Ancient History & Civilisation

Animal Worship:
Fishy love stories & feline tales

We live in a pet-worshipping, animal-venerating world, from the astonishing amount of supermarket square footage devoted to dog and cat food to television programs extolling the high-priced wisdom of horse and parakeet whisperers. We support environmental causes to save whales and songbirds. We even have a national bird that we’ve managed not to extirpate.

But we weren’t the first when it came to serious animal adoration.

Take the she-wolf of Rome, legendary mother of the city who suckled those crazy human twins, Remus and Romulus. Early in Rome’s history, she was immortalized in bronze by an Etruscan master sculptor. A symbol of fierceness and intelligence, the wolf was also sacred to Mars, Apollo, and Silvanus and worshipped accordingly. The Lupercalia festival, described elsewhere in this book, had the wolf as its totem. In the Roman army, special troops called signifers wore wolf’s heads and pelts as part of their uniform while carrying the battle standards of the legion.

Although lizards, parrots, snakes, and tropical fish have their ardent followers today, few modern pet lovers share the Roman fetish for large eels of the lamprey and murena species. Although some were kept for consumption (eel flesh being high-status gourmet seafood), many were treated like members of the family. Living in elaborate man-made ponds along the Bay of Naples, feeding on delicacies and at times wearing gold jewelry, such eels were unlikely love objects. When his lamprey died, a Roman senator named Lucius Crassus wasted no time in putting on full mourning. As one writer put it, “He grieved for it as though for a daughter.”

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Ancient Greeks favored pet dogs; Romans fawned over giant eels; and Egyptians went mad over kitties. Their cat worship cult had countless followers humble and highborn.

Among the Romans and the Greeks, dogs large and small were bred for hunting and guarding livestock, especially Cretan hounds, Laconian sheepdogs, and the Umbrian and Etruscan breeds. Folks also cherished small lapdogs as pets. A favorite breed was the long-haired silky Maltese; Emperor Claudius had one. Canine pets got pampered, and when they died they were buried with care, often memorialized with poignant, poetry-filled headstones.

The pussycat, however, never made the Greco-Roman list of popular domestic animals. Thus when Greek and Roman writer-historians such as Herodotus and Diodorus of Sicily visited Egypt on different occasions, they were flabbergasted to discover the idolization of felines.

Pharoahs and royals weren’t the only one to worship cats. In humbler households, cat owners would shave off their eyebrows in mourning after the death of the family tabby. The cat goddess Bumastis or Pasht represented a major cult, with numerous temples and countless worshippers. Archaeologists have found whole cemeteries filled with feline mummies, nicely embalmed in cedar oil and wrapped in linen.

From time to time in our era, hard-core kitty fans and saviors of strays make the headlines, but it would be hard to top the passion the Egyptians felt for their felines. About halfway through the first century B.C., a Roman diplomat, newly stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, accidentally killed a cat. At that sensitive time, Egyptian top officials were trying to placate the Romans in order to prevent a war. Despite their best efforts to calm the public, a mob of outraged Alexandrians made mincemeat of the unfortunate man.

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