Cats In Ancient Egypt

If you’ve been to the Ancient Egypt section of any art museum, you’ve surely noticed the influence that cats had over the time period. Sculptures, paintings, stories, and almost any other artifact that you can find will have some reference to cats. Cats, known as “Mau” in Ancient Egypt, were truly worshipped as gods, and many treasured deities captured feline traits. Ancient Egypt is credited to having first domesticated cats approximately 10,000 years ago, working with the Egyptians as rodent-hunters in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, located in Northeast Africa.

The Ancient Egyptians had a fascination with cats, as well as lions. The two types of cats that were common in Egypt were the Jungle Cat and the African Wild Cat. Both earned their place in Egyptian culture by preying on rats and vermin that would afflict the town’s grain mills. The African Wild Cat was the first to begin domestication, however eventually the two types bred to form the common house-cat of Ancient Egypt.

Lions may not have been wandering around the streets of Ancient Egypt, but they were a very important part of Egyptian culture. Lions were associated with royal authority, while cats were more associated with protection and fertility. In fact, calm lions were kept around the city and worshipped. These lions would be fed only the finest oxen while worshippers would sing songs of the great feline-deities as they feasted.

There are a variety of cat-like deities from Ancient Egypt that hold significant value in Ancient Egyptian culture, including:

440px-Figurine_of_the_Goddess_Bastet_as_a_Cat_LACMA_AC1992.152.51Bastet: Bastet came to be worshipped during Egypt’s Second Dynasty, around 2890 BC. Bastet is depicted as either a female lion, or as a woman with the head of a lion. Eventually, as domesticated cats gained popularity in Ancient Egypt, Bastet was commonly represented as a woman with the head of a cat. Bastet was a protector, of humans and of cats. She represented joy, dance, music, and love.

Mafdet: Mafdet is a feline goddess from some of the earliest Egyptian mythology, brought about in Egypt’s First Dynasty around 3100 BC. She would protect against snakes and scorpions, as well as wrong-doers. Mafdet was represented as either a woman with the head of a cat, or a cat with the head of a woman. According to mythology, Mafdet would rip out the hearts of those who had wronged, and would deliver their hearts to the feet of the pharaoh, much like the way that the common house-cat does today. Over time, the fascination with Mafdet was replaced with Bastet; however Mafdet imagery was continuously presented in pharaohs’ personal items and their mummies’ beds for hundreds of years.

421px-Statue_of_Sekhmet_in_the_Turin_Museum,_ItalySekhmet: Sekhmet is similar to Bastet, in that she was the prominent warrior goddess of a different part of Egypt. She was depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness, often dressed in red, the color of blood. Sekhmet was known as the goddess of fire, war, vengeance, and medicine. One ancient myth about Sekhmet goes that she was full of blood-lust and sent out by her ruler, Ra, to kill all dissenting mortals. She took her killing too far, so Ra dyed beer to look like blood and got Sekhmet so drunk that she couldn’t keep devouring citizens.

Maahes: Maahes is a male deity that is depicted as a lion-headed man. In Ancient Egyptian mythology, Maahes is the child of Bastet. He is associated with war, protection, weather, knives, and lotuses. Although many cat-gods represented fertility, the strength and power of male lions were pointed to in many male deities.

376px-Egyptian_-_Cat_with_Kittens_-_Walters_481554_-_LeftThe great reverence for these cat deities clearly spilled over into domestic life, as citizens of Ancient Egypt loved their cats as they loved their own children. The protection that cats offered against mice, rats, and cobras was seen as a key role in the society. Royal cats were known to be draped in golden jewelry and allowed to eat with their owners. If a family’s cat died, the family would mourn greatly, and hope to either embalm their former pet or have them buried in a cat cemetery. If a woman was trying to get pregnant, she would wear an amulet depicting the fertile cat-god along with her many kittens.

When a cat died in Ancient Egypt, it was usually treated in the highest regard, just as a human would be. The Ancient Egyptians would mummify their dead, in the hope that the spirit would be reborn into the afterlife. Cats would sometimes be cremated, however this wouldn’t be ideal as the belief was that the body must remain intact for safe passage.

Cat mummies at the British MuseumMost cats were mummified, regardless of their social stature. A noble’s cat might have had a more regal burial service, but a worker’s cat would receive the same careful preparation in the mummification process. In 1888, a tomb containing thousands of cat-mummies was discovered at the temple of Bastet, the cat goddess. If the cats weren’t buried in this ideal tomb, they would have been blessed and buried at another holy burial site.

By 390 A.D., worshipping Bastet, the main cat deity who had a significant cult based around her, was banned in Egypt. The more than 2,000 year reign of the felines as gods had finally come to a close. The cat is still held in high regard in the country, just not as demi-gods. They are still a common household pet for their companionship as well as their vermin-catching abilities. As of today, the majority of Egypt’s population is Muslim, a religion that coincidentally also holds a special connection with cats. The prophet Muhammad loved cats for their affection and cleanliness, and deemed them “the quintessential pet.”

Ancient Egyptians certainly recognized the beauty of felines, and we have them to thank for the common house-cat that we have today. Almost every single cat can trace their lineage back to Egypt at some point. Although cat deities are much less common these days, you could certainly say that cat owners each worship their own feline muse. Perhaps each of our own cats today hold a little bit of Bastet’s magic within them.