The fireside sphinx/The Cat of Antiquity

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2056562The fireside sphinx — The Cat of AntiquityAgnes Repplier


"Thine is the lore of Ra and Rameses."

THERE was—if we may trust the Arabic chronicles as set down by that devout scholar, Damirei—no cat in the Garden of Paradise. Lion cubs and tiger cubs, little leopards and little panthers, Eve had in numbers without doubt; but no pussy to grace and decorate her domestic hearth. How far this loss was responsible for the lamentable ennui which, Charles Lamb says, forced our first parents to sin themselves out of Eden, it would be difficult to determine; but in that desolate world of toil which lay beyond the gleaming gates and sacred rivers of Paradise, no cat was found to comfort the sad exiles on their way. She sprang into existence at the Deluge; for during the long weeks in which the Ark floated over the waste of waters, the rats and the mice increased so alarmingly that the comfort—if there was any comfort—of the inmates was threatened with destruction. Then Noah, equal to the emergency, passed his hand three times over the head of the lioness, and lo! she sneezed forth the cat.

In connection with this venerable legend, it is interesting to note the behaviour of Puss in the old Italian pictures which represent the departure from the Ark, a subject which Bassano has painted over and over again. Invariably we see, walking at the head of the procession, with a most self-satisfied and arrogant air, as if she owned the newly recovered earth, a large brindled cat. The lion and the elephant, the camel and the horse, all the most terrible and the most useful beasts linger with modest diffidence in the background; the cat presents herself superbly to everybody's notice, and, as a rule, begins her career of depredation by assailing one of her late companions,—a fat frightened rabbit, or a trembling dove. No one would imagine that she owed her existence to the incidental discomforts of the Ark.

However mysterious and informal may have been her birth. Pussy's first appearance in veracious history is a splendid one. More than three thousand years ago she dwelt serenely by the Nile, and the great nation of antiquity paid her respectful homage. Sleek and beautiful, she drowsed in the shadow of mighty temples, or sat blinking and washing her face with contemptuous disregard alike of priest and people. There is no mention of her in Holy Writ; but when Moses led the Children of Israel into the desert, she watched him go,

"With sombre sea-green gaze inscrutable."

Deserts, indeed, offered scant allurement to her. No wandering people have ever enjoyed her sweet companionship. The Arabs loved and valued her; but could do no more than carry her across the trackless sands for the enrichment of softer homes than their black tents could offer.

"And the bubbling camels beside the load
Sprawled for a furlong adown the road;
And the Persian pussy-cats, brought for sale,
Spat at the dogs from the camel-bale."

Poor faithful dogs, lovers of novelty and change of scene, who dwell contentedly in tents, or huts, or 'neath the open sky, and roam far and wide with the masters whom they serve. The cat cares little to see the world, and dislikes the discomforts of travel. Some gracious instinct binds her to her home. She feels the charm of the familiar, and her fidelity to the sheltering hearth has made her—now that her old honours have passed away—the little god of domesticity, the friend of those who are too happy or too wise for restlessness.

Egypt, as the granary of the ancient world, had especial need for Pussy's services, and the Egyptian cat was a mighty hunter, not only of rats and mice,—ancestral prey,—but of wild fowl caught in reedy marshes, and in shallow waters where she could swim with ease. Her sacred character was in no wise impaired by her usefulness. She was the favourite of Pasht, who, in smiling mood, had given her to the world; and the deep veneration in which she was held provoked biting jests from travellers, who then, as now, lacked sympathy for strange customs and strange gods. Herodotus was plainly of the opinion that the devotion manifested for these cherished beasts produced some uncomfortable results. In the first place, there were too many cats. The maintenance of those who lived apart in temples, and who were fed with fish, and bread soaked in milk, was a heavy burden upon the state; and the officials, whose privilege it was to take care of them, seem to have been naturally, but unendurably, proud. Then again, the enforced mourning, the shaving of eyebrows, and all the "mockery of woe" which followed the death of even the smallest kitten, lent a funereal aspect to many homes. Last, but not least, the law which forbade the sinful slaying of a cat occasionally brought vengeance upon the head of the unfortunate who unwittingly killed one. For such an evil accident, says Diodorus of Sicily, a Roman citizen was torn to pieces by the infuriated populace of Thebes. So imminent, indeed, was this peril, that an Egyptian who chanced to witness Pussy's death,—happily no common occurrence, as a cat, like an Englishman, considers dying a strictly private affair,—stood trembling and bathed in tears, plaintively announcing to the world that he at least had no part in such a pitiful calamity. Yet even a tender and far-reaching solicitude could not always save the Egyptian cat from harm. Fires were of frequent occurrence, and the creature's terror occasionally prevented its rescue, and drove it straight into the flames. "When this happens, it diffuses universal sorrow," says Herodotus, with that graceful sympathy which is so pleasing, because so rare, in the historian.

