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Explore the Fascinating World of Ancient Greek Animals: How They Inspired Art, Religion, and Culture

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Ancient Greek Animals played a significant role in the lives of people in ancient Greece and Rome. Whether it was rabbits, dogs, snakes, or birds, animals of all shapes and sizes were ubiquitous in their daily lives. They are featured in popular storytelling and mythological beliefs. Depictions of animals adorned everything from vase paintings and frescoes to mosaics, stone sculptures, and ceramic figurines.

Ancient Greeks and Romans lived in rural areas outside the cities, so they had ample opportunities to interact with animals. Unlike us, living in an age of mechanization, they had firsthand familiarity with them. With no shortage of reference points to draw from, it’s no surprise that animals were such a prominent feature in their art and culture.

Ancient Greek Animals: A CLOSE BOND

Even within city environments, people and their animals commonly coexisted and dwelled in closer proximity than what we would deem comfortable in the present era. Domesticated animals such as calves, sheep, goats, and pigs were utilized for religious rituals. Exotic and untamed creatures like lions, tigers, bears, and others became the central attractions of both popular and aristocratic entertainment.

They were either hunted in their natural habitats or captured and forced to fight against each other, or even human competitors, in violent arena battles.

Equines and other animals used for pulling loads or carrying goods toiled on agricultural lands. However, during times of conflict, they were enlisted for service on the battleground, occasionally fighting alongside elephants. Animals held significant roles across various tiers of society, playing crucial parts in public events, religious ceremonies, and military affairs. Yet, historical artworks and literature from ancient times reveal that the strongest bond was forged within households, between masters or mistresses and their cherished domestic pets.

The majority of inhabitants in the ancient world cherished and valued their animal companions, often mourning their loss and constructing memorial monuments to mark their resting places upon passing away. Aristotle, the pioneering philosopher who embarked on formal animal study and classification, regarded these creatures as irrational beings of lower moral standing, existing solely to fulfill human needs.

However, other thinkers held them in higher regard. Pythagoras, for instance, proposed the notion that animals housed the reborn souls of humans, influenced by an incident where he supposedly witnessed the mistreatment of a whimpering puppy.

HOUSEHOLD COMPANIONS

 Within the confines of their households and gardens, people kept an incredibly diverse array of animals as companions. This menagerie encompassed dogs, ducks, geese, caged birds, rabbits, hares, tortoises, goats, quail, and mice. While snakes held a spiritual significance associated with the underworld, they were also utilized—alongside cats, ferrets, and other weasels—to control the population of rodents.

Insects that emitted melodious chirps were treated with the same regard as songbirds. Children would construct miniature containers from reeds or slender branches to provide a home for their pet locusts, crickets, and cicadas. It’s documented by a scholar writing about Aristophanes’ work “Wasps” that boys found entertainment in capturing sizeable beetles and tethering them using a thread tied to one leg. This practice is also illustrated in red-figure vase paintings.

Among the more unconventional choices for pets were apes and monkeys, often trained to showcase various tricks. People even kept fawns and fully grown deer, gazelles, foxes, and diminutive mountain cats as companions. Domesticated cats, however, only gained widespread popularity during the era of the Roman Empire, possibly due to increased trade interactions with Egypt.

DIVINE PETS

Religious veneration might have influenced the choice of pets, as specific animals held symbolic significance tied to particular deities. As an illustration, the quail (ortyx) held sacred associations with Apollo and Artemis. This bird was likely held in high regard at the twins’ central-Cycladic sanctuary on Delos, originally named Ortygia or “Quail Island.”

Pindar, a poet from the 5th century BC, and subsequent mythographers recounted a tale wherein Asterie, Leto’s sister (who gave birth to the twins on Delos), evaded Zeus’ advances by transforming herself into a quail. She then descended into the Aegean Sea, reemerging as an island. This narrative imbued quails with a divine essence, making them desirable for their melodious calls and vibrant feathers.

