Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Animals like us
Keeping wild creatures may have been the first step that ancient peoples took towards domesticating animals. Once caged or encouraged to stay close with offers of food, such animals would have provided a reliable contribution to the domestic store-cupboard. Some would have provided other services in return for their keep: hunting dogs for example, or rat-catching cats.
But living close to animals may also have encouraged people to become attached to them and give them human qualities or interpret their behaviour in human terms (anthropomorphism).
Part of the process of transforming an animal into a pet involves giving it a name - something that animals cannot do for themselves. Today's pet owners treat their animals to all the comforts a human companion would require - special food, their own bed, toys and even clothes for bad weather.
Making animals human
Through the ages animals have been shown in art dressed up, walking on two legs or performing human actions - this doesn’t tell us much about animal behaviour but it does tell us a lot about the humans that the artist is parodying. Such images of an 'inverted world' have successfully amused people for centuries (we do not know what the animals think).
In everyday life, we are familiar with animals even to the extent of forming relationships with them. And yet we cannot converse with them or know their thoughts. This familiar yet different quality makes animals suitable subjects for humour and satire in particular. By replacing human characters with animal ones the satirist can, by association, highlight animal-like qualities in his human subject, such as willingness to follow others or greed.
Conversely, animals given human qualities can also make a point.
A satirical papyrus from Egypt in the Twentieth Dynasty (about 1186-1069 BC) shows animals parodying human behaviour. Their animal qualities are at odds with the human activities they perform in a reversal of the natural order of things. For example, cats leading geese.
Sacred and supernatural
The inner life of animals has always been a mystery to humans. None more so than that of the domestic cat (Felis catus). Perhaps it was this enigmatic quality that led to the association of the cat, and many other animals, with the sacred or the supernatural.
The goddess Bastet could be depicted as a ferocious lionness, or as a cat when in a more peaceful role. One of the principal cult centres of this goddess was at Bubastis in the Nile Delta. Here, thousands of cat mummies were buried in a special cemetery from the seventh century BC onwards. We know from other sacred animal cults in Egypt that the cats would have been bred in captivity, then culled at a young age, to be mummified and offered for sale to pilgrims.
As with other creatures sacred to particular deities, it became very popular in the Late Period (661-332 BC) to bury mummified cats in special cemeteries as a sign of devotion to the goddess. A number of cat cemeteries are known from Egypt.
Horse and rider figures were popular grave offerings in sixth-century Boeotia, a region of Greece. It is likely that the possession of a horse was a mark of social and even political status. Laying a model in the grave might show the mourners' respect for the position the dead person had held in society.
Similar figures have also been found in sanctuaries. A terracotta horse and rider might have been offered to a god as a representative of the dedicator, thanking the god or requesting a favour.
Man's best friend
Dogs have often been called ‘man’s best friend’ and a marble statue of a pair of dogs dating back to the second century AD, shows a tender scene. It was found with another similar pair near Civita Lavinia, modern Lanuvio, Italy. They were acquired in 1774 by Charles Townley from the painter and dealer Gavin Hamilton, who had conducted excavations at a place called 'Dog Mountain'.
The name was clearly very appropriate as Hamilton also found other marble dogs there, a sphinx with a dog's body and two statues of Actaeon attacked by hounds.
Owners and their pets
Keeping a pet is a two-way trade. The animal gets food, comfort and safety in return for affectionate behaviour and, perhaps, obedience. Where the animal concerned is powerful, rare or expensive, it may also bring its owner status.
People naturally become very attached to their pets and may include them alongside images of themselves or surround themselves with representations of the animals they love. Sometimes the owner's relationship with the animal becomes overly sentimental - even obsessive.
Nineteenth century artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti loved exotic animals and began to collect them with a passion after the tragic death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal in 1862. He was especially fond of the wombats in his miniature zoo and commemorated the passing of one of them with an illustrated verse.
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