The Role of Cats in Ancient Egypt - Owlcation - Education
Updated date:

The Role of Cats in Ancient Egypt

Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else be destined to repeat it.

A Mummy Cat in Coffin on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

A Mummy Cat in Coffin on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Egyptian history is rich with lots of fantastic art, architecture, and culture. Egyptians shared a lot of what we do in the modern world. One of these is the love of house cats!

In ancient Egypt, they would refer to a cat as the mau, or miu, or mii, which is probably more fitting than the English word as it sounds more like the sound a cat makes. Translated, it means "one that mews."

Although many Americans often view the cat as an adored member of the family, Egyptians went far beyond regular adoration, giving it an elevated status equal to that of a god. Due to the idolization of cats, some laws protected the domesticated creature. They considered their lives equivalent to the life of a human, if not more supreme. The fellow Egyptians so endeared cats that when a feline companion died, they often were mummified, then buried with their owner preserving them forever alongside their owner.

Domestication

The domestication of cats dates back to 2000 BCE in Egypt. People would find the cats as kittens in the wild and then domesticate them. The first domesticated cat was initially a Jungle Cat known in the area as a swamp cat or an African Wildcat. The Wildcat though easily tamed, was not the same as a housecat. What we think of as a housecat would be a cross-breeding of both of these felines.

Cats were one of the first animals ever to become domesticated, although the domestication of a dog beat them to the punch thousands of years before. They were also one of the few animals that people allowed to come into their house and leave as they pleased. The people also may have appreciated the cats' instincts to kill rats and other rodents, which would have been very useful during a time when keeping homes mouse-proof was merely impossible.

Cats also retrieved birds while hunting many years before hunters decided to use dogs.

Egyptian Cat Mummy Photo

This is an actual cat mummy that is on display at Walters Art Museum.

This is an actual cat mummy that is on display at Walters Art Museum.

Worshipped Deities

Cats were not only loved for their companionship, their hatred for rodents, but also thought to be a deity. Aside from my husband, who refers to our cat as "your majesty," few hold this belief today. Yet, in 1000-300 BCE, people would worship cats as if they were deities.

Mafdet: Mafdet is the oldest discovered feline goddess and possibly the first one ever created, which a crystal cup that is dated back as far as 3100 BCE displays on its surface. In pyramid texts, one will often find Mafdet as a majestic lion-headed goddess that kills a snake with her claws. In Egyptian Mafdet means "runner."

Bast: Bast (aka Pasch and Ubasti) is another feline goddess, created in the town of Bubastis during a very turbulent time in the first millennia. The rulers of this time believed that by creating this religious symbol, that it would unite them, and make their city more powerful. Many Egyptians believed that all house cats were descendants or rather manifestations of Bast, and therefore, should be treated like royalty.

Bast is possibly the only goddess that appears to be a domesticated cat, although it initially looked like a lion. Overtime it softened before it took the image of its domesticated relative.

Bast was the goddess of fertility, the moon, and of course, the protector of all cats, women, and children. When in cat form, Bast's name is Bastet. Bast, herself, appeared with a feline head, but the body of a beautiful human female. Although Bast was married to Ras, she was believed to be the sexual partner of all the other gods and goddesses.

Sphinx: Sphinx is in the shape of a lion, which was much more common amongst the feline gods and goddesses. What we often think of as the Sphinx is one of the earliest art forms discovered in Egypt. The opposite of Bast, the Sphinx has the head of the pharaoh, but the body of a lion. Beng part lion portrayed how powerful and important the pharaoh was. The Sphinx is very popular in today's legends, as well.

Sekhmet: Sekhmet was the goddess of fate that was believed to control the Tablets of Destiny. The idol that portrays this goddess is a gold-covered creature that has a lion head and a very elaborate headdress. This goddess became very angry, which turned into a blood hunger and in turn, killing many. The god of the Sun Ra decided to mix beer and pomegranate to appear like blood. Sekhmet, who mistook this as blood, drank herself into oblivion.

Protected By Law

Not only did the Egyptians craft many of their gods and goddesses to depict cats, but they also treated cats exceptionally well, protecting them by law. Whether you killed a cat by accident or on purpose, the punishment was death. So for those who have ever accidentally hit a cat with your car, they would find themselves on death row in ancient Egypt. It was also illegal to export a cat, which caused traders to smuggle them into other countries illegally.
When a cat died, they would usually be mummified and placed in a tomb. Inside the tomb, Egyptians would leave mice, rats, and saucers of milk for the cat. Cats were also found in the tombs of their owners, showing how much love they had for the cats. There were cat cemeteries along the Nile River for those not buried with their owners.
Despite the laws, many mummified cats were discovered to have broken necks. Anthropologists believe that the pharaoh killed many kittens as a sacrifice to Bast, and also as population control.

Mourning of a Cat and Mummification Proccess

When a cat died of natural causes, the owners would go through a grieving process where they would shave their eyebrows, and mummify the cat. The process would include cutting out all essential organs and filling the dead cat with sand. Then they would place the cat in a sitting position and wrap it tightly. On the outside of the face, they would draw feline features so the mummy would appear to have a face.

In 1888, through scientific research, the mummification process became known to us modern people, after an Egyptian farmer uncovered eighty thousand mummified cats and kittens in the town Beni Hasan. This preservation took place so that when the cats died, they would be able to be born into their afterlife and rejoin their owners. Interestingly enough, in many of these cat cemeteries, crematoriums were found. They were cremated either secretly due to the plentifulness of the cats, or by choice of their owner.

