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The Weasel in Antiquity: Pet or Pest?

Hand colored engraving, published in Edinburgh, 1838. (Source: Art Resource)

Least Weasels. Hand colored engraving, published in Edinburgh, 1838. (Source: Art Resource)

It’s a nice time for a light-hearted piece, and I’ve been dying to write this article for a while. It’s about pet weasels in antiquity. A surprising amount of respectable scholarship all the way from 1718 to 1997 has claimed that the Greeks and Romans kept tame weasels as household pets. At the very least, there is good evidence that weasels lived and nested in the houses of ancient Greeks and Romans. But to claim that weasels were kept as tame, domesticated pets requires more evidence from the sources than simply evidence that they wandered around in human houses. This article will examine the evidence for the taming of various members of the weasel family. Remarkably, the marten seems to have been tamed at least once before Aristotle. There is also evidence that the polecat, the ancestor of our ferret, was tamed for hunting purposes by at least the first century AD. But what of the little red creatures we know and love as “weasels”? Were they pets or pests in the eyes of the Greeks and Romans?

The notion that weasels were kept as tame or domestic pets is a favourite of Classics dictionaries. It is usually said that the house weasel, identified as the galē enoikidios or galē katoikidios in Greek, was kept to hunt mice in the home before the domestic cat took up this role from Late Antiquity onwards. Under the entry of “weasel,” the Brill’s New Pauly Reference states:

Tame weasels were kept in the house as mouse-catchers and snake-hunters (Plin. HN 29,60) (γαλῆ κατοικίδιος/galê katoikídios, ‘house weasel’); in Late Antiquity, cats took over this role.

In a similar vein, the entry for faelis in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities reads:

The early Greeks and Romans do not appear to have domesticated the cat as we have done, but instead employed a species of weasel (γαλῆ, mustela), or the whitebreasted marten (faelis foina). … Cats first appear in literature as house animals about the fourth century A.D., but even as late as the Middle Ages they were comparatively rare and costly.

The claim that cats were uncommon or exotic in Classical times ignores the wealth of visual evidence for their presence in Western Europe. Etruscan Frescoes and Pompeiian mosaics depict cats in mundane settings. But the presence of cats in Europe would not necessarily prove that weasels were not kept as pets. The notion that cats were rare in antiquity is merely a minor factual error which is sometimes transmitted alongside the pet weasel hypothesis.

A cat on an Etruscan fresco. Otto Keller, Die Antike Tierwelt (Vol. 1), p.169

A cat on an Etruscan fresco. Otto Keller, Die Antike Tierwelt (Vol. 1), p.169

A mosaic of a cat in Pompeii. (Source) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaic_cat_ducks_Massimo_Inv124137.jpg

Mosaic of a cat in Pompeii. (Source)

The Liddell, Scott and Jones dictionary of Ancient Greek also encourages readers to translate galē enoikidios/katoikidios (literally “house-dwelling weasel”) as “tame weasel,” on the assumption that the weasels which lived in houses were kept as pets.

lsjweaselentry

The tame weasel appears again in Otto Keller’s 1909 monograph work on animals in antiquity. Keller repeats the pet weasel hypothesis, and adds:

…the house weasel (κατοικίδιος γαλῆ) mustela domestica protected the hoard from house mice, which it cleaned up with relentless zeal; at the same time it functioned as a lively playmate for the children and as a lap animal for women with great love and tenderness… [1]

Like all good lore, the pet weasel story gets better every time it is retold. Never mind that the term mustela domestica, “domestic weasel,” does not appear in Classical Latin texts, or that even the Greek terms “enoikidios/katoikidios” may simply describe an animal living in a house, like a house fly or a house mouse, or that there are no literary references to children playing with house weasels. The notion of tame weasels permeates and colours Keller’s interpretation of weasel references in antiquity, as he claims that even Aristophanes’ occasional jokes about the bad odour of weasel farts confirm that they were a “universally known pet.”[2] Keller is quite convinced of the idea that weasels were kept as pets, but I could not find enough evidence in Keller to justify his mysteriously detailed claims about them as playful lap-pets.

