Cats in ancient Egypt were represented in social and religious practices.
For more than 3000 years, ancient Egyptian deities were depicted and sculptured with cat heads. Some of these cats represented justice, fertility, and power.
Since the first dynasty of Egypt, cats were praised for killing venomous snakes and protecting the pharaoh. Some funerary goods excavated in ancient Egyptian tombs included skeletal remains of cats.
A book titled ‘Book of the Dead’ indicates the protective functions of cats. Cat cemeteries at archaeological sites show that they were used for several centuries. They contained a large number of cat mummies and cat statues.
Among the mummified animals excavated at Gizer, The African wildcat and the jungle cat contributed a large percentage. This shows that the cat cult played a big role in the economic and social lives of ancient Egyptians.
History of Egyptian Cat Breed
The first known cat-headed deity in Egypt was Mafdet. She was regarded as the protector of the pharaoh’s chamber against snakes, scorpions, or evil during the first dynasty that lasted between 2920 and 2770 BC.
She was prominent during the Den reign and was often depicted with a leopards head. The deity Bastet came in the second dynasty from 2890 onwards. At the time, she was depicted with a lion’s head. Seals and stone vessels with her name were found in the pharaoh’s tombs. This shows she was regarded as a protector.
Tamed African Wildcats were kept by the Pharaohs in their quarters during the 26th century. This has been proven by wall paintings of a small cat with a collar in the fifth dynasty’s burial ground at Saqqara. Amulets with cat heads were used by the 11th dynasty in the 21st century BC.
Carved in 1350 BC, the first known indication for cat mummification was found in a well-carved limestone sarcophagus. The cat is assumed to have been Prince Thutmose’s beloved pet.
The deity Bastet and her temple grew popular around the 950s BC during the 22nd dynasty. She was represented with a small cat head. Domestic cats were worshipped a lot and considered sacred. After their death, they were embalmed, put in a coffin, and buried in cat cemeteries. They were regarded as a living incarnation of Bastet who protected the household against misfortune.
It is during the late period of ancient Egypt that animal mummification grew popular. This is from 664 BC onwards. Mummies were used as offerings mostly during festivals. Killing a cat was seen as a serious offense as described by Diodorus Siculus.
Between 60 and 56 BC, an angered group lynched a Roman for killing a cat although a pharaoh tries to intervene. It is in 30 BC that cat and religion began to be disassociated after Egypt became a Roman province.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman Emperors issued a series of decrees that curtailed the practice of paganism and cat worship. Between 380 AD and 399 AD, the Romans ensured they did away with the cat worship and other Egyptian rituals. They did this by impounding pagan temples, prohibiting sacrifices, destruction of temples, and putting a death penalty for offenders.
The Christian church received all the property that was owned by pagans and the pagans were exiled by 423 AD. Following a Roman decree in 435 AD, crosses replaced pagan symbols.
Expedition of the Egyptian Cat
The first Members of the French commission in 1799 surveyed an old city of Lycopolis and they found remains of animals among them mummified cats. Mummified cats were also found in Theban.
The Louvre museum in 1820 found cat statues made of wood. Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg in 1830 mentioned having observed three different types of cats in Egypt. This included the jungle cat, the African wildcat, and a sacred cat.
In the late 1880s, over 200,000 mummified animals most of which were cats were found in a cemetery of Beni Hasan in central Egypt. A shipment of thousands of mummified animals most of the cat mummies reached Liverpool in 1890. Most of them were sold as fertilizer, though the zoological museum of Liverpool university college purchased a small portion.
Hundreds of cat mummies excavated by Gaston Maspero at Beni Hasan, Sakkara, and Thebes were received by the Museum of Fine Art of Lyon. The cats were of different ages, both adults and kittens, and were identified because of their deciduous teeth.
The British Museum in 1907 received a collection of 192 mummified cats and 11 other small carnivores excavated by Flinders Petrie at Gizer.These mummies dated between 600 and 200 BC. Two of the cat mummies were radiographed in 1980 and the analysis results revealed they were deliberately strangulated before the ages of two. This was probably to meet the demands for mummified cats as votive offerings.
In 1980, the remains of 23 cats were found in a small mastaba tomb at an archaeological site in Dakhla Oasis. The tomb is said to have been established in the 25th century BC during the old kingdom of Egypt and reused later. Mummies of 339 domestic cats were excavated in the catacombs of Anubis at Saqqara during work started in 2009.