Herodotus on Cats


It’s instructive to read old accounts of animals from the days before science. Often, these old stories are mere myth. Sometimes they contain truths, but viewed through the lens of an older culture’s beliefs. I’ve been reading the Histories of Herodotus, the earliest Western historian, and I find several examples of this latter kind of story. Herodotus made an effort to get his facts right, and while he didn’t always succeed, his reports make fascinating reading. Here's my first installment of his animal stuff, together with a few comments:

Cats
In Egypt domestic animals are abundant, and would be moreso if not for the fate that befalls the cats. Because the queens with kittens shun toms, the toms in their sexual desire resort to this stratagem: They carry off and kill the kittens, though they do not eat them afterwards. The childless queens then come again to the toms.


At the sight of fire the cats seem possessed by strange gods, for they plunge into the fire, leaping over or slipping by anyone who tries to stop them. When this happens, the Egyptians mourn deeply. And when a pet cat dies, all the people in the house shave their brows.


Comments: Herodotus is right about the propensity of tomcats to kill kittens, though toms in fact do eat the kittens if they are left uninterrupted. My uncle told me he had sometimes seen kittens eaten entirely except for the head. The motive for killing the young seems to be essentially what Herodotus says, though some authorities say the toms spare their own offspring and kill only the kittens of rivals. Some reports describe the attacks on kittens as part of a sexual frenzy.

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