The Cat in Ancient Egypt
By Ilene Springer
After the pyramids and the kohl painted eyes, almost nothing evokes more awe and mystery than the fascination ancient Egyptians had with cats.
They were not only the most popular pet in the house, but their status rose to that of the sacred animals and then on to the most esteemed deities like no other creature before them.
Cats domesticate the ancient Egyptians
Although no one can pinpoint the time exactly, we know that the cat was domesticated in Egypt, probably around 2000 B.C., and that most modern cats are descendants of the cats of ancient Egypt. One reason it is difficult to say precisely when domestication occurred is that the ancient Egyptians did not distinguish between wild and tame cats in their descriptions of them. There was one word for cat-and that was miu or mii, meaning "he or she who mews."
So then how did domestication of the cat come about? Dogs, associated with hunting, had actually been domesticated thousands of years before, according to archeologists. But cats, being the aloof, aristocratic creatures they are admired for, apparently took their time in fully befriending the ancient Egyptians.
Modern Egyptian Wild Cat: The Sand Cat
Possibly one of the ancestors of the Modern Cat
There is a cat known as the African wild cat (Felis silvestris libyca)-one of the closest wild relatives of the modern cat. It is larger than the average domesticated cat of today. The feline's tawny, yellow-gray fur, long tapering tail and striped markings, affording it ideal camouflage among the rocks and sand of the desert. This cat is known as a predator-a hunter of small game-rather than a scavenger. The other cat native to Egypt is the swamp or jungle cat-(Felis chaus), but it is the wild cat which is believed to have been the cat to "domesticate the Egyptians."
In the villages, the greatest danger to Egyptian households were the numerous poisonous snakes, rats and mice which attacked food supplies in the home and the village granaries. The wild cat, it is assumed, strayed into the villages and hunted down the vermin, keeping them at bay. It's easy to imagine the grateful Egyptians leaving out scraps of food to encourage the wild cats on their vigils. A symbiotic relationship occurred between animal and human. Next, the felines found their way into the Egyptian homes, spent some time there, allowed themselves to be tamed and raised their kittens in a human environment. As soon as the Egyptians began supplying the cats with food, thereby significantly changing their diet, and breeding them for certain characteristics, the cats were domesticated. They were perfect pets-playful, intelligent, affectionate and helpful to the farmers who sustained life in ancient Egypt.
Tomb paintings with cats as part of family life began to show up during the New Kingdom-about 500 years after the first attempts at domestication. But the most direct evidence for domestication comes from cemeteries of mummified cats. These appear to be from around 1000 B.C. (the late Pharonic era). And they were most likely domesticated cats from ordinary households or temple catteries; it wouldn't make sense to go to such trouble for wild animals who died.
The lovable and helpful pet
During the New Kingdom (1540 to 1069 B.C.), there were many tomb scenes that started showing cats as part of everyday life. The ancient Egyptians took their cats on hunting excursions, especially in the marshes where cats may have been trained to retrieve fowl and fish. Another very common scene in tomb paintings was a cat seated under a woman's chair, showing that the cat had become an integral part of the ancient Egyptian family life.
Modern Egyptian Mau
Many Egyptian parents named their children after cats, especially their daughters. Some girls were called Mit or Miut. The mummy of a five-year-old girl named Mirt was found at Deir el-Bahri in King Mentuhotep's temple.
Cats were also valued for their mysterious and superstitious qualities. There is a myth that the Egyptians once won a battle because of cats. They were fighting a foreign regiment and just at the time of attack by the foreigners, the Egyptian released thousands of cats at the front lines. Seeing the onslaught of these terrifying creatures, the foreign army retreated in panic.
Cats as sacred animals
"The progress of the cat in Egyptian religion was quite remarkable and in many respects unusual," writes Jaromir Malek, author of The Cat in Ancient Egypt. "Unlike some other animals, the cat was not primarily associated with an important local deity at the beginning of Egyptian time. It never attained a truly elected 'official' status which would have enabled it to become a full member of the divine community encountered on the walls of Egyptian temples. But in spite of all this, the cat's popularity eventually surpassed that of any other animal and reached far beyond Egypt's boundaries."
The earliest feline cat goddess recorded was called Mafdet and is described in the Pyramid Texts as killing a serpent with her claws. But the most famous cat goddesses in the world, first revered by the ancient Egyptians were Bastet (also known as Bast, Pasch, Ubasti) and the lion-headed Sekhmet.
Bastet was often depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a domestic cat. She was associated with the Eye of Ra, acting within the sun god's power. The Egyptians loved Bastet so much that she became a household goddess and protector of women, children and domestic cats. She was also the goddess of sunrise, music, dance, pleasure, as well as family, fertility and birth.
Her supposed evil counterpart was the goddess Sekhmet who represented the cat goddess' destructive force. She is known as the goddess of war and pestilence. But even she was tamed by Ra (who supposedly got her drunk) and she eventually became the powerful protector of humans. Together, Bastet and Sekhmet represented the balance of the forces of nature.
Cats began to appear on objects of everyday life. There were gold cats on intricate bracelets, small golden cat pendants, cats amulets made of soapstone for necklaces and rings. Women made up their faces holding mirrors with cats on the wooden handles and on their cosmetic pots. The best part was that ordinary people could enjoy the protection of the cat goddess through their amulets on their clothing or around their necks or in their earlobes. Cats even figured in dream interpretation. In one book of ancient dreams, it was said that if a man sees a cat in a dream, it means he will have a good harvest.
In the late periods of Egyptian history, the popularity of the cat increased and a great many bronze cat statuettes were made; most were intended for shrines or funerary purposes. Most had pierced ears and silver or gold earrings. Their eyes were made of inlaid rock crystal or a similar opaque material. The ancient Egyptians considered the female cat as a good mother, and there have been several statues of mother cats and kittens discovered.
Cats were held in such high esteem that at one point, the penalty for killing a cat-even accidentally-was death.
Probably the greatest testimony to cats were the cults and celebrations the ancient Egyptians devoted to Bastet. In northern Egypt, around 3200 B.C., the city Bubastis came into being. This was the center of worship for the goddess Bastet, which simply means "she who comes from Bast." Once a year around October 31, the festival of Bastet would occur with hundreds of thousands of people making pilgrimages to Bubastis and other ancient cities including Memphis. There was singing and wine and wild behavior. And as the evening ended, there was also prayers to Bastet, accompanied by music and incense.
Bubastis was destroyed by the Persians in 350 B.C. But her most famous residents live on-not only in the streets of Cairo and the villages of rural Egypt but all over the world. Through the common domesticated cat, the ancient Egyptians achieved a most uncommon mission-immortality.
Ilene Springer writes on ancient Egypt and archaeology and is a student of museum studies at Harvard University.
Source: The Cat in Ancient Egypt by Jaromir Malek (British Museum Press, 1993)
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Last Updated: June 5th, 2011
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