Keller was not the first nor the last to assert that the Greeks and Romans kept weasels as pets. The theory is astonishingly old, as it seems that all the main arguments for it can be traced back to Magnus Rydelius and Andreas E. Wiesel’s 1718 work, Dissertatio Historico-Physica de Mustela Domestica.[3] That work, by the way, was written in Latin. Yes, it was so old that scholarship was still writing in Latin. It has survived all these years, though, since I’ve seen the pet weasel hypothesis resurface as recently as 1997 in the footnotes of P. G. Walsh’s translation of Petronius’s Satyricon. It is an obscure piece of scholastic folklore, but a tale of remarkable endurance. Sylvia Benton wrote a journal article, in 1969, “Pet Weasels: Theocritus xv. 28,” specifically to refute this hypothesis in readings of Theocritus’s fifteenth Idyll.[4] Yet after so many centuries, and even after being criticised in modern times, the idea of pet weasels lives on. It seems perhaps that its very obscurity shields the pet weasel theory from being refuted, while also preserving and enhancing its quirky appeal among new generations of Classics scholars.

Definition of terms

Before I can argue about whether the weasel was kept as a pet in antiquity, however, I need to define what I mean by “tamed,” “domesticated,” and “pet.”

tamed domesticated pet2

A tame animal is an animal that has been socialised with humans so that when it is petted it will not attack or flee from its handler.

A domesticated animal is a tame animal that has been selectively bred for its innate tameness and other desirable qualities.

A pet is a tame animal with which a human has formed a sentimental attachment. The pet may be both tame and domestic (as in the case of a dog), or it may just be a tamed animal (eg. a wild-born pet parrot).

It is sometimes difficult to find evidence for pet-like relationships in classical literature. This is not because the Greeks and Romans never bonded with their animals (some Romans even carved out tombstones for their dogs); it is simply something that doesn’t always get mentioned. Given the state of the preservation of evidence, this article will mainly focus on answering whether weasels were tamed (deliberately socialised to human contact) or domesticated (bred in captivity for desirable traits) in antiquity. Needless to say, an animal which simply makes its nest in the house like a swallow or a mouse is not necessarily a tame, domesticated or pet animal.

The next point of business is to quickly outline what animal species we are talking about. Below is a chart of European mustelid species which lived in the vicinity of Greek and Latin writers. Some of these mustelids are very difficult to tell apart in physical descriptions unless the writer mentions exactly the right features. The Stoat and the Least Weasel look very similar. While the Stoat is generally larger than the Least Weasel, both have extremely variable body lengths and their size ranges may overlap. The Stoat can only be reliably differentiated form the Least Weasel by looking for the black tip at the end of its tail. The European Polecat, ancestor of our domestic ferret, is larger than a Stoat and has no white underneath its neck or belly. The Beech and Pine Martens are about the size of a small dog and are very easily confused with each other. The Beech Marten has a pink nose and a longer tail, while the Pine Marten has a dark brown or light grey nose. Moreover the Beech Marten’s throat patch is always white, whereas the Pine Marten’s throat patch ranges from golden yellow to a very pale omelette colour.

A chart which compares the sizes and coat patterns of European mustelids.

A chart which compares the sizes and coat patterns of European mustelids.

Generally, when English speakers hear the word “weasel,” we picture a small, long, reddish and white creature that flits along like quicksilver. Technically the Least Weasel is the only European mustelid in this study that has “weasel” in its common name, which would mean it is the only mustelid in the group that can properly be called a “weasel.” However Stoat looks and acts so much like a weasel that non-expert English speakers will usually call them weasels. When I need to refer to the species of a mustelid, I will use their Common Names. If I use the word “weasel” without capitalisation, it will generally denote what it does in the “incorrect” English usage: the small reddish creature with white underneath and a penchant for mischief, that is, both the Least Weasel and the Stoat. Likewise, the uncapitalised “marten” will refer to both the Beech Marten and the Pine Marten.