Writers of a later date were far less tolerant of feline dignities. Timocles observes cynically that when irreverence to the great gods so often escapes unpunished, he can hardly fear to violate the shrine of a cat. Anaxandrides of Rhodes presents with fine brutality the Greek point of view, in his comedy, "The Cities." "If you see a cat indisposed," sneers one of the characters to an Egyptian, "you weep for it. For my part, I am well pleased to kill it for its skin."

The exact era of Pussy's domestication in Egypt is lost in the dawn of history. It was so very long ago that our minds grow dizzy, contemplating the vast stretch of centuries. A tablet in the Berlin Museum, which has on it a representation of a cat, dates from 1600 B. C.: and another, two hundred years older, bears an inscription containing the word Maū, or cat. The temples of Bubastis, of Beni Hasan, and of Heliopolus were the most sacred haunts of this most sacred animal. There, petted, pampered, wrapped in silken ease, and, above all, treated with that delicate reverence she is so quick to understand and appreciate, she lived her allotted lives; and there, when all nine were well spent, her little corpse was lovingly embalmed, and buried in a gilded mummy case with dignified and appropriate ceremonial. Her

"splendid circled eyes
That wax and wane with love for hours,
Green as green flame, blue-grey like skies,"

were believed to be emblematic of the waxing and the waning of the sun, and added to the mysterious sanctity of her reputation.

Plutarch held that she also represented the moon, because of her nocturnal habits, and of her singular fecundity. "For it is said that she brings forth at first one kitten, afterwards two, and the third time, three; and that the number increaseth thus until the seventh and last birth, so that she bears in all twenty-eight young, or as many as the moon hath revolutions. And though this may be but a fable, yet it is certain that her eyes do enlarge and grow brilliant with the filling of the moon, and do contract and lose their light with its decline."

What a pleasure it must have been to study natural history in the ancient days, when the general absence of information left the historian liberty and leisure to tell really interesting things.

The temple of Bubastis, says Herodotus, was the fairest in all Egypt, and the festival held in honour of the goddess was the gayest of the year, thousands of pilgrims speeding along the pleasant water-ways to enjoy themselves piously at her shrine. Often they carried with them the mummies of dear dead cats, to be interred in the neighbourhood of the temple; and often they bore, as offerings to the shrine, animals of great size and beauty, or with especial markings that denoted sanctity, and insured their admittance into the circle of the elect. To these pilgrimages, and to the sacredness of the temple cats, may be traced—so says Ignace Goldziher in his "Culte des Saints chez les Musulmans"—a curious custom which survived until recent years among Egyptian Moslems. When the caravans bound for Mecca were preparing to start from Cairo, and the city was celebrating their departure with the feasts of Mahmal, one camel was set apart for the sole use of an old woman who bore the honourable title, Mother of Cats, and whose duty it was to carry to the Holy City a number of Persian pussies. Her position was no sinecure, for all the distinction it conferred, the cat's rooted aversion to travel rendering it a troublesome charge; and the venerable "Mother" finally gave place to a young and active man, better able to cope with his sackful of turbulent prisoners. What strange survival of an ancient practice induced pious Moslems to send to the Prophet's shrine the animals that their faraway ancestors had carried devoutly to the temple of Bubastis? No one knows. The links between old and new have long ago been broken; and, as so often happens, the custom lingered on for countless years after its significance had been lost to men's unreasoning minds.

