The Role of Cats in Ancient Egypt

by M. Epstein

Benny the GOD                                             Toni the GOD



The cat-human relationship dates back to ancient times. The Muslim prophet Mohammed is said to have found a cat sleeping on his robe, so he cut a hole in his robe rather than disturb the sleeping cat. Evidence of coexistence between cats and humans dates back to 6000 BCE from the island of Cypress, where archaeologists found bones of cats, humans, and mice buried together (Bisno, 1997). Cats have endeared themselves to many cultures for their helpful mouse-hunting skills, cleanliness, attitude, and beauty. Female cats have also recently been recognized for their strong mothering instinct. One high profile cat ran back into a burning house exactly enough times to save each of her kittens from the blaze. Cats can be adopted from the Humane Society, bought at a pet store, bred, or rescued off the street, but their contribution to the household they are in is invaluable. No culture has embraced cats, however, as the Egyptians did in ancient times. In fact, according to Blalock (1997), the modern day tabby may be descended from the Egyptian domestic cat.

Bisno (1997) noted that humans probably first accepted cats because of the cat's eagerness to hunt the mice that ate the grain products, without the cats eating the grain themselves. They were also used to help hunters. They retrieved birds from marshes, much like dogs. Fully domesticated cats in Egypt as companions to humans probably originated around 2000 BCE They were usually captured from the wild as kittens to be domesticated. House cats in Egypt were likely descended from the African wildcat and little swamp cats. Pictures depicting domestic cats have been found in the Middle Kingdom, but skeletons of cats date back to the period before the dynasty. Their original home was probably somewhere in the Near East, so they may well be indigenous to Egypt. Despite this, a few people believe that cats may have been imported from Persia about 4000 years ago, or from Nubia during the New Kingdom. They preyed on cobras, vipers, rats, mice, and other creatures harmful to the human population. Cats and humans spent about 1000 years building their relationship; and cats, unlike other animals were allowed to come and go as they saw fit. Cats were also used in many ways not usually associated with feline companions. Wilkinson (1988) noted that cats, instead of hunting dogs, retrieved birds that were shot in marshes. From 1000-350 BCE, however, cats were also seen as deities, and worshipped as such.

The first feline Egyptian goddess might be Mafdet, depicted in the Pyramid texts as killing a snake with her claws. Mafdet might be translated as "runner" in Egyptian. While there are many other cat goddesses, Bast is the only one represented as a domestic cat (Welcome, 1997). Cats were regarded as manifestations of the goddess Bast. This Egyptian goddess had many roles, including the goddess of fertility, the moon, and also as the protector of all cats. She was referred to as Bastet when in full cat form, as opposed to the representation of Bast as a beautiful girl with the body of a human and the head of a cat. In Egyptian mythology, she had many conflicting relationships with fellow gods and goddesses. She was said to be the daughter of Mwt and Amun, the daughter of Ra, sister of Djehuti, Seshat, Het Heret, Ma'at, and twin sister of Sekhmet. She was also the sexual partner of all gods and goddesses, and the wife of Ra (Milo, 1997). Most feline gods and goddesses, however, were big cats, mainly lions and lionesses.

The lion-headed goddess Sekhmet rules over the fate of humanity.

The Sphinx for example is a representation of a lion, and is one of the earliest works of Egyptian art. The sphinx has the head of the pharaoh, and the body of a lion, showing the pharaoh's power and importance. According to Allbritton, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of fate, controls the Tablets of Destiny; therefore, the fate of humanity lies in her hands, or rather her paws . Her statue is covered in gold, and includes an elaborate headdress and a golden throne. Sekhmet symbolizes the burning sun in Egyptian religion. She is the goddess of fertility, protector of the young and weak, and the deity of war and destruction. Legend has it that one day she was seized with a desire to slaughter all humanity; so killed and drank the blood of many. The god of the sun, Ra, finally put an end to the massacre by mixing beer and pomegranate juice, to appear as blood. Sekhmet then drank herself into oblivion (Allbritton, 1998). Cats were treated extremely well during the time of the pharaohs.