Moving to the Roman era, there are accounts of more exotic pets. Emperors Domitian and Caracalla notably kept lions within the confines of their palaces. Caracalla’s cherished companion, Acinaces, dined with him at the table and shared his master’s sleeping quarters. Valentinian I went to great lengths to ensure the well-being of two she-bears, Mica Aurea (Gold Flake) and Innocentia (Innocence), who seemed to be entrusted with his enemies as objects of amusement.

RAISING THE ALARM  

Safeguarding the household was a persistent concern in ancient times. Dogs were frequently employed as gatekeepers, a fact evident from mosaic thresholds in Pompeii bearing the warning inscription “Cave Canem” (Beware of the Dog). Geese, much like Penelope’s favored pet, could also serve as protective sentinels. Caged birds had the potential to alert homeowners to the presence of visitors, yet they were primarily cherished for their melodious songs.

Among the affluent residences of Rome, vibrant green parrots with the ability to mimic speech were highly sought after. Pliny noted that these parrots were imported from India and were particularly playful, especially when influenced by the effects of wine. Even more extravagant and costly were pet peacocks, objects of both mockery from Greek comedic playwrights and criticism from Roman moralists, owing to their showy nature.

A FAITHFUL FRIEND

Above all else, pets offered solace through companionship, a bond most vividly exemplified by the unwavering loyalty of dogs. In the annals of ancient Greece, the most renowned canine was likely the faithful Argos, who patiently awaited the return of Odysseus from the Trojan War. Their poignant reunion was followed by Argos’s contented passing. Noteworthy breeds included the Molossian, Laconian, and Cretan guard dogs, as well as the ubiquitous Melitan lap dog from Malta.

Eumaeus, the swineherd, was likely an owner of Molossian dogs, a sentiment echoed by the nouveau riche Trimalchio. This individual’s massive beast named Scylax, according to the Roman author Petronius, caused a raucous commotion during a banquet. The incident involved Scylax attacking a smaller dog, toppling a table lamp, shattering all the wine goblets, and splattering the guests with hot oil.

In a more tender vein, there’s Publius’ diminutive Issa, celebrated by Martial for being “more pure than the kiss of a dove… more affectionate than any maiden… dearer than Indian gems…” Issa’s intimate connection with her owner is illustrated by her resting on his neck, slumbering, and never once marring the bedspread with a single blemish.

FAQs

What kind of animals did ancient Greece have?

Ancient Greece was home to a variety of animals that played important roles in daily life and culture. Common domesticated animals included sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle, which were raised for food, wool, and labor. Horses were also crucial for transportation and military endeavors.

Dogs served as loyal companions and guardians, with some breeds like the Molossian, Laconian, and Cretan guard dogs being notable. Birds such as geese, caged songbirds, and even talking parrots were kept as pets. Wildlife included deer, hares, and various species of birds. Greece’s rich mythology also introduced mythical creatures like centaurs, sirens, and the sacred cow-like animal, the aurochs.

What is Greece’s famous animal?

One of Greece’s most famous animals is the dolphin, which holds cultural and mythological significance in Greek history.

What animals did Greece have?

Ancient Greece had a diverse array of animals, both domesticated and wild. Common domesticated animals included sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, and horses, which were used for various purposes such as food, wool, labor, and transportation.

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Rahul M Suresh

Visiting the Zoo can be an exciting and educational experience for all involved. As a guide, I have the privilege of helping students and visitors alike to appreciate these animals in their natural habitat as well as introducing them to the various aspects of zoo life. I provide detailed information about the individual animals and their habitats, giving visitors an opportunity to understand each one more fully and appreciate them in a more intimate way.

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Visiting the Zoo can be an exciting and educational experience for all involved. As a guide, I have the privilege of helping students and visitors alike to appreciate these animals in their natural habitat as well as introducing them to the various aspects of zoo life. I provide detailed information about the individual animals and their habitats, giving visitors an opportunity to understand each one more fully and appreciate them in a more intimate way.

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