Οὐκέτι δή σε λίγεια κατ’ ἀφνεὸν ᾿Αλκίδος οἶκον
ἀκρί μελιζομέναν ὄψεται ᾿Αέλιος·
ἤδη γὰρ λειμῶνας ἐπὶ Κλυμένου πεπότησαι
καὶ δροσερὰ χρυσέας ἄνθεα Περσεφόνας.
No more, sharp-chirping locust, will the sun
see you singing throughout Alkis’ rich home;
already you’ve flitted off to the meadows of famed Hades
and the dewy blooms of golden Persephone.
Aristodikos of Rhodes Anthologia Graeca 7.189
I once read (but do not recall where) a new story about a reptilian pet, an 11-foot Burmese python, that apparently constricted the younger brother of its owner to death. And a few years back we heard almost daily about canine pets — pit bulls — savaging neighbors and owners alike. Despite such relatively isolated examples of their family pet turning vicious, Americans have a deep love for their animals – as did the ancients who, at least in Pompeii, had admonitory signs like CAVE CANEM (“Beware of Dog”) to indicate that, there too, otherwise endearing creatures could on occasion prove a danger to the unwary.
Reptiles were no more popular as pets in antiquity than they are today, and dogs were at least as popular then as now. Since Xanthos, the prophetic talking horse of Achilles in Iliad 19 (408-417), does not qualify as such, the first fully documented pet in Greek literature is a dog named Argos. This aged, flea-covered hunting hound, alone of living things, recognizes Odysseus upon the latter’s disguised return to Ithaka after an absence of some 20 years; too weak to approach his master, he merely wags his tail weakly and lets his ears droop before dying, in a phrasal formula applied to warriors (Odysseus 17.326).
As for etymology, the Greek root meaning “dog” is κυν-, “kyn-, kun-,” which may perhaps be cognate with the Latin root can- and is certainly cognate with English “hound” (cf. German Hund). The Greek gives us, ultimately, our “cynic” or “dog-person,” from the Cynics, an ancient sect of philosophers so called presumably because of their snarling and cur-like ways. From the Latin term, whatever its ultimate origins, we have our “canines,” the ripping teeth that are very prominent on dogs and just a little so in our own mouths.
Cats were likewise visible in the ancient societies of Greece and Rome, if not to the same degree as dogs. The words that the Greeks and Romans used for cats strike me as more interesting than those applied to dogs. In fact, since cats were less salient in antiquity than dogs, there were in effect no lexical “primitives” for these animals, but only secondary or perhaps even tertiary appellations. Remember the cartoon character Felix the Cat? Well, the name comes from the Latin stem fe-l- that goes back to an Indo-European root meaning ‘suck, suckle’.
LEARNED NOTE FOLLOWS THAT MAY BE SKIPPED
Some scholars posit a feminine *fēlā (A. Ernout and A. Meillet, Dictionnaire Étymologique de la Langue Latine, Troisième Édition, Paris, 1951, p. 398) or *fēlī (A. Walde and J.B. Hoffman, Lateinisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 3. Auflage, Erster Band, Heidelberg, 1938, p. 475), assuming an analogical formation of the type nūtrīx ~ nūtrī– (<nūtrīre) :: fēlix ~ *fēlī-. The stem itself is an l -nominalization deriving from the Indo-European root *dhē(i)- ‘suck, suckle’ (Julius Pokorny, Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, I. Band, Bern und München, 1969, pp. 241-2) and is cognate with Greek t hēl- ‘female’. It has a number of genetic relatives in Latin, among which may be noted fēllō ‘I suck’, fēllātio ‘sucking’, fēmina ‘woman’ (literally: ‘she who lets herself be sucked’) <*fē- plus middle participial formant *-men-), fēcundus ‘’fecund, fruitful’, fētus, fīlius ‘son’ and fīlia ‘daughter’ – cf. English ‘filial’ — (literally: “the one who sucks [viz. the breast]). It is important to note that although the ancients undoubtedly did not know the actual etymology of felix they certainly did know that it had the primary meaning ‘fruitful, abundant, plentiful’ as well as the secondary one of ‘happy, blissful’.
The cat (fēlēs in Latin), then, is, from the Roman perspective, utterly “happy” – a fēlix fēlēs as it were — because it is so fecund and bears so many children, and hence is simply called – if I may — “Fel-icity.” The term clearly captures an important aspect of cat-ness – the fruitfulness of the female, which was an important desideratum in Roman society. The Greek word, in turn, referring to the same animal, captures quite a different aspect of cat-ness, namely, the way it sinuously waves its tail, for they marvelously called the animal αἰέλουρος (αἴλουρος) ai(e)louros, which means, quite literally, the “tail-shifter.”
I leave it up to you to infer what these two widely differing words for “cat” say about the differing outlooks of the Greeks and the Romans, for they surely offer an illuminating little take on the cultural psychology of naming – one quite functional in import, the other rather more aesthetic, I would say. (Our word “cat,” incidentally, comes from the late Latin world cattus, which may be Celtic in origin; it displaced the classical Latin term and thus wormed its way into the Romance vernaculars, as in Spanish gato and French chat (the original initial k-sound of the Latin going by firmly established rules of diachronic phonology into initial g- and ch- in Spanish and French respectively).
But back to our epigraph!
In the seventh book of the so-called “Greek Anthology,” a collection of epigrammatic poems ranging in time from pre-classical Greek literature up the late Byzantine age, we find a number of funerary musing on dead pets. Even if these verses sometimes display a maudlin attachment to the deceased, there is little doubt that the feelings of the ancients for their many different types of pets were every bit as strong as what we read about today or even experience personally (think of the many incidents of tearful joy we witness on television as owners recovered rescued cats that had been stranded on rooftops by the great floods, or dogs recovered hundreds of miles from home). Thus, we find one Eumelus (7.211) lamenting the loss of his faithful guard-dog, Bull, and a bird-lover named Agathias (7.206) wishing vengeance on a “very wicked cat” that killed his pet partridge. Other animals mournfully addressed here include cicadas, roosters and even an ant.
And so, in whatever other ways – and they are very many – we differ from the ancients, in their love of pets we certainly share with them a common and easily understandable humanity.