Tame mustelids: martens

A Pine Marten. (Source) http://strangeanimalsoftheworld.weebly.com/europe.html

A Pine Marten. (Source)

Alone among the ancient writers, Aristotle offers physical descriptions of mustelids in his History of Animals, which allows us to identify the species of animals with some degree of plausibility. While he does not mention any tame weasels, he claims that the marten can readily become very tame. Aristotle is therefore an invaluable source for the taming of mustelids in the ancient world.

Firstly, it should be noted that none of general lists of tame animals in Aristotle’s History of Animals include mustelids. For instance, at (1.1), Aristotle lists “horses, oxen, swine, men, sheep, goats, dogs” as tame animals with wild counterparts. These lists are not intended to be comprehensive, but they do at least indicate which animals would be most commonly thought of as tamed or domesticated creatures. The absence of mustelids in lists of tame creatures does not prove that they were never tamed, but it does suggest that weasels were not so universally taken for granted as common pet animals as Otto Keller claims.

Aristotle’s description of the iktis (marten) reports that it is similar to the galē (weasel) in that it is naturally harmful or malicious by nature. Remarkably, however, Aristotle also notes that the iktis can become very tame:

ἡ δ’ ἴκτις ἔστι μὲν τὸ μέγεθος ἡλίκον Μελιταῖον κυνίδιον τῶν μικρῶν, τὴν δὲ δασύτητα καὶ τὴν ὄψιν καὶ τὸ λευκὸν τὸ ὑποκάτω καὶ τοῦ ἤθους τὴν κακουργίαν ὅμοιον γαλῇ· καὶ τιθασσὸν δὲ γίνεται σφόδρα, τὰ δὲ σμήνη κακουργεῖ· τῷ γὰρ μέλιτι χαίρει. ἔστι δὲ καὶ ὀρνιθοφάγον ὥσπερ αἱ αἴλουροι.

The marten is about the size of the small kind of Melitaean miniature dog, and is like a weasel in its thick coat and appearance and white underbelly and in its vicious character. Moreover it becomes very tame, but it damages the bee-hives for it loves honey. It is a bird-eater too like the cats.
Aristotle, History of Animals, 8(9).6

If the iktis is a marten, then this passage would suggest that by the time of Aristotle’s writing in the fourth century BC, someone had discovered that the marten could be tamed. This passage does not necessarily indicate that the marten was a common pet; it does not even explain why anyone would want to tame a marten in the first place. But Aristotle does at least suggest that someone had tamed a marten in antiquity, which is more than what he says about any weasel in his History of Animals.

It may be objected that the iktis could be translated as a polecat or a weasel in some circumstances, or that the Greek terms for the weasel and marten cannot be precisely identified. I would argue that Aristotle’s physical descriptions do strongly support the reading of iktis as “marten” and galē as “weasel” in favour of all the alternatives. Aristotle wrote that the iktis, like the galē, had a distinctive white patch underneath its body. Therefore neither the iktis nor the galē could be the Polecat since the Polecat invariably has a black belly. There is also evidence that the galē was significantly smaller than the iktis. While the iktis was the size of a small Maltese dog, the galē was close to the size of a newborn bear cub. [5] For these reasons I am quite confident that Aristotle means “marten” when he says iktis and “weasel” when he says galē.

Summary of Greek terms for mustelids in Aristotle and Strabo

A summary of Greek terms for mustelids in Aristotle and Strabo

Tame mustelids: Polecats and ferrets

A Polecat. (Source) http://www.wsbrc.org.uk/Ktv1P8Hwd0awwjVcWnANNQ%3D%3D/Species.aspx

A Polecat. (Source)

Strabo and Pliny unfortunately do not describe the physical appearance of mustelids. However they do provide strong evidence for the domestication of what was probably the polecat or ferret. Strabo, writing in the first century AD, reports that in Turdetania (a southern region of Spain) people kept galai agriai, literally “field-dwelling weasels” or “wild weasels,” and trained them to flush rabbits out of holes. People even attached muzzles to prevent these mustelids from devouring rabbits inside their burrows.

