Cats have pretty much taken over the Internet. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t send me a cat video or I don’t get streams of cat photos on Facebook. So, why not take a look at a time when cats were really popular—when they were worshipped as animal representations of gods in Ancient Egypt.
Historians figure that cats basically domesticated themselves when poking around human habitats and finding tasty goodies, mice and rats, in the granaries of great civilizations. Humans, when they found that cats dispensed with vermin, became friendly with the animals and tolerated, if not encouraged, their presence. This happened in about 2,000 BC (or earlier) and some say the Persians were the first to take in cats and the brought them to Egypt.
Egypt had an incredibly complex religious system with most of the gods taking on animal shape, or quasi-human shape (with animal heads and human bodies). These were not to be taken literally, and though the sacred animals in Egypt were treated better than many humans, Egyptians always knew that the animals were simply symbols of the mighty gods who ran their lives.
The Egyptians took to the cat with a vengeance (other sacred animals were bulls, ibises, jackals, hippopotomi, some snakes, and falcons). Although there are not many artistic representations of cats until about 2400 B.C., although there is a tomb relief from as early as the 6th Dynasty (2250 BC) that shows a marsh scene with a cat climbing a papyrus stalk to rob bird’s nests. (Always into trouble, even millennia ago.)
Cats usually didn’t show up in tomb art early on, but in the New Kingdom, after 1550 BC, cats became common in depictions of domestic scenes. Cats were often shown under the chair of a noble couple. Children were often shown in the same position, obviously drawn smaller than in life.
Official priestly observances of Egyptian religion didn’t always show what the populace believed, and it seemed to take until the New Kingdom for references to the Great Cat (Bast or Bastet, depending on what authority you consult), who was first lauded for its ability to kill snakes, and thus thwart the evil serpent Apophisis, who attacked the sun-god Ra on his nightly journey to the underworld.
There were two sides to the cat in Egypt, one, Sekhmet, honoring the lioness side of the feline, and Bastet, who represented the home-loving and gentle cat. Bastet also was well regarded for her superb mothering skills.
However, no town was as involved with cat worship as Bubastis, which boasted a large cattery, a cult devoted to cats, and mummification and royal burial of deceased cats.
Mummifying animals became important in the Egyptian civilization’s Late Period, and there are whole cemeteries of bulls, baboons, crocodiles, and dogs. Cat coffins were made in the shape of a cat and often had bronze heads. Large cemeteries of cat mummies were found in Beni Hasen, Bubastis, and Saqqara. People also donated bronze statuettes of cats to local temples to make sure they stayed on the good side of the goddess Bastet.
There is some disturbing evidence that not all the cats in the kitty coffins died a natural death. Most put this down to overpopulation in the catteries. Then, as now, cats can multiply like rabbits.
Still, there is no doubt that Egyptians loved their little furballs, probably more than modern cat owners do. There is a great deal of cat statuary that shows them draped with jewelry and with pierced ears for earrings.
How many Internet pictures have you seen with cats sporting earrings?
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