Cats in Ancient Egypt

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Cats (Felis catus) are among the most common pets in the world. In the United States, for example, according to a survey released by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, feline pets number around 77 million. Even though cats have now overtaken dogs in popularity in the US, and are enormously popular elsewhere, the history of feline domestication is not as well known as that of their canine counterparts.

A mask used in the burial of a cat mummy in Ancient Egypt A mask used in the burial of a cat mummy in Ancient Egypt

In 1888, an Egyptian farmer accidentally uncovered a large tomb containing thousands upon thousands of mummified cats and kittens. This discovery, outside the town of Beni Hasan, contained around eighty thousand cat bodies that date back to 1000-2000 BCE.

Cats in other religions

Feline reverence is not peculiar to Ancient Egyptian civilisation. Muslim theology maintains that the prophet Muhammad once found a cat sleeping on his robe; instead of waking it, he cut a hole through his robe so as not to disturb the animal. This reverence can be found in ancient Indian texts, where records of cats involved with human society can be found in two ancient Indian great epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, circa 500 BCE. As the Hindu and Parsee religions respected all forms of life and were especially sympathetic towards cats, all good Hindus were expected to take care of at least one cat during their lives. By contrast, the Islamic culture generally regards dogs as somewhat unhygienic animals.

Not every culture has viewed cats with reverence. The superstitious persecution of cats by the Roman Catholic Church may have been one of the contributing factors in the Black Death in the Middle Ages.

Cats in everyday life in Ancient Egypt

The exaltation of cats in Ancient Egypt most likely began with their contribution to agriculture. Feral cats, or "reed cats", naturally preyed upon the rats and other vermin that would otherwise eat from the royal granaries. They earned their place in towns and cities by killing mice, poisonous snakes and other pests.

The two main breeds of cat native to Egypt were the jungle cat Felis chaus and the African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica. The latter of these was more commonly domesticated, largely due to its temperament. The jungle cat was not nearly as peaceful, and was probably not especially helpful in the initial phases of domestication.

The African wildcat, the more placid of the two, easily coexisted with the human population who were eager to rid their streets of vermin. In return the cats received protection from humans, in the sense that they would be safe from other predators as long as they remained near human habitats. These two species eventually fused to create a new breed of cat, related to the modern-day Egyptian Mau.

The change in temperament is attributed to two principal factors: heredity and learned tolerance of humans. The changes due to domestication follow a pattern similar to other domesticated animals including wolves (dogs), and cattle. These changes include coloration as there is less need for camouflage in captivity than in the wild, smaller brain size due to the gradual elimination of unnecessary survival instincts, and an overall decrease in size due to the change in diet and habitat.

In Cats: The Rise of the Cat, Roger Tabor suggests that the domestication process is due to two possible reasons. Gaining confidence around humans through frequent contact at the granaries, cats began to venture into settlements, attracted by the indigenous bird and vermin population. Breeding within itself, a large population of cats could develop, and would continue on doing so at an exponential rate. Additionally, familiarity with human society was aided by the association of cats with the goddess Bast - Egyptian temple priests would often keep cats at their temple as a representative of the goddess.

Additionally, in their book Wild Cats of the World, Mel Sundquist and Fiona Sundquist suggest that a likely route to domestication was through the rearing of kittens captured from the wild. Fashionable Egyptian society tamed wild animals of all kinds using this method, including baboons, lions and gazelles in menageries at the most wealthy households.

Cats in Egyptian mythology

Egypt was not always unified; initially, it was a land with many regional tribes and nomes. Many nomes had a totemistic system of religion, centering the worship of an animal as a spiritual symbol. Some peoples would choose a totem animal because of the services it provided, some for admirable qualities, some out of fear. Regardless, when war broke out between peoples, the tribe that won was able to demand more respect for their totem, and mandated its worship. Eventually an empire was formed under Menes circa 3100 BCE, and a more pluralistic form of totemism was established. Ibises, eagles, and beetles were among the totems worshipped alongside cats.

The Egyptians viewed their gods not as simple spirits but as intelligences that could be personified in a body. The earliest evidence of cats as deities comes from a 3100 BCE crystal cup decorated with an image of the lion-headed goddess Mafdet. The goddess Bast was originally depicted as a fiercely protective and warlike lion, but as her image "softened" over time she became more strongly associated with domestic cats.

As cats were sacred to Bast, the practice of mummification was extended to them, and the respect that cats received after death mirrored the respect they were treated with in everyday life. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that in the event of a fire men would guard the fire to make certain that no cats ran into the flame. Herodotus also wrote that when a cat died, the household would go into mourning as if for a human relative, and would often shave their eyebrows to signify their loss.

Such was the strength of feeling towards cats that killing one, even accidentally, incurred the death penalty. Another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, describes an interesting example of swift justice imposed upon the killer of a cat: about 60 BCE, he witnessed the chariot of a Roman soldier accidentally run over an Egyptian cat. An outraged mob gathered and, despite pleas from pharaoh Ptolemy XII, killed the soldier.

