The Role of Cats in Ancient Egypt

Updated on February 12, 2018
angela_michelle profile image

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. | Source

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 actually 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, there were laws that protected the domesticated creature. Their lives were considered equal to the life of a human if not more supreme. Cats were so endeared by their fellow Egyptians that when a feline companion died, they often were mummified, then buried with their owner preserving them forever alongside their owner.

Source

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. It is believed that the first domesticated cat was originally a Jungle Cat known in the area as a swamp cat or an African Wildcat. The Wildcat was much more easily domesticated, but what we think of as a housecat would actually be a cross breeding of both of these felines.

Cats were one of the first animals to ever 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 natural instincts to kill rats and other rodents, which woulld have been very useful during a time when keeping homes mouse-proof was mere impossible. ,

It is also believed that cats were used for retrieving birds many years ago, before hunters decided to use hunting 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. | Source

Worshipped Deities

Cats were not only loved for their companionship, their hatred for rodents, but also thought to be 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. The earliest document of this was found on a crystal cup that is dated back as far as 3100 BCE. 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, and possibly the only goddess that appears to be a domesticated cat, since most are depicted as lions or other large cats. This one actually was originally depicted as a lion, but as the image softened it looked more like its domesticated relative. It was originally 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 descendents or rather manifestations of Bast, and therefore, should be treated as royalty.

Bast was believed to be the goddess of fertility, the moon, and of course the protector of all cats, as well as women and children. When in cat form, Bast is referred to as 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 depicted as 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. This was supposed to show 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, they also treated cats extremely 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, 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 they 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. Those not buried with their owner, were buried in a cat cemetary along the Nile River.

Despite the laws, there were many mummified cats that were discovered to have broken necks. Anthropologists believe that the pharoah killed many kittens as a sacrifice to Bast, and also as population control.

Source

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 important 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 was believed 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 cemetaries, crematorians were also found, which proves that some of them 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

Questions & Answers

    © 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz

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      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        6 years ago from United States

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

      • GoodLady profile image

        Penelope Hart 

        6 years ago from Rome, Italy

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        6 years ago from United States

        Why thank you!

      • profile image

        taylor withers 

        6 years ago

        this is amzing

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        6 years ago from United States

        I am glad you enjoyed it.

      • profile image

        sarah hall 

        6 years ago

        i loved the article

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        6 years ago from United States

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

      • profile image

        11 1/2 girl 

        6 years ago

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

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        6 years ago from United States

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

      • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

        Emmanuel Kariuki 

        6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        6 years ago from United States

        Thanks!!!

      • maximioum profile image

        maximioum 

        7 years ago from Spain

        Great work... go on

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        awwww...

      • profile image

        Baileybear 

        7 years ago

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

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

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

      • profile image

        Baileybear 

        7 years ago

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

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        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

      • profile image

        Baileybear 

        7 years ago

        enjoyed this hub. I like cats.

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        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 profile image

        Pleasure Venues 

        7 years ago from South West US

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

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

      • profile image

        Garnetbird 

        7 years ago

        A nicely done Historial Hub/enjoyed the photos also!

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        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 profile image

        Mr Tindle 

        7 years ago

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

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        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 profile image

        maven101 

        7 years ago from Northern Arizona

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        I'm glad you guys did!

      • sueroy333 profile image

        Susan Mills 

        7 years ago from Indiana

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

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks gr8archer!

      • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        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 profile image

        gr8archer45 

        7 years ago from Pakistan

        great article with interesting info! keep it up :)

      • David Stone profile image

        David Stone 

        7 years ago from New York City

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        Angela Michelle Schultz 

        7 years ago from United States

        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.

      • dahoglund profile image

        Don A. Hoglund 

        7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

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

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