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Cats in Ancient Egypt

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When one imagines Ancient Egypt, the images of sand, mummies, and pyramids usually come to mind. Modern times portray cats as a lovable, furry household animal. Did the thought of the two intertwining ever occur? By examining the goddess Bast, tombs where cat mummies reside, and the process of mummifying cats, one can better understand the true significance of the gentle creature in the days of the Ancient Egyptian.

Ancient Egyptians worshipped gods and goddesses frequently. They seemed to posses one for any concept or thing imaginable. People think of Bast as one of the most popular goddesses of her time and generally remember her as a cat goddess. She wore the head of a lion or wildcat in the beginning and possessed the predatory personality as of that of a lioness. Over time people began to generally associate her with a domesticated cat because of her characteristics. They referred to her as Bast when in the form of a beautiful girl with the head of a cat, as opposed to Bastet when she came out in the full form of a cat. Bast incarnated feline traits such as grace, playfulness, cunning, and affection. She held many ties to other gods and goddesses both sexually and by blood, showing people liked her.

People worshipped Bast as the goddess of pregnant women, fertility, home, the moon, and fire. Herodotus talked about a peculiarity occurring when a fire started around cats, mentioning the cats bounding over men headfirst into the roaring flames, which left the men in deep mourning. The goddess Bast represented a protective goddess because of a cat’s ability to kill vermin that spread disease and watch out for their crops. Herodotus also recounted a story about a just kittened mother. The female cat no longer desired the companionship of the male cat, so the he would steal the kittens and kill them, driving the females back into his paws for more kittens. A litter of kittens usually accompanied the goddess. The motherly instinct of cats perhaps spurred the idea that the cat goddess, Bast, would bring children to infertile wannabe mothers. The domestication of housecats most likely provided an apparent connection between home and Bast.

The Ancient Egyptians built temples to honor Bast. Burying cat mummies in a colossal feline cemetery near the temple proved a common form of worship and the Egyptians did not take the death of a cat lightly. The goddess considered cats sacred and to harm one proved both unlucky and a crime against her. Priests in her temples regarded felines as incarnations of the Bast herself. The people mummified the cats and submitted them as offerings to the goddess once they died. Upon the death of a housecat, family members would mourn by shaving off their eyebrows.

According to Siculus, whether a man killed a cat unintentionally or intentionally, death would immediately follow. He told the story of a Roman soldier who accidentally murdered a cat. The townspeople refused to spare his life even through the pleading from King Ptolemy or threats coming from Rome. Siculus also said that when people saw dead cats, they would promptly remove themselves from the scene and protest that they did not kill it in fear of getting blamed and lynched. He also said that Egyptians would promise Bast that in return of healing their sick children, they would cut all of their hair off and weigh it against gold and silver. The people would donate all of the money to pay for milk and fish for cats.

Over time, Egyptians began raising cats on behalf of specifically giving them as an offering to Bast. From the Ancient Egyptians a cat cult spurred. Cat killing created an industry and people started buying mummified cats to fulfill the demands of the goddess. People killed massive amounts of cats during this time. Historians believe the Egyptian people raised hundreds of thousands of cats for slaughter. Jobs for embalmers, priests, and animal keepers opened up and people needed them in full demand. Pharaohs pushed the new industry to increase their treasury and money made from it. Archaeologists found an overabundance of decorated statuettes in the form of cats throughout many excavated tombs. The Egyptians viewed statuettes as symbols of religion with great importance and history. Tombs of Egyptians and cat cemeteries along the Nile River held many cat mummies. Thebes housed many important cat tombs.

In mountains to the west of the Nile River, the Theban tombs resided. Thebes had 4 main burial cites that heavily depicted cats. The Bible referred to Thebes as the City of Amun, which showed that the city majorly impacted the people. Over the course of history, the first cat name to ever appear occurred in an 11th dynasty tomb. At the feet of a statue of the King of Hana, a title of Babylonia, overbearingly sat a cat with the name of Bouhaki. The name means something similar to divine healer of the home. The 18th dynasty emerged as one of the first dynasties to show the tomb walls of the nobles to depict scenes from everyday life. Pharaohs’ tomb walls tend to focus more on religious scenes. As a result, historians understand more about the day-to-day activities of Ancient Egyptians through the nobles. Because of the numerous representations of felines on the tomb walls, one can infer they played an essential role in an Egyptian’s life. One specific tomb wall painting proposes that cats hunted with humans, much like hound dogs, and humans kept them as pets. The loving function they assumed could possibly attribute to how popular the Egyptians found Bast.

