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This webpage reproduces a note in
Notes and Queries,
No. 196 (Saturday, October 1, 1859), pp261‑263.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p261  Ancient Names of the Cat

In Greek, αἴλουρος properly signified the cat, and γαλῆ the weasel; but the ancients did not distinguish accurately between the cat and the weasel, and sometimes used their names indiscriminately, as has been remarked by Perizonius ad Aelian, V. H. XIV.4, and Beckmann ad Aristot. Mir. p33.​a

The sanctity of the αἴλουρος in Egypt is described by Herod. II.66, 67, and by Diod. I.83, 87. Strabo states that all the Egyptians worship the ox, the dog, and the αἴλουρος, and that the αἴλουρος of Egypt is tamer than that of other countries (XVII.1.40 and 2.4). In all these passages the cat is meant. See Wilkinson, Manners and Customs of Ancient Egyptians, 2nd S. vol. II p161‑8 on the worship of the cat, and the cat‑mummies. The sacred Egyptian cat is called a feles by the Latin writers: "At vero ne fando quidem auditum est, crocodilum, aut ibim, aut felem violatum ab Aegyptio." (Cic. N. D. I.29) Temples were erected to feles, according to Arnob. adv. Gentes, I.28.

In the Batrachomyomachia, the γαλῆ, and not the αἴλουρος, is represented as the natural enemy of mice. Thus, in v. 9 it is said that a thirsty mouse, having escaped the dangers of a γαλέη, drinks water out of a pool. In v. 48, it is declared that the three things which a mouse most dreads are a hawk, a γαλέη, and a trap; but specially he fears a γαλέη, which pursues him into his hole. In v. 131, a mouse complains of his unlucky fate in losing his three sons. The first was killed by a hateful γαλέη, catching him outside his hole. The second was caught by men in a trap. The third was dragged down by a frog into the water. In this poem the γαλέη must denote the weasel, as it is described as pursuing the mouse into its hole. On the other hand Callimachus, in the Hymn to Ceres, v. 111, describes the visitation of hunger with which Erysichthon was cursed, by saying that he was driven to eating mules and horses, "and the αἴλουρος, which the small animals dread." In Theocrit. Id. XV.28, a proverbial saying is introduced, αἱ γαλέαι μαλακῶς χρῄσδοντι καθεύδεν, the application of which is not obvious; but it appears to refer to the cat, and not to the weasel.

Aristotle, in his History of Animals, uses αἴλουρος for cat, V.2. He remarks that it eats birds, IX.6. In VI.37 he says that wild γαλαῖ destroy mice, and that the γαλῆ kills birds in an ingenious manner (φρονίμως); it attacks their throat, as a wolf kills a sheep, IX.6. (Compare Camus, Notes sur l'Hist. des An. d'Aristote, pp119, 195.)

The ferret was called by the kings the Tartessian γαλῆ; this variety of the weasel tribe having, as it appears, been originally a native of the north-western region of Africa and the south-western part of Spain. (See "N & Q." 2nd S. VII.191.) Dureau de la Malle, in his paper on the domestication of the cat, Annales des Sciences Naturelles, tom. XVII (1829), is mistaken in identifying the γαλῆ Ταρτησία with the civet, Viverra civetta, p188. The ἴκτις of Aristotle, H. A. IX.6, is, according to Dureau de la Malle, the fouine or the martre (the polecat or the martin). Others have considered it a species of ferret; Schneider ad Aristot. H. A. vol. IV p48. The ferret is called Viverra by Plin. VIII.81.

The Greek mythology had a story of Galanthis being metamorphosed into a weasel (γαλῆ). According to this story, as related by Ovid, when Alcmena is in the pains of the labour which is to bring Hercules into the world, Juno, from jealousy, seeks to retard the birth, and she produces this effect by knitting her hands together in a magic knot. Galanthis, a Theban woman, induces her to relax this position by telling her that the delivery of Alcmena is completed. The charm is broken by this false intelligence, and the infant Hercules is born. Juno, out of revenge, changes Galanthis into a weasel.

