The Role of Cats in Ancient Egypt

Everyone knows the feisty, fiercely independent, soft and cuddly common house pet known as the cat. Surprisingly many people do not enjoy the company of cats, but thousands of years ago in Ancient Egypt cats were treated like gods. The Egyptians are famous for their infatuation with cats, and how they went to great lengths to protects and love their cats.

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Cats were known to be domesticated thousands of years ago and went on to be represented by Gods in the Egyptian religion. Cats even played important roles in Egyptian society and were protected to great lengths, but inevitably the worship of cats did not last forever.

In order to understand how cats were initially domesticated, one must look back to when humans began their sedentary lifestyles. Humans made the switch from being hunter gatherers to farmers in the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent had an abundance of natural resources and readily domesticable plants and animals that fueled their sedentary life. With the abundance of resources in one are there was no longer a need to travel from place to place based on the season, rather people could remain in one place. The sedentary lifestyle of people then lead them to congregate in communities where they would produce large amounts of food and store the excess. Therefore large cellars and storage units were built to store the large amounts of food produced. Having communities of people and becoming food producers was beneficial to humans, but inevitably this lifestyle attracted unwanted guests.

The sedentary lifestyle of humans created large congregations of people and large cities, such as Egypt. The rise of cities, also meant the increase in food production and in turn waste. Cities attracted small vermin such as mice and rats, and even snakes. The increase in waste as well as small animals led to cats moving into human communities. The domesticated cat is thought to come from Felis Silvestris Lybica, or the African Wildcat. The wildcat saw human cities as easy hunting grounds for a meal, and since cats kept the vermin population down, farmers accepted the ancient felines. In addition to being attracted to the vermin, cats were also big scavengers and feasted off the waste and garbage humans produced from their sedentary lifestyle.

Although it may seem cats have changed drastically since they first entered into humans’ lives, in reality they were never truly domesticated (Huizen, 2016). It is true that cats were tamed, but they were never bred to attain a desirable trait that would help humans to survive. Animals such as cattle, pigs, horses and other livestock were specifically domesticated and bred to attain desirable traits useful to humans. In fact, humans never actually domesticated cats, rather cats domesticated themselves. Most animals, such as farm livestock, were sought out by humans and specifically chosen to help them. Cats on the other hand, were attracted to human society, while humans simply came to accept their presence.

Even though cats were not purposely domesticated, they served many uses once they made their way into human lifestyle. One such example is their impeccable hunting abilities. They hunted vermin, thus keeping them from eating the stored food. Additionally, cats killed dangerous and venomous snakes. Snakes were becoming an issue in Egypt, often killing and injuring people with their deadly bites. Once came upon human communities they hunted and killed snakes, and humans were extremely grateful. They began seeing cats as protectors and even invited them into their homes as a kind of good omen. In the end, cats were attracted to human society, but to great benefits to humans.

As cats worked their way into human’s lives, Egyptians depicted them in their religion and worshiped them as if they were gods. The first Goddess known to have feline qualities was the Goddess Mafdet. Mafdet traces as far back as the first Egyptian empire in 3,400 bc and 3000 bc (Winters, 2015). Mafdet was known for protecting against venomous bites, and due to this quality cats were seen as demigods. Mafdet was most commonly depicted with the head of a cheetah, and sometimes even wore a headdress of the snakes she killed. Mafdet the name means she who runs hinting toward her quick implementation of justice. Mafdet was not the only feline God, in fact many more arose in the coming years of Egyptian society.

Perhaps the most popular and well known feline Goddess was Bastet. Bastet is the Goddess of cats, the home, family, women, and children. She has a distinct feline head and the body of a woman. She is usually depicted with a rattle, a bag over her left shoulder, the sistrum at her right, and kittens at her feet. Bastet is known to have two sides to her personality. She has an aggressive and feisty side, and a nurturing gentle side. Her duel personality is also similar to how cats have many personalities. Bastet was praised greatly by the Egyptian people, and many statues and temples were built in her honor.

In addition to Bastet, Sekhmet is another prominent feline Goddess in Egyptian culture. Sekhmet is the Goddess of war, destruction, plagues and healing. She is represented as a woman in a red dress with the head of a lioness. Often times Sekhmet is seen as the evil counterpart of the Goddess Bastet (Llene Springer). Together both the Goddesses represent the balance in nature, and good and evil. Bastet is mainly known for her gentle and protective side, while Sekhmet is known for war and destruction. Sekhmet is also known to be one of the oldest deities and also one of the most powerful.

Mafdet, Bastet, and Sekhmet are all important Goddesses, but felines have been represented as many other Gods as well. For example, the sun God Ra took the form of a cat when he defeated Apophis, who was a snake thought to bring the apocalypse. Tefnut was another female Goddess with a feline head who was the Goddess of moisture, dew, and rain. In later years of the Egyptian Empire, the Goddess Wadjet was pictured with the head of a lion. Also, she was often represented with kittens at her feet showing how cats are nurturing and motherly. Lastly, the Sphinx was a prominent feline symbol in Egyptian culture. The Sphinx had the body of a cat and the head of a human, usually a pharaoh. Most of the time the Sphinx was known to be a powerful protector, and they were placed in front of sacred temples that needed protecting.

Not only were cats praised as Gods during their lives, but they were also given the highest treatment in their deaths. When cats died in Ancient Egypt they went through an extensive mummification process that is the same as humans(Angela Michelle Shultz, 2015). The process begins by removing the brain by pulling it out through the nose. Next, an incision is made near the flank of the cat in order to remove all the internal organs except the heart. The inside of the body is then rinsed with wine and spices. The body is also covered in natron, or salt, for 70 days. Then in about 40 days the body is stuffed with either sand or linen in order to keep the cat like shape. Finally the cat is wrapped in bandages and put in a sarcophagus, which is a coffin.