πρὸς δὲ τὸ μέτριον ἐξεύρηνται πλείους θῆραι: καὶ δὴ καὶ γαλᾶς ἀγρίας ἃς ἡ Λιβύη φέρει τρέφουσιν ἐπίτηδες, ἃς φιμώσαντες παριᾶσιν εἰς τὰς ὀπάς: αἱ δ᾽ ἐξέλκουσιν ἔξω τοῖς ὄνυξιν οὓς ἂν καταλάβωσιν, ἢ φεύγειν ἀναγκάζουσιν εἰς τὴν ἐπιφάνειαν, ἐκπεσόντας δὲ θηρεύουσιν οἱ ἐφεστῶτες.

…but for the ordinary increase of these little hares, many ways of hunting have been devised, amongst others by polecats (galai agriai) from Libya, trained for the purpose. Having muzzled these, they turn them into the holes, when they either drag out the animals they find there with their claws, or compel them to fly to the surface of the earth, where they are taken by people standing by for that purpose.
Strabo, 3.2.6

Strabo thus provides evidence for the practice of ferreting in Spain and Libya. Pliny the Elder, writing in Latin in the same century as Strabo, also affirms that large numbers of mustelids were being put to work on rabbit warrens in the Balearic Islands to the east of Spain:

certum est Baliaricos adversus proventum eorum auxilium militare a Divo Augusto petisse. magna propter venatum eum viverris gratia est; iniciunt eas in specus, qui sunt multifores in terra — unde et nomen animali —, atque ita eiectos superne capiunt.

It is certain that people of the Balearic Islands sought military help against the onset of those (sc. rabbits) from the divine Emperor Augustus. Great was their thankfulness because of the hunt which was done by ferrets (viverrae); they send them into the rabbit-holes, which have many entrances (fores) in the earth, from which the animal gets its name (the name furo, “ferret,” is not mentioned but implied), and so they catch the flushed-out rabbits from above.
Pliny, Natural History, 8.218

Both of these writers indicate that people were using mustelids to force rabbits out of holes. This practice has continued from antiquity through medieval times to the present day. Hunters send ferrets down rabbit holes on one side of the warren to drive rabbits out the other side. In modern times ferreting is usually conducted with nets to entangle the fleeing rabbits, but there are many ways to skin a cat and it is possible to forgo the nets if you have good reactions, lots of slaves, or a pet falcon.

Women catching rabbits with ferrets and nets, from the Queen Mary Psalter, ca 1310-1320. (Source) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Women_hunting_rabbits_with_a_ferret.jpg

Women catching rabbits with ferrets and nets, from the Queen Mary Psalter, ca 1310-1320. (Source)

Since neither of these sources mention what the creatures looked like, it is simply an educated guess to assume that the animals were descended from Polecats. Arguably, Polecats are the ideal size for the work of flushing rabbits. Martens are rather too large to confidently wend their way deep into twisting rabbit warrens. At the other end of the scale, Stoats and Least Weasels may not be bulky enough to consistently triumph over rabbits in close combat in the confines of a tunnel. There are certainly accounts of Stoats and Least Weasels attacking and killing rabbits, but these are uncommon and nesting rabbits can also aggressively charge down Stoats to drive them away from nesting sites. The mustelids in Strabo’s Geography were said to be capable of gripping the rabbits in their claws and dragging them out of the burrows, and needed to be muzzled to prevent them from killing rabbits deep inside the holes. Even if the report that the animals used their claws was untrue, it would imply that Strabo had in mind a creature that would potentially be powerful enough to do the tough job of dragging a rabbit through its hole, which would suggest a bulkier creature like a Polecat rather than a Stoat or Least Weasel. The other advantage of the Polecat is that it has a slower running speed, and so is easier to catch by hand if it decides to run away into the fields. If a Stoat dashes off on the job it will be gone like lightning. Moreover, we do still have tame ferrets which are used for flushing rabbits, and this practice seems to have continued from antiquity through the Middle Ages. Our ferrets are descended from European Polecats. On the balance of evidence, one would be justified in assuming that the galē agria, the viverra and the furo were various names for tamed Polecats or ferrets.