The great burying-grounds of favoured Egyptian cats were the thrice blessed fields of Speos Artemidos near the tombs of Beni Hasan, where thousands of little mummies reposed for centuries. It was reserved for our rude age to disturb their slumber, to desecrate their graves, to fling their ashes to the four winds of heaven, or, with base utilitarianism, to sell the poor little swathed and withered bodies—once so beautiful and gently tended—for any trifling sum they would bring from ribald tourists who infest the land. Many were even used as fertilizers of the ancient soil,—a more honourable fate, and one which consigned them gently to oblivion. The incredible number of such mummies found at Beni Hasan and other sacred cemeteries proves that Egypt, "in the hour of her pride," was the abode of countless pussy-cats, and explains the sarcasm of that travelled Greek, who observed that, on the banks of the Nile, it was more common to meet gods than men.

Once outside of Egypt, where, thanks to inscriptions, embalming, and an admirable pictorial art, we know with exactness what we know at all, the history of the cat is shrouded in mystery and gloom. There is no proof that she was domesticated in Babylon or Assyria; and what scanty information we can gather as the centuries roll on is of a dishearteningly fabulous character. There is a story which used to be found in the school-books of our youth, but which has probably been eliminated in these duller days, of the infamous scheme devised by Cambyses—and worthy of him—for the capture of Pelusium. Each Persian soldier was bidden to carry in his arms a cat, so that he was safe from the weapons of the Egyptians, who feared to wound the sacred animal he bore. The tale, it must be admitted, does not sound veracious. To march to battle carrying a cat—a cat that must have been eminently unwilling to go—would have required more courage than to face an enemy. Moreover, the Persians could hardly have done their own share of fighting very effectively while they were clasping legions of pussies to their bosoms. Perhaps the ruthless disregard evinced by Cambyses for all his fellow-men held dear and sacred may have given rise to this once popular tradition.

There are others less well known, but much prettier, as that of the Persian monarch, Hormus, who, finding his kingdom invaded by a mighty army under Prince Schabé, his own unworthy relative, was warned by a soothsayer that he could never conquer this enemy until his troops were led to battle by a general having the face of a wild cat,—"qui eut la physionomie d'un chat sauvage," says Moncrif, who tells the story with delight. After searching far and wide, Hormus at last discovered this treasure in the person of a rude mountaineer named Baharan, or, as some say, Kounin, to whom he joyfully gave the command of all his forces. The result justified the prediction. The Persians, though few and ill-trained, were yet so animated by the assurance of victory, so exultant when they beheld the fear-inspiring countenance of their leader, that they easily routed the foe, and carried Schabé's head back to their royal master.

In India the house cat was known from a very early period, and was called by several composite names signifying rat-eater and mouse-enemy, to denote the useful character of her occupations. She figures also in some of the oldest Indian fables, always as an arrant hypocrite, fair-spoken and full of guile. Her first entrance into the Chinese Empire appears to have been about 400 A. D., and she is described in ancient documents as a hunter of mice and slayer of hens, unmistakable characteristics, both of them. There is also a venerable proverb which says, with true Chinese sententiousness, that a lame cat is better than a swift horse when rats infest the palace. The rampant creature that rears itself aggressively on the royal banners of Korea is some fierce wild cousin of the cat; just as the animal held sacred for centuries along the Pacific coast of South America, and which we see over and over again in the terra cottas of lost Peruvian cities, was forest born and bred,—ocelot perhaps, or jaguar,—not the sweet domestic deity of the Nile.

The saddest gap in the chronicles of the cat is her conspicuous absence from "the glory that was Greece," from "the grandeur that was Rome,"—an absence which extended over many hundreds of years. No Greek monument shows her sitting at her master's feet, as the Egyptian Bouhaki sat for centuries at the feet of King Hana, in the Necropolis of Thebes. Homer, who tells us the touching story of the hound, Argus, has never a word for the cat; though we would give much to see her watching with wise eyes Penelope's unfinished web, or playing with the soft tangled wools in Helen's silver work-basket. And what fitter companion for Nausicaa than a white cat, beautiful, spotless and urbane? M. Henri Havard argues subtly that the very essence of Greek civilization, as it slowly flowered to perfection, was fatal to the domestication of the cat. "What place could she fill," he asks, "amid this restless glory? What hold could she hope to gain over a people enamoured of art, of language, of eloquence; over men who were at once actors, athletes and poets; and who—alternating perpetually between physical and mental activity—had elevated beauty of form to the height of a great moral principle. This race so admirably endowed, with ambitions ever unsatisfied, modelling, in insatiable pride, its gods after its own likeness, and forcing Olympos to bear a part in its quarrels;—this superb race was far too arrogant to permit the cat to participate in its apotheosis. Therefore the prudent animal avoided a society unable to appreciate or to understand her. What she required was a people, gentle, submissive, prompt to obey, and accustomed, as were the Egyptians, to the inexorable demands of tyranny."