Galanthis is thus described:—

"Una ministrarum, mediâ de plebe, Galanthis,

Flava comas aderat, faciendis strenua jussis."

Her metamorphosis is pourtrayed as follows:—

"Strenuitas antiqua manet; nec terga colorem

Amisere suum: forma est diversa priori.

Quae, quia mendaci parientem juverat ore,

Ore parit; nostrasque domos, ut et ante, frequentat."

Met. IX.306‑323.

These verses allude to the mobility of the weasel, to its flesh-coloured coat, to its being the inmate of the dwellings of man, and to the fiction, accredited  p262 among the ancients, of its producing its young by the mouth.

A similar tale is related by Antoninus Liberalis, c. 29, from the Metamorphoses of Nicander, a poem in hexameter verse by the author of the extant Theriaca and Alexipharmaca, who flourished 185‑135 B.C. According to this version it is the Fates and Ilithyia who retard the birth of Hercules, and the Theban woman who deceives them is named Galinthias. The latter is punished by her conversion into a deceitful weasel, which lives in a hole, and which produces its young, in an unnatural manner, by the throat.

Other discrepant versions of the story occur in Aelian, Nat. An. XII.5, where it is said that the Thebans worshipped the weasel, either because it had been the nurse of Hercules, or because, by running before Alcmena, when she was in the pains of labour, it accelerated the birth of Hercules. The malicious character and unnatural habits of the γαλῆ are further alluded to in Aelian, N. A. XV.11. Aristotle, Gen. An. III.6 mentions with contempt the popular error that the weasel produces its young by the mouth; he attributes it to the fact that the young of the weasel are very small, and that it is in the habit of carrying them in its mouth. A similar error was prevalent in antiquity, that the goat breathed through its ears. (Aristot. Hist. An. I.11; Aelian, Nat. An. I.53.)

In Latin, mustela is properly a weasel, a feles a cat; but these names seem sometimes to be used indiscriminately. The confusion was the more natural as feles originally signified only a thief, being derived from the Greek φηλητής. Thus in Plaut. Pers. IV.9.14, the leno is called "scelesta feles virginaria," and again, "feles virginalis," in Rud. III.4.43.

Pliny, XXIX.16, says that there are two sorts of mustela, the wild and the tame. The wild is of large size, and is called ἴκτις by the Greeks. That which wanders about our houses, and (according to Cicero) removes its young every day, destroys serpents. Most of this passage is transcribed by Isid. Orig. XII.3.3. The enmity of mustelae and serpents is mentioned likewise by Pliny, X.95.

Plautus, Stich. III.2.6, describes a mustela as catching a mouse in the open air:—

"Auspicio hodie optumo exivi foras:

Mustela murem abstulit praeter pedes."

Palladius, a writer of the fourth century, in his work on agriculture, in giving directions respecting the cultivation of the carduus, says, "Contra talpas prodest catos frequenter habere in mediis carduetis. Mustelas habent plerique mansuetas," IV.9.4.

The stealthy habits of the feles in surprising birds and mice, likewise its habit of covering its excrements with earth, are described by Pliny, X.94, where the cat is meant. Varro, R. R. III.11, directs that a receptacle for ducks should be so constructed that a feles or any other animal may not creep into it. Columella, VIII.15, gives similar instructions, but mentions the vipera as well as the feles. Here, as the commentators remark, a polecat or other animal of the weasel tribe is signified.

The use of these words in the ancient fabulists will throw light on their meaning.

In Babrius, Fab. 17, an αἴλουρος, laying snares for the poultry, hangs himself from a peg, and pretends to be a bag of flour; the cock discovers the trick. A fuller version of this fable is given in Aesop, Fab. 28, ed. Coraës, where the αἴλουρος is described as using the same stratagem against the mice. In Phaedrus, IV.2 it is however told of the mustela and the mice.

In Babr. Fab. 121 an αἴλουρος pretends to be a physician, and visits a sick hen; in Aesop, Fab. 6, an αἴλουρος catches, kills, and eats a cock.