In summary, there is fairly good evidence in Strabo and Pliny to suggest that the Polecat or ferret was tamed in antiquity to flush rabbits. There is even tentative evidence in Aristotle that the marten was tamed, albeit for unknown reasons. But where does that leave the much-celebrated “house weasel”?

House Weasels

A Stoat. Photography by TomiTapio http://www.deviantart.com/art/Stoat-I-really-love-this-wall-86228605

A Stoat. Photography by TomiTapio

Basically all references to the “house weasel” suggest the same level of domestication as the house fly or house mouse. When Plutarch was asked why the Pythagoreans don’t eat fish, he claimed that it was wrong to kill fish since they were the most harmless creatures. They never destroyed crops or stole food from humans, which contrasted with the habits of harmful house pests, the weasel and the fly:

οὔτε γὰρ τρίγλαν ἔστι δήπου ‘ληιβότειραν’ οὔτε σκάρον ‘τρυγηφάγον ’ οὔτε κεστρεῖς τινας ἢ λάβρακας ‘σπερμολόγους’ προσειπεῖν, ὡς τὰ χερσαῖα κατηγοροῦντες ὀνομάζομεν ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὅσα γαλῇ καὶ μυίᾳ κατοικιδίῳ μικρολόγως ἐγκαλοῦμεν ἔχοι τις ἂν αἰτιάσασθαι τὸν μέγιστον ἰχθῦν.

For we cannot call the mullet corn-destroying, the trout grape-eating, nor the barbel or sea-pike seed-gathering, as we do some land-animals, signifying their hurtfulness by these epithets. Nay, those little mischiefs which we complain of in these house-creatures, a weasel or fly, none can justly lay upon the greatest fish.
– Plutarch, Symposiacs, 8.8.3

Plutarch thus groups house weasels with house flies and states that they are both harmful house-dwellers. In addition, writers like Cicero in his On the Nature of the Gods often mention weasels and mice together as house vermin.[6] These sources suggest that the weasels which lived in houses were held in much the same esteem as other household pests.

Pliny’s Natural History also provides evidence that the weasels were not invited into the house and that humans did not have any control over their breeding.

Mustelarum duo genera; alterum silvestre, distans magnitudine, Graeci vocant ictidas. harum fel contra aspidas dicitur efficax, cetero venenum. haec autem, quae in domibus nostris oberrat et catulos suos, ut auctor est Cicero, cottidie transfert mutatque sedem, serpentes persequitur.

There are two kinds of weasels; one that lives in the forest, at a great distance, which the Greeks call the iktis. This first type is said to be efficacious against asp-bites, as it is poisonous against the other creature [the asp]. But this other kind of weasel, which wanders about in our houses and which, as Cicero says, relocates its young every day and changes its nest, chases snakes. (Pliny then goes on to explain how to make an antidote for snake bites out of crushed weasels)
Pliny, Natural History, 29.60

This passage has often been cited as evidence for the domestication of the weasel, since it mentions that the weasel chases snakes, which is a beneficial trait. From the context, however, it seems that Pliny chiefly mentions the snake-chasing quality of the weasel to explain why weasels make good cures for snake bites. In any case the weasel is said to “wander” or “rove about” (oberrat) through the houses, and it apparently changes the site of its nest every day. This suggests that humans were not in control of the weasel’s daily movements nor its breeding habits. Thus it seems that these weasels were not wilfully invited into houses, and that they were not domestically bred by humans.

