The Role of Cats in Ancient Egypt
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.
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
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.
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© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz