“But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.”
“…when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone.”
Rudhyard Kipling, “The Cat that Walked by Himself”
Ephesus, located in present day Turkey, was an ancient Greek city famous for the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, as well as the birthplace of the philosopher Heraclitus. In Roman times it was the capital of Asia, the richest province of the Roman Empire. I was inspired to expand my knowledge on that ancient city after being gifted a beautiful and unique book that explores the ruins of the city from a very special perspective. It was written by an Austrian scientist and leader of the archaeological excavations, Sabine Ladstätter, who teamed up with an excellent photographer Lois Lammerhuber to capture the life of cats roaming the ancient ruins in large numbers. She wrote:
“They seem to be the last worshippers of the goddess. They draw themselves up to full height, paws raised towards heaven, their eyes set on something not immediately recognizable to the human observer. The cats of Ephesus love hunting bees. Their poses are adopted while they hunt for the insect once regarded as a symbol of the Artemis of Ephesus in antiquity.”
The Greeks believed that the goddess Artemis sometimes appeared in cat form herself. This is why she was identified with the Egyptian Bastet, the cat goddess who ruled pleasure, eroticism and joy, and who was seen as mild and benevolent on the one hand, but ferocious and vengeful on the other. Like Artemis, she was believed to protect women during pregnancy. She was viewed as a protective deity able to counter the dark forces, which, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, were especially active at the end of the year. For that reason cat amulets were popular New Year gifts in ancient Egypt.
The ambivalence of cat symbolism carried on into later times, especially into the Middle Ages and the times of witch hunts, as Biedermann, who associates the negative valuation of the cat with “an aggressive attitude to that which is female,” observes:
“The eye of the cat, which appears to change as the light strikes it from different angles, was considered deceptive, and the animal’s ability to hunt even in virtual darkness led to the belief that it was in league with the forces of darkness. … The cat is tireless and cunning when going after its prey – the virtues of a good soldier. This is why the Swabians, Swiss, and Burgundians of old had cats in their coats of arms, standing for liberty.”
Hans Biedermann, “Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them”
Interestingly, according to some ancient legends, Ephesus was first settled around 6000 BC by the Amazons, the mythical tribe of female warriors. They may have built a shrine to Cybele millennia before the site became the centre of the cult of Artemis. One thing very obviously always remained unchanged, though, namely the association of Ephesus with the goddess. Even early Christians appropriated the place as the site of the cult of Mary. According to a legend, Mother of Jesus may have spent her last years in Ephesus. To this day The House of the Virgin Mary, believed by some to be her last home built by Apostle John, is a popular place of pilgrimage.
Cats are undoubtedly creatures of the goddess. Like Artemis and earlier the Amazons, they are wild, free and virtually untamed. Excellent hunters (much more skillful and effective than dogs), cats are believed to be only semi-domesticated by modern science. They love to roam the ruins of Ephesus, as these appear to be such a perfect interface between nature and culture. What archeologists expose, nature reclaims quickly. Thick vegetation covers the ancient walls unless painstaking maintenance effort is made continuously. Unfortunately, virtually nothing is left of the legendary temple of Artemis, with its countless marble columns, the cedar ceiling, cypress doors and the magnificent statue of the goddess with many breasts, eggs or bull testicles, depending on the source.
The temple was burnt by a mad man seeking fame. In a fascinating turn of event, this calamity coincided with the birth of Alexander the Great:
“…Philip II, who had just been released from captivity in Thebes, was appointed regent of Macedonia. Three years later, his wife, Olympias, gave birth to a baby boy, whom they named Alexander, and on the very same day, a man named Herostratus intentionally burned down the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. According to Plutarch, ‘All the Magi, who were then at Ephesus, looked upon the fire as a sign which betokened a much greater misfortune: they ran about the town, beating their faces and crying ‘that they day had brought forth the great scourge and destroyer of Asia.’”
“Ancient Ephesus: The History and Legacy of One’s of Antiquity’s Greatest Cities” by Charles River Editors
After conquering Ephesus, however, Alexander the Great treated its citizens with reverence and respect. Perhaps he was aware that even without the temple, the spirit of Ephesus could not be vanquished. The city flourished under ancient Romans and was very significant during the subsequent Byzantine Empire as well. Today, cats symbolically reclaim the city for the goddess.