Note the black markings at the tip of the creatures’ tails, which are typical of Stoats. Pyxis, Berlin no. 2517

Note the black markings at the ends of the creatures’ tails, which may suggest the markings of the Stoat. Pyxis, Berlin no. 2517

The picture above sums up the ancient attitude to the house weasel quite nicely. It is a scene of mayhem. The various items are not all in scale with each other, but it is easy to get the gist of what the pottery is saying. Men are angrily brandishing sticks at some weasels which are tipping over dishes to steal food. Two weasels are climbing what look like hat-stands, perhaps to reach the meat symbolised by the hanging duck carcass in the lower left. One of the weasels has accidentally knocked over its hat-stand and has broken a vase. In short, the house weasel is a thief and a mischief-maker. It seems that this is not a creature that the Greeks and Romans would normally invite into their homes.

Conclusions

Classical dictionaries and reference works often try to claim that the “house weasel” or galē katoikidios was a tamed pet, and contrast this pet weasel with other members of the weasel family in antiquity. My investigations into the taming of mustelids in antiquity have revealed the opposite. The larger mustelids, the marten (iktis) and the ferret/polecat (galē agria), were likely to have been tamed in antiquity. The smaller weasels certainly did nest in Greek and Roman houses, but their presence was not necessarily desired. House weasels were mentioned alongside other vermin like house flies and house mice, and they were known to steal food. Moreover humans did not seem to have any control over the house weasels’ reproduction, so it is unlikely that the Greeks and Romans ever created a domestic breed of weasel. As cool as the pet weasel hypothesis is, there unfortunately is no real evidence for the claims that the ancients kept tame weasels as playmates for their children and lap-pets for ladies.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing is not so much that the pet weasel theory is unsupported, but that it has continued to survive remarkably intact among the obscure reaches of Classical scholarship ever since it was first theorised in 1718 by Magnus Rydelius and Andreas E. Wiesel. How could this have happened, and more importantly, did Andreas E. Wiesel actually choose to write on this topic because his last name was German for weasel? I’ve seen strange theories in the discipline of Classics that have lived past their use-by-date, but perhaps this one takes the cake.

I leave you with one final tribute to the pet weasel hypothesis: a video of a person playing with a tamed Least Weasel. Theoretically it is very much possible to tame a weasel, just as it is possible to tame a mouse or a rat or a fox. That does not necessarily mean that these creatures were kept as pets, but alas, it really would have been awesome if the Greeks and Romans actually did.


[1] Otto Keller, Die Antike Tierwelt (Leipzig: Engelmann, 1913), 164

[2] Keller, Antike Tierwelt, 171.

[3] Magnus Rydelius and Andreas E Wiesel, Diss. hist. phys. de mustela domestica, accessible online in the original Latin: http://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/resolve/display/bsb10841374.html

[4] Sylvia Benton, “Pet Weasels: Theocritus xv. 28,” The Classical Review, New Series, 19.3 (1969), 260-263.

[5] “The new-born bear’s-cub is the smallest of all compared with the size of its parent: it is smaller than a weasel (galē), but bigger than a mouse, hairless and blind, and its legs and most of its limbs are practically unarticulated.” Aristotle, History of Animals, 6.30

[6] Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 2.17

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About Carla Schodde

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child." - Cicero, Ad Brutum. Carla is a secondary school Latin teacher. In 2013, she finished first-class Honours in Classics, writing a thesis on accusations of impiety among philosophers in Greece and Republican Rome. She loves ancient art, ancient history, theology and pretty much anything to do with the Romans.

4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Pine marten eats apple, video | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. John James Audubon writes about the use of ermine/stoats and long-tailed weasels as “ferrets” in New York state: http://retrieverman.net/2012/05/09/using-long-tailed-weasels-and-erminesstoats-as-ferrets/

    Reply
    • Oh wow, I didn’t know that stoats could be used for the same work as ferrets, thanks for the insight. 🙂 Seems like the stoats were more game than the American long-tailed weasels at least… I’ll have to edit the post to reflect the possibility that stoats could have been deployed as “ferrets”

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Beech martens and hedgehogs videos | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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