoniae2.JPGnorthern Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The province was only conquered and annexed by Rome over the course of the 1st century CE. In antiquity, it was densely forested, and on the other side of its northern borders, across the Danube, were the eastern stretches of the legendary Hercynian forest. was both a very real location, being the primeval wilderness of Europe, a continuously unbroken border of dense forest from Germania to Dacia, from the Rhine to the Danube, as well as being a mythical place of wondrous beasts and people.

Just a year or before Martial published the Xenia and Apophoreta, the emperor Domitian had returned to Rome from a campaign in these northern barbarian lands, and publicly celebrated his triumph over a people who were called the Chatti (or Catti, depending on the author). Some first century CE authors place the Chatti near the eastern, Pannonian end of this forest – Velleius Paterculus (Historiae Romanae 2.109) – while others put them at the western, German end – Strabo (Geōgraphiká 7.1.3-4), and Tacitus (Germania 29-32, 35-36, 38). I don’t think it matters overly, for the Chatti could well have moved around, split up into more than one unit (as hinted at by Tacitus), or it could have been the name of a confederation rather than just a single tribe, to give just two alternative explanations. Publius Statius (Silvae 1.1, 3.3), Eutropius (Historiae Romanae, 7.23), Suetonius (De vita Caesarum, Domitianus, 6.1) and Martial (Epigrammata 2.2) himself, all mention that the emperor Domitian waged war against the Chatti, and proclaimed himself their conqueror. This is of course the same emperor to whom Aulus Pudens sent his valuable Pannonian cattae as a gift. Coincidence? I think not.

It is impossible to know whether the Chatti ethnonym was given to them by outsiders, or if it was a name that they chose to call themselves, but I think that either scenario has an air of plausibility to it. If, as I am inclined to do, we understand the catta refers to a marten, then that animal is surely fierce, wily, and agile enough to be taken as a totemic animal; while if the name is in association with the finished valuable fur, then there is the later example of marten fur being the basis of the currency and tax system of medieval Croatia and the Rus, whose territories overlapped with that of the Chatti in Pannonia over a millennia earlier.


So what can I conclude at the end of this long exploration into the depictions, habits, and etymologies of cats vs mustelids? Especially as Part Two ended up being rather light on the cats, and focussed almost entirely on mustelids – as was hinted at in the featured image, an 18th century painting entitled ‘Hunting the Marten-Cat’, which is what this piece of research ultimately became, even while it began as a search for the origins of the word ‘cat’. Why did my focus shift? Because not every instance of a word which can be translated as ‘cat’ actually is about cats. So where to from here? Well, firstly, I think that more recognition should be given to how complex the relationship between the two groups of animals really was in antiquity, and how porous the boundaries between cats, martens, polecats/ferrets, and weasels were for the ancient and medieval people of Europe. Secondly, I would love for certain dictionaries to acknowledge the ambiguity surrounding these words – especially that of catta and cattus – and perhaps revise those entries where the word in question is referring to the ‘other animal’! But until then, hopefully this discussion will at least encourage people to always question their sources, even if – especially if! – certain words, statements, and concepts are presented fact when the underlying assumptions are not as certain as they appear.


Featured Image: Hunting the Marten-Cat, Henry Thomas Alken (1785-1851).

One thought on “Curiosity Killed the Cat(ta): Part Two

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s