Archaeologists consider Saqqara, a tomb in Thebes, a rather curious find. Not only did Saqqara give them a rich collection of mummies and tombs, but also offered them valuable insight through texts. Ancient Egyptian religious rituals and stories explained in hieroglyphs on limestone make up the Saqqara pyramid text. Saqqara mentions the cat goddess Bast having a big heart. The Metternich Stele, which dates to around the 30th dynasty, references her as well. The Metternich Stele provided them with homemade remedies to common desert problems. In the texts, Bast’s father, Re, heals Bast from a scorpion bite and removes the poison from all her legs in cat form. These two ancient texts give people a true glimpse at the importance of Bast and cats.

The reasons for cat mummification reinforce the fact that people domesticated cats in Ancient Egypt. One can infer that owners of cats wanted to guarantee the immorality of their darling animal. Egyptians placed a variety of items, such as bowls of milk, rats, and mice, inside the tomb with the cat. Some believe that cats could prove a nutritious source of energy for a human higher up’s brilliant journey into another world. For the most part, archaeologists think temple priests sold a majority of the Saqqara necropolis of cats to townspeople as offerings to give to Bast. People gave these offerings in hope that Bast would bless them with fertility, kids in good physical shape, and a protected childbirth. A majority of the mummified cats found in the tomb aged approximately 4 months before death. Evidence shows that violent head trauma, as well as strangulation, caused death to the kittens.

The Ancient Egyptians did not make their notorious mummifying of a human a simple process, and the same techniques presented themselves in the mummification of cats. After the feline died, the embalmer excavated the internal organs, excluding the heart. Natron salt dried the body out and sand, straw, and other packing materials filled the vacant body cavity. Siculus said that embalmers treated cats with spices and cedar oil because it divulged a sweet, rather than decayed, smell and help the body stay preserved longer. At Saqqara, priests placed the mummified cats in two different positions. One position formed the cat into a tubular shape while the other individually wrapped each major appendage. Embalmers anointed the body with multiple fats, spices, and oils. They would proceed to tightly wrap various colors of linens around the cat body. Some people added gold amulets between layers of the linen. After that whole process, embalmers painted faces in black in on the wrappings; painted features included eyes, nose, and ears to resemble a cat. Depending on the amount of wealth an owner possessed, they could place cats in their own special case made out of wood and bronze.

One better appreciates the significance of cats in Ancient Egypt by examining the goddess Bast, tombs where cat mummies reside, and the process of mummifying cats. Many find it hard to believe modern times share something so in common with the people of Ancient Egypt. The royal feline the Ancient Egyptians used to worship hits close to home as the highly commercialized animal we all know and love today.


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“Bouhaki” First Cat Name to Appear In History of Thebes. The Great Cat. http://www.thegreatcatblog.com/2012/08/19/bouhaki-first-cat-name-to-appear-in-history-at-thebes/. Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.

Cat Goddess Bast In Saqqara Pyramid Texts. The Great Cat. http://www.thegreatcatblog.com/2012/08/17/cat-goddess-bast-in-the-pyramid-texts/. Accessed on Nov. 18, 2012.

Cat Mummies At Saqqara. The Great Cat. http://www.thegreatcatblog.com/2012/08/15/cat-mummies-at-saqqara/. Accessed on Nov. 18, 2012.

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Siculus, Diodorus. Book I, 69-98 (End). Diodorus Siculus: Library of History. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/1D*.html. Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.

Springer, Ilene. Egypt? The Cat in Ancient Egypt. Egypt Travel Guide. http://www.touregypt.net/egypt-info/magazine-mag04012001-magf1.htm. Accessed Nov. 18, 2012.

TMO. “Cats and Islam.” The Muslim Observer, Nov. 13, 2008.

Wade, Nicholas. “Study Traces Cat’s Ancestry to Middle East.” The New York Times, June 29, 2007.

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