One misconception is that cats were unique in the worship of them. In ancient times, many animals, depending on location, were worshipped and idolized.

Citations

  • http://www.richeast.org/htwm/cats/cats.html
  • http://orpheus.ucsd.edu/va11/sandmeier.html
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cats_in_ancient_Egypt
  • http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/833609/posts

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz

Comments

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 18, 2012:

haha, I've never thought of them as sexy, but yeah, I guess they are portrayed that way. Sleek, prowess, lol. :)

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on April 18, 2012:

Super Ancient Egypt research about the adoration of cats! I really like knowing that Bast was said to be the sexual partner for the other gods and goddesses - there is something incredibly sexy about cats.

Anyway, we adore cats in this house!

Great Hub.

Looking forward to sharing with you!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 17, 2012:

Why thank you!

taylor withers on April 16, 2012:

this is amzing

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 29, 2012:

I am glad you enjoyed it.

sarah hall on March 26, 2012:

i loved the article

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on February 19, 2012:

I was shooting for above satisfactory, but satisfactory will have to do. :) LOL

11 1/2 girl on February 19, 2012:

I LUV CATS I HV 2 CATS UR ARTICLE IS SOOOOOO SATISFACTORY!!!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on December 07, 2011:

Actually that is very cool, I didn't know that. :) Thanks for sharing.

Emmanuel Kariuki from Nairobi, Kenya on December 07, 2011:

Thanks for this tribute to cats.

Did you know that Lamu island in Kenya is the only place in the world where a cat species resembling 'bast' is found? Perhaps this world heritage site is the location of ancient 'Amu' which was an antagonist of Egypt.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on September 29, 2011:

Thanks!!!

maximioum from Spain on July 12, 2011:

Great work... go on

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on January 04, 2011:

awwww...

Baileybear on January 04, 2011:

actually, you might have read it. I've added a new pic of Rocky on christmas eve checking out the chimney

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on January 03, 2011:

haha, yes, I believe I read that one! I'll have to reread it!!!

Baileybear on January 02, 2011:

Yes, this is my cat, Rocky. He features in my hub, "All cats have Asperger's"

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on January 02, 2011:

I do too. Cute avatar by the way. Is that your cat? I used to have mine as my avatar, but my daughter dressed it up in baby doll clothes and pushed it in a stroller. LOL

Baileybear on January 01, 2011:

enjoyed this hub. I like cats.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on December 02, 2010:

I have not heard about the Havanas, I feel like I learn just as much from my comments as I do from my research for my articles. Thanks for sharing. I'll have to google them. :)

Pleasure Venues from South West US on December 02, 2010:

That was a neat travel through cat history! royalty. My parents had a Havana Brown cattery for almost 20 years but no longer. at one point they had as many at 67 Havana Browns! It was a bit much and really, they needed more staff. Yes, there is an elegant aura about cats. Thanks for the history! If you know Havanas, they're dark brown and when they get older, they have that walk like a panther. It's neat to watch them, they're so elegant.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 14, 2010:

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I always appreciate your comments!

Garnetbird on November 14, 2010:

A nicely done Historial Hub/enjoyed the photos also!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 14, 2010:

Or the treatment of my cats my husband does. Don't get me wrong, my husband loves cats, but he also loves teasing them. Since the cats never hiss and still cuddle and purr around him, it's not that bad of a treatment. But they do kind of freak out and walk backwards when he puts a sock on their head.

Mr Tindle on November 14, 2010:

Nice Hub! I wonder what the ancient Egyptians would think about the LOL Cat pictures all over the internet...

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 12, 2010:

Oh my goodness, I would love to see that room! That sounds so incredibly awesome! My cats would be jealouus. I could see my husband doing that if he didn't have children to build things for. :)

Thanks for the great compliment!

maven101 from Northern Arizona on November 12, 2010:

Cats are endlessly fascinating...We have two, twins, and every day is a joy playing or just watching them romp in their cat room...I converted the atrium into a cat playhouse with stairs, poles, houses, and elevated walkways...I can just imagine the living quarters for those cherished royal cats of Egypt...

Thank you for this interesting and informative Hub on ancient cats in Egypt...Larry

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 11, 2010:

I'm glad you guys did!

Susan Mills from Indiana on November 11, 2010:

Once again, an excellent, informative article. My daughter and I loved it!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 11, 2010:

Thanks gr8archer!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 11, 2010:

Very interesting David, what was the other non-pack animal. Lions travel in packs though, are you sure domesticated cats did not travel in a pack? Well, I guess they do like their own territory, but I know my cats always sleep near each other, but other cats are unwilling to share their space with other cats.

gr8archer45 from Pakistan on November 11, 2010:

great article with interesting info! keep it up :)

David Stone from New York City on November 11, 2010:

Well done, angela_michelle. A quick additional note is that cats are one of only two non-pack animals ever to be domesticated. It's extremely hard to bring non-pack animals in because they're not evolved to join up, but cats made it so damned attractive, they were brought in anyway.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on November 10, 2010:

I thought so too. My husband always jokingly worships our cat. Not seriously, it's a joke, because we have a cat that thinks it's royalty or deity. He overtakes the house and makes you aware that you inconvenience it if you try to move it for any reason.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on November 10, 2010:

I wass sort of subliminally aware of Egypt being associated with cats but I never knew these details. very interesting.