In Babr. Fab. 27, a man traps a γαλῆ, and is about to drown it. The animal begs its life, on the ground of having done service by killing mice and lizards. But the man retorts that it has strangled the hens, and opened the meat-chest: so it must die. In Phaedr. I.22º the same fable is told of the mustela.

In Babr. Fab. 31 a perpetual war is described as existing between γαλαῖ and mice, the former preying upon the latter. The same fable recurs in Phaedr. IV.6 with mustelae and mures.

Babr. Fab. 32 a γαλῆ metamorphosed into a woman, runs after a mouse. The same word is repeated in the Greek prose versions of the fable. In La Fontaine, it is "La chatte metamorphosée en femme."

Aesop, Fab. 109 Cor. a bat caught by a γαλῆ implores to be released; to which the γαλῆ answers that he is the natural enemy of all winged animals. The bat replies that he is not a bird, but a mouse. Being caught by another γαλῆ, who says that he is the enemy of mice, the bat replies that he is a bat, not a mouse.

Aesop, Fab. 261 Cor., a snake and a γαλῆ lived together in a house, and fought against one another. The mice rejoiced at the enmity, and came out to see them do battle; whereupon the combatants turned upon the mice. This fable alludes to the supposed enmity of the weasel and the snake, mentioned by Plin. ubi sup.; Aristot., H. A. IX.5; Aelian, N. A. IV.14.

Aesop, Fab. 291 Cor., the γαλῆ complains that he is not allowed by his master to use his voice, like the parrot; but if he makes a sound, he is chided and driven away.

In the fable of aquila, feles, and aper, in Phaedr. II.4, the feles breeds in a cavity at the foot of a tree, and climbs up the tree to the eagle.

From these passages it appears that the ancients were in the habit of keeping some animal of the  p263 weasel tribe, tame, in their houses, for the same purpose for which we use the cat. The habits of the two animals in destroying birds and mice were similar, and their names seem to have been occasionally confounded. It is stated by Dureau de la Malle, in his Dissertation cited above, that the polecat is susceptible of domestication.

The word catus, as we have already seen, is used by Palladius to denote an animal kept for the destruction of moles. This was probably some animal of the weasel tribe, and not a cat. Isidorus, Orig. XII.2.38, has the following article: "Musio [murio?] appellatus, quod muribus infestus sit. Hunc vulgus catum a capturâ vocant." It has been conjectured that the word is derived from the old adjective catus, which signified cunning, wise. On the other hand, catulus, as well as catellus, appears to be a diminutive form of canis. Γάτος and γάτα for cat occur in mediaeval Greek. Ducange, Gloss. Med. Gr. in V.

[image ALT: A photograph of a page of a medieval manuscript; the Latin text is in book Gothic script, and there are two square miniature illustrations, the upper one of which is much the larger, occupying about a third of the page, and depicts three animals, looking like weasels or cats, in parallel, sitting on their haunches like humans do, the front one holding its paws out as a human would hold its arms: it appears to be offering a live mouse to something beyond the frame of the illustration. The smaller illustration, immediately below it, is also square, but only about half as wide and half as tall: it depicts a mouse or rat, walking, thru a row of ghet eggs, one of which it seems to be eating or preparing to eat. The page comes from a medieval bestiary further described in the caption to the image.]

The three animals — weasels or cats — accompany the text of Isidore, quoted above, in a medieval English bestiary.

Harley MS 4751 f. 30v, Salisbury, 2nd quarter of the 13c. Image courtesy of the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, released by the British Library under the Public Domain Mark.

The word feles is lost in the Romance languages, which use derivatives of catus. The same is the case with the modern Celtic and Teutonic languages. Diez, Rom. Wört.º in Gatto, p166, traces these forms to a Celtic origin, which is improbable.

G. C. Lewis.

Thayer's Note:

a For more information on this confusion, see the section on cats of "Greek and Roman Household Pets" (CJ 44:245‑252 & 299‑307).

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Page updated: 8 May 14