Cats in Ancient Egypt


It's a pretty well known fact that cats were worshiped in Ancient Egypt. But did they actually worship them, or simply hold them in high regard?


Let's start with their domestication...

DNA evidence suggests that wild cats first "self-domesticated" in the Near East and Egypt roughly 10,000 years ago when felines were adopted into agricultural civilizations as a way of keeping rodents at bay, and like how we domesticated wolves, the cats stuck around for food and slowly bonded with humans.

There are five subspecies of the wildcat, Felis silvestris, the domestic cat's closest relative. And while their appearance can vary by geographical location, their skeletons are indistinguishable. For this reason, archaeological evidence alone isn't sufficient to determine when and where cats were first domesticated

Episode: File 0003: Bastet Reeves and the Holy Bible

Release Date: November 6 2020

Researched and presented by Halli

Asiatic Wildcat, Felis silvestris
Asiatic Wildcat, Felis silvestris
  • To solve the mystery, scientists at the University of Leuven in Belgium analyzed DNA samples recovered from the remains of 200 cats excavated at archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa and Europe. The cat remains were dated between 100 and 9,000 years old.

The genetic analysis -- detailed in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution -- proved domestic cats descend from Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat, a subspecies native to Egypt and the Near East. Farmers in the Near East likely welcomed the presence of the wildcat, as the feline helped keep grain harvests free of rodents.

African Wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica
African Wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica

Over time, the feline's relationship with humans sufficiently altered its genome and behavior and the wildcat subspecies became domesticated. Migrating farmers brought domestic cats to new regions. Sailors brought cats aboard trading ships to hunt vermin. Thus, the domestic cat quickly spread across Europe along trade routes. Researchers have found evidence of Egyptian cats at Viking sites near the Baltic Sea.

DNA analysis also showed the earliest domestic cats were spotted, as they're depicted in ancient Egyptian murals. Striped cats didn't appear until the Middle Ages.

But the level of devotion ancient Egyptians showed toward their cats went far beyond a pet owner's warm affection. Over the millennia, cats in Egypt evolved from useful village predators to physical embodiments of the gods and symbols of divine protection.

Cat Killing a Serpent, Tomb of Sennedjem, Egyptian, Facsimile, 19th Dynasty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (30.4.1)
Cat Killing a Serpent, Tomb of Sennedjem, Egyptian, Facsimile, 19th Dynasty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (30.4.1)


Save for the entrance, it stands on an island; two separate channels approach it from the Nile, and after coming up to the entry of the temple, they run round it on opposite sides; each of them a hundred feet wide, and overshadowed by trees. The temple is in the midst of the city, the whole circuit of which commands a view down into it; for the city's level has been raised, but that of the temple has been left as it was from the first, so that it can be seen into from without. A stone wall, carven with figures, runs round it; within is a grove of very tall trees growing round a great shrine, wherein is the image of the goddess; the temple is a square, each side measuring a furlong. A road, paved with stone, of about three furlongs' length leads to the entrance, running eastward through the market place, towards the temple of Hermes; this road is about 400 feet wide, and bordered by trees reaching to heaven. (Histories, II.138).

The popularity of Bastet grew from her role as protector of women and the household. As noted, she was as popular among men as women in that every man had a mother, sister, girlfriend, wife, or daughter who benefited from the care Bastet provided. Further, women in Egypt were held in high regard and had almost equal rights which almost guaranteed a goddess who protected women and presided over women's secrets an especially high standing. Cats were also greatly prized in Egypt as they kept homes free of vermin (and so controlled diseases), protected the crops from unwanted animals, and provided their owners with fairly maintenance-free company. One of the most important aspects of Bastet's festival was the delivery of mummified cats to her temple. When the temple was excavated in 1887 and 1889 CE over 300,000 mummified cats were found.

Wilkinson, commenting on her universal popularity, writes:

Illustration by Angus McBride (British, 1931-2007)
Illustration by Angus McBride (British, 1931-2007)

For that reason, cats were to be protected and venerated. At the height of the popularity of the cult of Bastet, which took hold in the second-century B.C.E., the penalty for killing a cat, even by accident, was death. And charms and amulets depicting cats were worn by men and women to protect the home and bring good luck during childbirth. Jewelry fashioned into cats and kittens were popular New Year's gifts.

Most remarkable for modern archaeologists is the sheer number of mummified cats that have been recovered from burial sites across Egypt, including hundreds of thousands piled up in the catacombs of Saqqara and Tell-Basta, the chief worship sites for the goddess Bastet. At the Temple of Bastet in Tell-Basta, it's believed that priests maintained large "catteries" that supplied a thriving trade in cat mummies.

Hartwig says that so many cat mummies have survived the centuries because destroying them would have been prohibited in ancient Egypt, since they carried the essence of Bastet. So they wound up being stashed away in pre-existing burial chambers and secondary catacombs. An excavation this month in the pyramid complex at Saqqara unearthed dozens of cat mummies, including some buried in limestone coffins.

Cats appear frequently in ancient Egyptian murals and artifacts, including the cast-bronze figurine of a cat nursing four kittens and a large limestone sculpture of a seated lion featured in a recent "Divine Felines" exhibit at the Carlos Museum. But most of the information we have about the Egyptians' veneration of cats comes via the ancient Greek historian Herodotus writing in the fourth-century B.C.E.

BUT.... As the Brooklyn museum's curatorial fellow Antonietta Catanzariti explains, it's a mistake to imagine that the Egyptians worshipped cats. Instead, the connection between felinity and divinity derived from a careful observation of the way these animals comported themselves.

"What they were [actually] doing was associating cats to specific deities because of their attitude, how they were behaving in the natural world. Everything had a meaning. A cat protecting the house from mice. Or it might just protect kittens. These were attitudes that were attributed to a specific goddess."

There is abundant archaeological evidence, however, of cats serving multiple roles. Cats were depicted protecting households against rodents and venomous snakes, but also as helpers for bird hunters and as pampered pets. Cats have been found buried in human graves, although the exact relationship between cat and human isn't always clear. Some cats were buried with offerings, indicating that someone was planning for the animals' afterlives. The recent discovery is one of the oldest examples to date of a cat burial.

Starting around 1000 B.C.E., gigantic cemeteries full of tens of thousands of cats became fairly widespread. The cats were elaborately wrapped and decorated, possibly by temple attendants. Roman travelers to Egypt described how regular Egyptians revered cats, sometimes traveling long distances to bury a deceased cat in a cemetery. Killing a cat may have even been a capital offense.

As described by scholar Alleyn Diesel, ancient Egyptians probably began attributing divine characteristics to cats gradually. The almost-supernatural grace, stealth, and night vision of cats were highly admired and might have helped them morph into truly sacred animals in the eyes of ancient Egyptians. Cats' fondness for napping in the sun led to early associations between the cat and the sun god, Ra. Lion and panther goddesses were important, but the most important cat goddess was Bastet, or Bast. She too, began as a lion. By the time of the cat cemeteries, however, Bast was depicted as a domestic cat.

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