Navigating the Cats in Ancient Egypt

 by Dr Emma Libonati research Associate at The Petrie Museum

Several forms of wild cats were in Egypt from the start but it took a while for them to be “domesticated” perhaps the first suggestion of a close bond between humans and cats is a burial at Mostegedda from before 4000 BCE, where a man was buried with a gazelle -presumably as food for the afterlife- with a cat at his feet.

Cats became travellers in the lives of the ancient Egyptians when humans started to cultivate grain and crops that rodents liked to plunder for their food. A wild cat could exist in a symbiotic relationship with the humans and feed themselves relatively well. I’m reminded here of our own governmental cats at number 10 Downing Street –Larry or Gladstone, cats on active government duty as mousers. But cats were not domesticated in the way dogs were, they still retained a huge amount of independence.

The place where felines came into their own was as deities, and these started as lion -headed figures which could be either malevolent or benevolent fickle beings, much like cats themselves. They patrol liminal spaces and their mortal enemies are snakes.

A good example is Aker or in plural the Akeru which are primitive earth deities who opened the gate of the earth to allow the king to pass into the underworld and protects the king from various serpent deities. These deities were mentioned in the Pyramid Texts – from 2400 and later are the spells to protect and reanimate the pharaoh carved into the walls of the royal tombs at Saqqara. As time progresses, Aker’s iconography grows more fierce to a knife wielding protector of the entrance to the underworld.

Another familiar lion-headed deity is Sekmet, the fearsome and destructive female deity who also has a protective and healing aspect. She was said to breathe fire against her enemies and was the military patroness. But perhaps she was best known for the annual festival of drunkness held in her honour because it was only through extreme intoxication that the goddess could be pacified.

These lion-headed deities, were not within the realm of the domestic, they were deities for elite audience and elite concerns like battles in war. It is thought that the evolution of cats as a deity, was the result of the worship of ordinary people which infected the traditional pantheon. After all Egyptian religion was both hierarchical and closed off, and only the elite hereditary priesthood had access to the temples. And the common Egyptian might only encounter the divine image in procession. It is not so strange that the Egyptians would see in the cats that lived alongside them, something innately mysterious with an unreadable nature.

The best known of the cat gods is Bastet depicted as a cat sitting upright with tail curled to one side. In the Pyramid Texts, she is depicted in a lion form but is mild and motherly as the nurse to the king. This aspect is further emphasized in her protective role over pregnant women. Her leonine aspect lessened with the impact of domestic religion and the deity transformed into a domestic moggy. Egyptian religion, like many Mediterranean religions believed in incubation and divination through dreams, one of the earliest dream books from 1980 -1801 BCE lists seeing a large cat will guarantee a large harvest. As time went on, cats became signifers of fecundity and sexuality.

Like the statuettes in the Cabinet 3 Bastet is often shown with various instruments of ritual –like the sistrum a small musical instrument examples of which can be found in the Petrie collection or processing with an aegis – a kind of figurative shield or rattling her menat necklace a heavy beaded necklace common in Egyptian Art.

The true apex of the Bastet’s popularity was in the Graeco-Roman period at Bubastis in the Eastern delta. Herodotus described in the 5th century the festival of unrestrained dancing, drinking and reverie. It seems that felines inspire festivals of licentiousness and bad behaviour. And it was Herodotus that makes clear that the living being was treated and respected as a manifestation of the deity, he records that if a house was burning, the Egyptians cared more for the cats than their own possessions. And that the death of a family feline warranted the shaving off the eyebrows in mourning. An apocryphal story about the battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE by the Macedonian Polyaenus relates that the Persian king Cambyses shielded his soliders by putting cats and other creatures on the front line so the Egyptian wouldn’t deploy missiles. The  Greek historian Diadorus Siculus mentions the Egyptians fed their cats milk soaked bread or with raw fish cut up and called them with a clucking sound – a sound many a modern cat owner has made at their feline friends.

At Bubastis and at Saqqara vast number of mummified cats have been recovered. It is in this late period , as can be attested at the Petrie Museum, that votive cats are prevelent. These votive statuettes were ways to reach out to Bastet or to show piety, thanks, or to ask for intervention from the goddess especially for intercession in problems of fertility of motherhood. Cats were popular subject for amulet, worn  to combat the dark and unstable forces around the New Year.

Cats were also shepherds in the most important aspect of the ancient Egyptian life, the preparation and transition into the afterlife. Pictorial depictions of what Egyptians need for the afterlife expand from just a repersentation of the person and provisions to by 1450 BCE in the New Kingdom companion animals. Cats became prevalent in tomb painting often as the companion to the mistress, sitting under the chair–men had a dog or monkey-it shows that cats were essential in the domestic sphere. The scenes could show the cat gnawing on a bone or pouncing on a fish.

But it is in the funerary texts, that cats come to the fore as protectors and guardians of essential transitional spaces into the afterlife.By the New Kingdom, cats were an integral assistant in the underworld books, which began as elite texts but by the end were copied onto wooden coffins. These texts charted the obstacles Ra- the sun deity- might encounter on the journey through the dark and watery underworld. For instance in the coffin texts, texts written on coffins in 2100 BCE for ordinary burials, one spell 335, the deceased declares that they are “The Great TOMCAT” and goes on to declare he is a supporter of Ra the sun god, and perhaps makes a pathway for the sun to rise. In The Book of Amduat, a cat eared demon of brutal face decapitates bound enemies. In The Book of Caverns, Miuty, a cat headed demon watches over the bound enemies of the sun god, and finally in the Book of the Gates, Miuty guards the last gate that the sun god must pass through.

So to conclude, the Egypians recognised  both the cosmic and the useful nature of cats.


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