Bubastis and the Cult of the Cat

Although the cat cult was an significant religious movement by the birth of the New Kingdom it gained new importance when Shoshenq I developed Bubastis, chief centre of worship for the goddess Bast, located east of the Nile Delta, into an important city. At the same time, Bast developed into an immensely popular and important deity representing fertility, motherhood, protection and the benevolent aspects of the sun - along with Sekhmet, she was known as the Eye of Ra. The cult of the cat garnered a huge following and thousands of pilgrims journeyed each year to Bubastis to celebrate. Bubastis also became another name by which the goddess was known.

Close to the centre of the city lay a large temple to Bast. This temple was in a depression which sited it at a lower elevation to the rest of the city, which had been raised to minimize flood damage from the nearby. Of this Herodotus, who visited the city in 450 BCE, wrote that although the size of the shrine to Bast was perhaps 'not as large as those of other cities, and probably not as costly, no temple in all of Egypt gave more pleasure to the eye'.

Herodotus went on to describe the temple in detail. A canal within this depression gave the temple the appearance of a man-made island. In the courtyard was a grove of trees leading the way to the interior, which contained a massive statue of Bast - and a great number of sacred cats, cared for by the temple priests with donations from pilgrims. The temple's cat population, while respected, was extremely large and needed to be moderated by the periodic sacrificial culling of kittens, which were then mummified and sold to pilgrims as relics.

Bubastis became a marketplace for merchants of all sorts; artisans came forth with thousands of bronze sculptures and amulets depicting cats to worshippers of Bast. These amulets commonly featured an image of a cat and its kittens and were often used by women trying to have children, praying to Bast that they be granted the same number of children as kittens depicted on the amulet.

Herodotus wrote that the annual festival of Bast held in the city was the one of the most popular of all, with attendees from all over Egypt, who would raft down the Nile celebrating and feasting all the way. When they arrived in Bubastis, they feasted yet more and made sacrifices to Bast.

The famed revelling and commercialism of Bubastis even made its way into Judeo-Christian mythology. In the sixth century BCE, the prophet Ezekiel wrote that "The young men of Aven and of Pibeseth [Bubastis] shall fall by the sword: and these cities shall go into captivity" Ezekiel 30:17. Ezekiel believed that these cities would be punished, like Nineveh, for their perceived paganism and sin.

By 525 BCE, Egypt was essentially the only empire not conquered by the Persians. At that point Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, set out to do just that. Cambyses and his army crossed the fifty-six mile stretch of desert to the Egyptian outpost of Pelesium on camelback; they then clashed down upon the Egyptian army who were reluctant to strike back at the sacred symbol of the cat upon the Persian shields.

Funerary traditions

Herodotus noted that cats who died anywhere in Egypt were often taken to Bubastis to be mummified and buried in the great cemetery, but this may or may not have been the case. At the burial site in Bubastis the Swiss Egyptologist Edouard Naville found more than 20 m³ (720 cubic feet) of cat remains but also a great deal of evidence of cremation. Naville found stacks of cat bones in many pits, the walls of which were made up of bricks and clay. Near each pit lay a furnace, its bricks blackened from fire. This discovery causes some problems. The mummification and preservation of the body was intended to make it possible for the deceased's ka to locate its host and subsequently be reborn into the afterlife. As the body would have to be intact for this process to occur, cremation would seem an undesirable way of dealing with the body of a sacred creature with a ka. Nevertheless, many cats were afforded the full embalming ceremony and buried in other great cemeteries along the Nile.

In her book The Cult of the Cat, Patricia Dale-Green states that, "The cat's body was placed in a linen sheet and carried amidst bitter lamentations by the bereaved to a sacred house where it was treated with drugs and spices by an embalmer". She goes on to state that although the cat of an Egyptian noble would receive more extravagant burial status, the body of a worker's cat would still be carefully prepared and the embalming carried out with the same conscientiousness as for a human body, often with provisions for the afterlife such as pots of milk and even mummified mice.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this appreciation shown more than in the colossal tomb at the temple of Bast discovered in 1888. This tomb, outside of Beni Hasan, held more than nineteen tonnes of animal mummies and remains, the vast majority being cats but a number of mongooses, dogs and foxes were amongst the specimens that made it to the British Museum. The farmer who made the discovery sold most of the tomb's contents to be ground up as fertilizer, but fortunately a number of specimens made it into the hands of scientists for testing and examination. Some of these are on display at the British Museum.

The sole Egyptologist to visit the site, William Martin Conway, wrote: "The plundering of the cemetery was a sight to see, but one had to stand well windward. The village children came [...] and provided themselves with the most attractive mummies they could find. These they took down the river bank to sell for the smallest coin to passing travelers. The path became strewn with mummy cloth and bits of cats' skulls and bones and fur in horrid positions, and the wind blew the fragments about and carried the stink afar". (quoted in Tabor p26).

Recently, during the making of his documentary for the BBC, Cats: The Rise of the Cat, Roger Tabor discovered a further cat cemetery at Bast's temple. This find consists of a twenty centimetre-thick layer of compressed mummies which spans more than sixty metres in length.

The decline of cat-worship

The cult of Bast was officially banned by imperial decree in 390 CE. Egypt has since experienced a decline in the respect once held for cats and although they are still kept as pets and tolerated elsewhere because they catch pests, the cat has lost practically all religious significance in modern Egypt.


See also

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