It is always painful to disagree with M. Havard; but he forgets that the cat, although she doubtless prefers being worshipped as a divinity, has yet consented to live with many nations on easier terms; that, notwithstanding her gentle imperiousness, she is, as a rule, willing to accord to humanity the freedom she demands for herself; and that the beauty of well-ordered life—as that fair life of Athens—has ever appealed to her exquisite sense of smoothness and moderation. Sparta, with its rigorous study of discomforts, might have repelled her sadly; but in Athens every instinct of her little heart would have been sweetly satisfied. It was her home of homes, and the unkind fates barred her way.

When at last the cat entered Greece, the glory of Greece had waned. Artemis remembered that, in Egypt, Pussy had vaguely symbolized both moon and sun, and took the small night-roaming creature—furry as her old Arcadian emblem, the bear,—under her protection; but Artemis was no longer the goddess "excellently bright." Her lustre was dimming fast; and the old myth, imported hazily from the East, which represented the cat moon devouring the grey mice of twilight, had faded from the minds of men. As a plaything, as a pretty household toy. Pussy was carried from Africa to Europe a few hundred years before the Christian era. Diodorus tells a strange story of a mountain in Numidia which was inhabited by a commonwealth of cats, so that no bird ever ventured to nest in its woods; and from this mysterious region, it was said, adventurous hunters carried away a few little captives to be enslaved by decadent Greece. A more probable and a more romantic tale has been adapted from the Greek by that graceful versifier, and true lover of cats, Graham Tomson. It gives a motive, at once cogent and reasonable, for the importation of Pasht's pussies.

"Arsinoë the fair, the amber-tressed,
Is mine no more;
Cold as the unsunned snows are is her breast,
And closed her door.
No more her ivory feet and tresses braided
Make glad mine eyes;
Snapt are my viol strings, my flowers are faded,
My love-lamp dies.

"Yet, once, for dewy myrtle-buds and roses,
All summer long,
We searched the twilight-haunted garden closes
With jest and song.
Ay, all is over now,—my heart hath changed
Its heaven for hell;
And that ill chance which all our love estranged
In this wise fell:

"A little lion, small and dainty sweet,
(For such there be!)
With sea-grey eyes and softly stepping feet,
She prayed of me.
For this, through lands Egyptian far away,
She bade me pass:
But, in an evil hour, I said her nay;
And now, alas!
Far-travelled Nicias hath wooed and won
With gifts of furry creatures, white and dun,
From over sea."

It is a melancholy truth that after the "little lion" had been domesticated in Greece, we hear nothing to her credit. Theocritus flouts her with a careless word,

"Cats love to sleep softly;"

and decadent poets, in place of singing her beauty and her grace, as Homer sang of Helen on the battlements of Troy, grow ethical and positively evangelical over her too manifest shortcomings. There was a cat of spirit belonging to the epigrammatist, Agathias, who, when the occasion offered, ate her master's tame partridge, for which deed she has been handed down to posterity as an unnatural and infuriate monster. Agathias solaced himself by writing two poems on the tragedy, one of which has been very charmingly—if very freely—translated by Mr. Richard Garnett.

"O cat in semblance, but in heart akin
To canine raveners, whose ways are sin;
Still at my hearth a guest thou dar'st to be?
Unwhipt of Justice, hast no dread of me?
Or deem'st the sly allurements shall avail
Of purring throat and undulating tail?
No! as to pacify Patroclus dead,
Twelve Trojans by Pelides' sentence bled,
So shall thy blood appease the feathery shade.
And for one guiltless life shall nine be paid."

