The Importance of Cats in Ancient Egypt
Cats have been important to many civilisations throughout history and are still held in high regard today by many cultures, however the symbolism of the Cat in Ancient Egypt is certainly the most notable. The relationship between Cat and Human throughout history began as a practical one, to which Ancient Egypt was no exception. Agricultural societies have always kept Cats or encouraged them to remain close by leaving out food, the reason being that felines are excellent pest control. Farmers would use the presence of Cats to protect their grain and other food stock from rodents, snakes and even scorpions. Using Cats as pest control also helped to slow down the spread of diseases carried by vermin. It is no exaggeration to say that felines were exalted in Ancient Egyptian culture. Further to mere pest control, Cats were incorporated into being part of the family, they were loved, respected and had sentimental value to their owners. It was illegal to export Cats outside of Egypt and killing a Cat was punishable by death. Harming a Cat was considered a direct crime against the Goddess Bast herself and would bring bad luck. Deceased cats were embalmed, mummified and buried close to their owners. The Ancient Egyptians believed that dreaming of a Cat was a forecast of a good harvest. Archaeological digs have found that Cats were commonly celebrated in art during the Ancient Egyptian era and depictions of Cats have been found on tomb walls. Cats even made a significant appearance in religion as there were several Gods with Cat heads or who would take the form of a Cat. The Ancient Egyptians are most commonly believed to have been the first to domesticate Cats, however there is some evidence to suggest that they had been domesticated thousands of years prior around 12,000 BCE by the Mesopotamian civilisation.
The goddess Bast, also known as Bastet, is the most well known of the feline Gods. Bast’s following was prevalent across lower Egypt and her temple lay in the city of Bubastis, meaning house of Bastet. Bubastis was located along the river Nile and it’s ruins are now on the outskirts of the modern city of Zagazig. It was in Bubastis that an annual celebration in honour of Cats was held; worshippers travelled from all of Egypt to the city and the festivities included drinking, dancing, singing , offerings to Bast and prayer asking for her divine favour. Imagery of Bast depicts her in various forms including a domesticated Cat and a women with the head of felines such as a Lion, Sand Cat or domesticated Cat. Bast’s temple included a cattery, maintained by the priests who believed Cats to be Bast incarnate. Bast was a goddess of protection from evil, motherhood, sexuality, women’s secrets and of course Cats. Offerings to Bast were usually mummified Cats and small feline figures or effigies.
Mafdet (also Maftet or Mefdet) was a Goddess of judgement and justice. Depictions of Mafdet show her with the head of wild Cats such as a Cheetah, Leopard or Lynx and she is usually carrying a blade or climbing an executioners staff. Mafdet protected against venomous bites and was also believed to be the protector of Pharaohs in the underworld, watching over their tombs. Favoured by Pharaohs, Mafdet was a popular deity during Egypt’s 1st dynasty and for a long time thereafter, however by the 22nd Dynasty, Bast surpassed Mafdet in popularity and was more widely celebrated by Pharaohs and common people alike.
Sekhmet was a Goddess of the Sun, war, medicine, plague and regarded as one of the most powerful. Imagery of Sekhmet shows her as a Lioness or women with a Lion’s head, usually in red garments, with a sun disc around her head and a cobra upon it. This Goddess was viewed with great reverence however was also feared as was believed to be violent, destructive and warlike in nature. It is unsurprising that offerings to Sekhmet included animal sacrifices. The stories of Sekhmet tell how she had an insatiable blood lust which compelled her to indiscriminately kill and consume the blood of humankind. Ra, mother of Sekhmet , put a stop to this behaviour by filling the Nile with Beer and Pomegranate juice to resemble blood which enticed Sekhmet to drink. The Goddess put herself into a drunken sleep which lasted three days. When Sekhmet awoke, the blood lust had subsided and human life had been preserved. This day was celebrated annually by drinking the mix of Beer and Pomegranate juice. Perhaps Sekhmet was the original Vampurr?
Neith was a female deity who was known to often assume a male form and is also one of the oldest, most powerful Goddesses; whose knowledge and wisdom surpasses all. Neith was a Goddess of war, weaving, domestic skills, protector of marriages and a protector of men and Gods. The story of Neith says that she was self created and also had the ability to procreate without the need of a male, she was therefore viewed as a virgin Goddess and mother simultaneously. In terms of appearance, Neith was depicted with several animal heads including Lion, Cobra and Cow. Devotees to Neith looked to her in times of war for protection of themselves and their weapons.
- Cover image & Fig3: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/veneration-and-worship-felines-ancient-egypt-003030
- Fig.1 https://www.britishmuseum.org
- Fig.2 https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/bastet © 2009 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps
- Fig.4 https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/numerous-statues-sekhmet-lioness-goddess-war-unearthed-egypt-007183
- Fig.5 http://i-cias.com/e.o/neith.htm