A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. She receives creative input from the Real Cats and clerical assistance from She of Little Talent (old SoLT, a.k.a. Roby Sweet). Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to old SoLt (Ms. Sweet). Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats

Cats in History

We cats have been renowned through the centuries for our ability to hunt small, harmful animals, like mice and rats. But we’ve also been used to hunt snakes. One rather famous instance in which cats were used to hunt snakes occurred at the Monastery of Saint Nicholas, located near Akrotiri on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This story begins way back in the fourth century, so it’s no surprise that there are some different versions of it. We’ll tell you about the ones we found.

Satellite image of Cyprus
This satellite image of Cyprus shows the approximate
location of Akrotiri.
Photo Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team,
NASA/GSFC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Version 1: The patronage of Saint Helena

Monastery of St. Nicholas of the cats in 2017. Photo  © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons
A portion of the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats today.
Photo © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons.
According to this version, which we found on Atlas Obscura, Saint Helena was the patron of a monastery on Cyprus. Construction of said monastery began in AD 327, but there were soon some problems. Slithery problems.  As the legend goes, a horrible drought had hit the island, and numerous venomous snakes sort of took over the monastery site (I don’t mean one of them declared himself foreman; I mean they became so numerous as to be dangerous). The construction workers left—understandably, we think—and so work on the monastery stopped.  Helena (who was also the mother of Constantine, by the way), naturally wanted work to continue, so she hit on the inspired idea of importing a bunch of cats and setting them loose on the snakes. She acquired some cats (we’ve heard it was 1,000 cats) from Egypt and Persia, and she trained them with two bells: one to call them to dinner, the other to send them off to hunt snakes. The scheme worked, although many of the cats ended up injured from their battles with the snakes (which, we remind you, were venomous).

Version 2: The visit of Saint Helena

A cat from the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats. Photo © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons.
A rather handsome tabby at the Monastery of
St. Nicholas of the Cats.
Photo  © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons.
This version we found on the Ring of Christ website (where you can see more photos of the monastery and its cats). In AD 327, Saint Helena was on her way to Jerusalem, and she stopped by the monastery, which had been founded two years earlier. But she arrived only to find the place overrun with the very same venomous snakes mentioned above. Cyprus had been suffering through a drought for 17 years, and the snakes went wherever there was water, which tended to be where there were people. (We have also seen 36 years and 40 years given as the duration of this famous drought. From this, we deduce that no one really knows how long the drought lasted.) Helena had the idea to import cats, and she got together with the governor and arranged for the cats to be brought in. But in this version, it was the monks who actually trained the cats to react to the bells.

Firsthand accounts of the snake-hunting cats

Over the years, many visitors stopped by the Saint Nicholas Monastery, and some of them wrote of what they saw there. For example, one F. Suriano wrote in 1484,
I heard a marvellous thing. From the said city of Lymisso up to this cape the soil produces so many snakes that men cannot till it, or walk without hurt thereon. And were it not for the remedy which God has set there, in a short time these would multiply so fast that the island would be depopulated. At this place there is a Greek monastery which rears an infinite number of cats, which wage unceasing war with these snakes. It is wonderful to see them, for nearly all are maimed by the snakes: one has lost a nose, another an ear; the skin of one is torn, another is lame: one is blind of one eye, another of both. And it is a strange thing that at the hour for their food at the sound of a bell all those that are scattered in the fields collect in the said monastery. And when they have eaten enough, at the sound of the bell they all leave together and go to fight the snakes.  (F. Suriano, in Excerpta Cypria: Materials for a History of Cyprus, trans. by Claude Delaval Cobham [Cambridge: University Press, 1908] 48–49, https://archive.org/details/excerptacypriam00cobhgoog)

Also in the 15th century, a Dominican named Felix Fabri visited Cyprus in 1480 and 1483, and mentioned the monastery “surrounded by serpents” but protected by cats.

A cat from the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats, Photo © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons.
This cat from the monastery may have some battle scars on his face from snake hunting, though we can't
tell for sure. Writers who visited the monastery in centuries past reported seeing many scarred cats.
Photo  © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons.

What kind of snakes are we talking about?

There are 10 species of snakes on Cyprus (or eight or nine, depending on how the scientists classify them). Three of these are venomous, but only one is really dangerous to humans. That one is the Cyprian blunt-nosed viper, which is highly venomous and especially dangerous because when it bites, its teeth stay behind in the wound, continuing to inject venom. This bite can be fatal to a human if not treated.

The other poisonous snakes are the Montpellier snake and the cat snake (so named because its eyes resemble cats’ eyes). The Montpellier snake’s bite can cause mostly localized reactions in humans, and treatment should be sought. The cat snake has its fangs in the back of its upper jaw and is not able to inject a human with venom.

The church of the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats, ca. 1973.
The monastery's church as it appeared in 1973.
Photo by Shirazibustan [CC BY-SA 4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
We of course don’t know exactly which species caused so much trouble for the monastery builders, but if it was in fact the blunt-nosed viper, that seems like quite a large snake for a cat to handle, as they can grow from four to nearly six feet in length. We would guess that in fact there were several types of snakes (both venomous and nonvenomous) that moved into the area in response to the drought, and the cats were sent after all of them.

Saint Nicholas today

In 1570, the Ottomans conquered Cyprus and the monks had to leave. The original monastery is no longer there, but there is a more modern monastery on the site, now run by nuns, who first arrived in 1983. Again, we have slightly different stories: Either the nuns reintroduced cats to the church grounds, which had again become overrun with snakes, or they took up care of the cats that were still around. In any case, today the nuns care for the cats and paint icons.

And yes, the adventurous traveler can still visit the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats. You can even buy homemade preserves from the sisters who live there. Just watch out for snakes!

A cat from the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats, Photo © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons.
One of the cats living at the monastery. If I were a snake, I would not mess with this cat.
Photo  © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Gosh, as much as I fell badly that the snakes bothered the humans, I feel worse for the poor cats who got beat up, maimed and perhaps killed while fighting the snakes! Interesting post, thanks.

  2. my little calico Buddy used to go after snakes*-

    My little calico Buddy used to go after snakes, which around here were mostly small and harmless garter snakes. She would be out in the yard chirping and bouncing around and I would go and rescue the snake. Sometimes they would be coiled up with their head tucked under the coils for protection.

  3. Sorry for the messed up post - my current Torbie Peaches wanted equal time by bouncing on the keyboard!

  4. Very interesting, and sad for the cats.

  5. What cool stories! I have never heard about the monastery cats and think it would be an amazing place to visit (minus the snakes, of course!)

  6. Maimed cats don't seem so marvelous to me!! LOL. I wouldn't think of getting a cat to get rid of snakes (we're told our birds will), but I do remember the time one of our cats came around the corner of our house with a snake in her mouth!!