Cats in ancient Greece

Gata is Greek for cat, but ancient Greek words such as ailurophobia (fear of cats) are derived from the name Ailuros which was the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian goddess Bast. The ancient Greeks saw Bast as a version of their lunar goddess Artemis. In one legend (recounted in Metamorphosis by Antoninus Liberalis) Artemis turned herself into a cat in order to escape Typhon (the God of wind who was associated with the Egyptian god Seth).

Although the domestic cat was not as popular in Greece as in either Egypt or Rome, they were a very familiar part of family life. The comic playwright Aristophanes liked to include cats in his productions and often used the phrase “the cat did it” for comic effect.

Ovid recounts the tale of Galinthias, one of the servants of Princess Alcmene (the mother of Heracles/Hercules and wife of Amphitryon). Zeus disguised himself as Amphitryon and made Alcmene pregnant. This made Hera (the wife of Zeus) very angry and she resolved to prevent the birth. However, Galinthias played a trick on Hera which enabled Alcmene to successfully give birth to Heracles. Hera was furious and took her revenge on Galinthias by turning her into a cat and sending her to the underworld to act as a priestess of Hecate (who was the goddess of death and queen of witches).

Black cats were thought to be an omen of death because of their connection with Hecate.