Poor Pussy! wasting thy soft purrs and delicate blandishments on the destroyer. And, as if the wrath of Agathias were not enough to damn thee forever, Damocharis, a friend and disciple, must needs pour forth his eloquent denunciations, likening thee to one of Aktæon's hounds that tore its master,—no such guilt was thine,—and reproaching thee for long neglected duties. "And thou, base cat, thinkest only of partridges, while the mice dance and play, regaling themselves upon the dainty food that thou disdainest."

The episode is worthy of Hogarth's pencil;—idleness leading the way, the straight, smooth way to murder and the gallows. Alas! for Egypt's little god in that bleak atmosphere of morality.

Rome honoured, if she did not cherish the cat. The conquerors of the world recognized and respected the indomitable love of liberty which won then, as it wins now, for this small weak animal an independence lost wholly and forever by beasts of many times her strength. The dog serves, the horse, the camel, the elephant serve, and are slaves of man. The cat has never served, save briefly and capriciously, casting aside her allegiance when it pleased her to do so, and turning back to that half savage freedom which she held always in reserve. Libertas sine Labore is, and has ever been, her motto. The cat of Agathias had wearied of civilization and well-doing when she forsook her duties in the pantry, and decided to eat her master's bird. It is true that Pliny, whose admirable imagination deserts him strangely now and then, leaving him stranded on the driest of facts, sees in Pussy little but her usefulness. "She keeps well-filled barns free from mice." He even adds in the same breath that weasels do the work better. Palladius echoes this stupid sentiment, but Romans of more heroic mould valued more heroic traits. Tiberius Gracchus placed an image of the cat within his Temple of Liberty; and, if we may trust that pleasant old book. La Vraye et Parfaite Science des Armoiries, published by Palliot in 1664, more than one Roman legion marched to battle with Pussy blazoned on their banners. The Ordines Augustei carried a sea-green cat, courant; the Felices Seniores a cat, rampant, on a buckler gules; and the Alpini a cat with one eye and one ear, evidently a veteran warrior of the wall.

Coming late to Rome, and winning distinction first as a lover of liberty, half tamed and wholly brave, it was long before Pussy's sweeter qualities were duly exhibited, or valued at their worth. That she was known in pleasure-loving Pompeii is proven by the spirited mosaics in the Museum of Naples, one of which represents her springing upon a partridge, like the "base cat" reproached by Damocharis. There is something indefinably pitiless in the attitude of this animal, a savage and ruthless energy in the shedding of innocent blood, which seems ill-calculated to soften the prejudiced mind. Italy was indeed no school of gentleness. Cruelty had been refined to a pleasure, and mercy had been austerely banished from philosophy. Marcus Aurelius could easily endure to sit for hours in the amphitheatre, bored and distrait, it is true, but with unmoved serenity. The slaughter of a hundred lions afforded him no recreation; but, as he had generously given the animals to be killed for the diversion of simpler souls, he found no fault with their enjoyment of the spectacle. A creature, beautiful and weak, might well be cherished one hour for its beauty, and destroyed the next as a penalty for its weakness. In "Marius the Epicurean" there is a pretty description of a white cat purring its way gracefully among the wine cups at a feast given in honour of Apuleius,—"coaxed onward from place to place by those at table, as they reclined easily on their cushions of German eiderdown, spread over the long-legged carved couches." This dainty and somewhat supercilious guest has been brought to the supper by a young Roman; and, surfeited with cajolery, she sinks unconcernedly to sleep, until disturbed by the rude antics of the young Commodus.

"It was then that the host's son bethought him of his own favourite animal, which had offended somehow, and had been forbidden the banquet.—'I mean to shut you in the oven a while, little soft, white thing!' he had said, catching sight, as he passed an open doorway, of the great fire in the kitchen, itself festally adorned, where the feast was preparing; and had so finally forgotten it. And it was with a really natural laugh, for once, that, on opening the oven, he caught sight of the animal's grotesque appearance, as it lay there, half-burnt, just within the red-hot iron door."

That light, cruel, natural laugh echoes through the centuries, and follows the cat along her pathway of pain. Mr. Pater, fretted to pity by his own tale, eliminated from later editions of "Marius" the heart-rending episode he could so ill endure. Would that it were as easy to banish from Pussy's history the gloomy records of sorcery and persecution.