Along with being mummified cats are also given their own temples for when they die. Since cats were thought to be related to the Goddess Bastet they ensured to treat cats with the highest of quality. Within the temples they were buried with jewelry, and treasures just how people were. In some cases owners of the cats even place saucers of milk in their tombs so they can enjoy it in their afterlife. Even mice were mummified, since cats loved to hunt them when they were alive. Some temples held up to 80,000 mummified cats or more. The cities of Beni-Hassen and Bubastis were known for having many tombs and temples for cats. Cats were greatly loved in both their mortal lives and in their afterlives.

Felines played major roles in the homes of Egyptians, as well as in royalty. In common Egyptian households cats were seen as protectors. Cats were thought to ward off evil and disease. Cats were known to protect women specifically. In many paintings cats were painted underneath the chairs of women to show how they are looking out for them. In Egyptian culture cats represented women, fertility, and Egyptians thought cats to be great mothers. On the other hand men were often represented by dogs. Women were known to seek companionship with cats and often they were considered to be the pets of women. Cats were known to be one of the few animals that were mainly kept for companionship and for the sole purpose of having a pet. Other animals in Ancient Egyptian society had some agricultural or economical purpose to humans.

Cats were greatly cherished and loved in their homes and the entire family went into mourning when the family cat passed away. It was common for families to shave their eyebrows in mourning of their cats. Many cat owners even requested that when they die they wanted to be buried next to their beloved cat. It was thought that if a cat and its owner were in the same tomb together they would also find each other in the afterlife for eternity. Also, since cats were known as protectors when they were alive, they believed that cats could also protect them in the afterlife.

Not only were cats common house pets, but they were also companions with many pharaohs. Countless pharaohs were known to have cats and they even treated them like royalty. One particular pharaoh that not only owned cats, but was seen as a cat herself was Cleopatra. The Egyptian people thought she was an embodiment of a mother cat for caring for her people. Cleopatra protected her people and was known to have two sided personality similar to cats(Desperak Schisler and Booth, n.d.). Cats were important figures both in royalty and among commoners.

Unfortunately, the popularity and worship of cats did not last forever due to the unfortunate fate of the Egyptian culture. The Egyptian people were eventually conquered by the Romans. When the Romans took over Egypt they had a convert or kill method where Egyptian citizens could either switch to Christianity or be killed(Dodson, 2011). Since people were violently forced to change their religion Goddesses such as Bastet, Mafdet and Sekhmet were no longer worshiped. The Feline Egyptian Gods and Goddesses were the main reason as to why Egyptians revered cats. Cats were not viewed in the same way once people were not allowed to worship the Egyptian Gods. In addition to not worshipping their Gods, Egyptians also ended mummification. Mummification was a method Egyptians used to respect and worship their cats, and without this process the respect for felines diminished. It is estimated that mummification ended around the fourth and seventh century AD(pbs.org, 1998), around the same time the Egyptians were conquered. The brutal displacement of the Egyptian peoples consequently resulted in the diminish in the worship of cats.

Looking forward in time the symbolism and representation of cats completely changed during the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages cats were known to be hunted during the witch hunts. Cats were no longer seen as powerful protectors and good omens, but the complete opposite. People thought cats were the sidekicks of witches, and as a result were seen as omens of bad luck and even devilish. Some Egyptian religion and practices were seen as paganistic and as a result thought cats were ungodly and against Christianity. Even in modern society views from the Middle ages transfered over to common beliefs, and people still see as cats as companions to witches and bad luck omens.

Overall the Egyptians cherished their beloved felines from the very start of their domestication until the end of the Egyptian Empire. Initially cats were domesticated for their great agility and hunting abilities, but were soon saw as much more. Egyptians had many feline Gods and Goddesses that showed their great respect for the creatures. Additionally they mummified cats to show their respect and went to great lengths in order to protect cats. Cats were common housepets and kept solely for love and companionship not only among the commoners but royalty as well. Sadly the Egyptian Empire came to an unruly end and so did the worship of cats. Although people do not treat cats with the same respect today, the Egyptians peculiar fascination with the cuddly creatures will always be remembered.

Bibliography

(1) Huizen, J. (2018). From pharaohs to hairballs: How Cairo’s cats have evolved since ancient Egyptian times. [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/love-nature/from-pharaohs-to-hairballs-how-cairo-s-cats-have-evolved-since-ancient-egyptian-times-462f99394c22 [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

(2) Winters, R. (2018). The Veneration and Worship of Felines in Ancient Egypt. [online] Ancient Origins. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/veneration-and-worship-felines-ancient-egypt-003030 [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

(3) Shultz, A. (2018). The Role of Cats in Ancient Egypt. [online] Owlcation. Available at: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Cats-Role-In-Ancient-Egypt [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

(4) Pbs.org. (1998). Mummies 101. [online] Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/mummies-101/ [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

(5) Dodson, A. (2011). BBC – History – Ancient History in depth: Egypt: The End of a Civilisation. [online] Bbc.co.uk. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/egypt_end_01.shtml [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

(6) : Desperak Schisler, D. and Booth, C. (n.d.). Cleopatra: On the Prowl. [online] Cleopatra: On the Prowl. Available at: https://catsdreamandcleopatra.weebly.com/index.html [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

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