Cats were treated as gods, and were protected by law, as well. The punishment for harming or killing a cat was harsh (Wolf, 1997). Diodorus Siculus said:

Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired. (Qtd. in Preserved for Posterity, 1997)
There were also laws forbidding the exportation of cats. However, Phoenician traders often smuggled them out and sold them to the Mediterranean countries (Coll, 1997). Armies were even sent out to recapture cats from foreign lands. The Egyptians were so devoted to their cats that they even surrendered to the Persians, due to their beloved cats. When the Egyptians were at war with the Persians and the Egyptians were wearing down the Persian army, a Persian general came up with a plan. Because he knew of the great love and reverence with which the Egyptians treated their cats, he ordered his soldiers to capture as many cats as possible from the city. When they had enough, they returned to the city of Pelusium and lined up for battle. When the dust cleared, the Egyptians were horrified at the number of their terrified cats that were running over the battlefield. Rather than harm the cats, they surrendered the city to the Persians without a fight. It was a devastating loss for the Egyptians (Coll, 1997).

In another example of the Egyptian's devotion to their cats, Herodotus relates that when a fire broke out in Egypt, the men would stand in a line to prevent harm to the cats, thinking more of that than extinguishing the fire. Even so, Herodotus noted, "the cats slip through or leap over the men and leap into the fire." (Chapter 66, 3) It can be assumed that this is hyperbole, and that most cats would not rush towards a blazing fire. This statement, however, made hundreds of years later in Greece, does show the understanding of the importance of cats to Egyptians.

The importance of cats is epitomized in the abundance of decorated statuettes found in the excavated tombs. Statuettes were seen as religious symbols with great history and importance by the Egyptians. These statues were often adorned with golden jewelry and ear rings (Sandmeier, 1997). They are shown standing with their tails wrapped around their bodies to the right (Adored and Adorned, 1997). Cats were mummified after death, and mice, rats, and saucers of milk were placed in their tombs. However, X-rays of 55 mummified cats showed that several had broken necks, implying that the Temple priests may have killed kittens to keep down their population, and used them as offerings to Bast (Bisno, 1997). Cat cemeteries line the Nile River and cat mummies can be found in the tombs of Egyptians (Coll, 1997). The city of Bubastis, or Tell Basta contains around 300,000 cat mummies. The most important cat tomb cities besides Bubastis were Giza, Abydos, and Dendereh.

The process of feline mummification had 6 steps, as described by Brier (1994):

  1. Remove internal organs.
  2. Stuff body with sand or other packing material.
  3. Placed in sitting position.
  4. Wrapped tightly.
  5. Faces painted on wrappings with black ink.
  6. Natural dehydration, did not use chemicals. (p.229)

When a cat died, the occupants of the house where the cat died from natural causes would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows (Herodotus). Brier (1994) also states that although cats were treated well, many Egyptologists have come to believe that domestic cats were not, in fact, considered sacred (p.215).

Other cultures had different views of cats. Some embraced them, others detested them. The Norse goddess, Freya, is depicted riding in a chariot drawn by cats. The Norse used cats on their ships to control the rodents. The Christians, however, hated cats and attempted to kill them off. They associated cats with witchcraft and satan, much like the feared black cat of Halloween, often seen riding with a witch on her broomstick. They were trying to establish Christianity as the only religion, and felt compelled to destroy all remnants of other cultures. The Church began what turned out to be a 1000 year killing spree of cats. When the cat population was depleted, diseased rats took over, and spread the plague. Since many people were sick and dying, the killing of cats stopped, and they were able to hunt the mice causing the plague. Shortly after the cats helped obliterate the plague, the Catholic Church placed blame on the cats, and once again persecuted them. Later, through the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts, cats were often burned with the accused witches (Gods or Demons, 1997). The cats obviously did survive this period and have since flourished to become welcome domesticated house pets, but only a few are "worshipped" in modern times.

So what's in a name? There are many titles for the cat. The Egyptians referred to cat as Miu or Mau. Mau means "to see" in Egyptian. These versions of the name also might be onomatopoeic, because of their closeness to the cat's "meow." Every language has its own version of cat:
Spanish: gato

German: Katze

French: chat

Italian: gatto

Hebrew: chatool

Sanskrit: puccha

Russian: Kots

Welsh: cath

No matter the name, cats have long held a spot in mysticism, religion, and culture. However, the pinnacle of the cat's history was over 3000 years ago in Egypt:

Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed the Great Cat. (Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes)

Works Cited