The Veneration and Worship of Felines in Ancient Egypt

The Veneration and Worship of Felines in Ancient Egypt

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

The ancient Egyptians revered and worshipped many animals, just as the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse did, but none were worshipped as reverently as the cat. It was not until the Pre-dynastic Period that they were domesticated—interestingly, much later than dogs—yet their prominence in Egyptian culture remains highly identifiable even today.

The first primary feline god was Mafdet, a female deity who traces back as far as the First Dynasty of Egypt between 3,400BC and 3000BC. As a feline goddess, she was associated with protecting against venomous bites especially those of snakes and scorpions (probably due to the fact that cats are killers of snakes and scorpions). The more well-known goddess Bastet took Mafdet’s place as a guardian of Lower Egypt, the pharaoh, and the sun god Ra. A similar female deity with the body of a woman and the head of a cat, Bastet was considered a personification of the sun herself, with her chief shrine at the site of Bubastis in Egypt.

The so called 'Gayer Anderson' cat. A late period bronze cat in the form of the goddess Bastet. Jewelry is ancient but not necessarily original to this piece. British Museum ( Wikimedia Commons )

Bastet and Mafdet both possibly originate from the legend of a divine jungle cat named Mau/Muit who defended one of the sacred Persea trees in Annu from the serpent Apophis. The cat caught the snake in the act of attempting to strangle the tree, and cut off its head for its crimes. Bastet and Mafdet are often interchanged as the jungle cat heroine. Bastet, however, was eventually similarly displaced.

Ra in the form of a feline slaying the snake Apophis, Tomb of Inherkha, 1160 BC, Thebes.

Toward the beginning of the 3 rd millennium, Bastet was associated with all cats and each feline was considered a physical representation of her spirit. Over time, however, the gods once again shifted and altered, often a result royal personal preference. By the time Lower and Upper Egypt unified around 3000 BC, Bastet was replaced by another goddess called Sekhmet. Sekhmet's form was much fiercer than Bastet's; though similar, the former had the head of a lioness, not a mere cat. With this change in the Egyptian's mythos, Bastet was regulated as the guardian of domesticated cats while Sekhmet became the goddess of the lionesses.

It should be noted that there were other gods associated with cats, such as Neith and Mut, but Bastet and Sekhmet were the two foremost deities.

Bas-relief representing the goddess Sekhmet on a column of the Temple of Kom Ombo in Kom Ombo - Egypt . ( Wikimedia Commons )

In the mortal realm, humans and cats lived and worked in harmony. Cats were a perfect solution to the overwhelming rat and snake problems of ancient Egypt, and in exchange, humans would protect those same cats from other predators who might deign to feast on a feline for dinner (especially now that rats were no longer an option). It was in this way that cats began to become domesticated—the humans would coax them to their homes to fetter out the vermin by offering the cats food. From there, it was a short step to invite the creatures to move in for safe keeping and constant pest purging.

Ancient Egyptian relief in Edfu Temple ( Wikimedia Commons )

These cats, however, were not as cats appear today—at least not at first. In ancient Egypt, there were two different primary breeds: one the fierce jungle cats, the other the more peaceful African wildcats. As time went on and the two species merged, as well as both cats became accustomed to softer, human food, the species grew to become sleeker, less muscled, and much more tolerant. In a way, the Egyptians' attempts to gain protection of their foods and resources resulted in the taming of their protectors.

The sarcophagus of the cat of the Crown Prince Thutmose, the eldest son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. ( Wikimedia Commons )

What must be understood in light of the humans' intense affection for cats is that the animals were not considered divine themselves. There are records that they might have been akin to demi-gods, but they were primarily thought of as bodily representations of the feline gods. Because of this, cats were protected for reasons beyond just their vermin-killing capabilities. To harm a cat was to attempt harm to a god, and that was entirely out of the question in ancient Egypt. Killing a cat was punishable by death a certain period of Egyptian history, whether intentional or not. Diodorus, one of the most well-read historians from the ancient world, records an incident in which a Roman accidentally slaughtered a cat, and he suffered the same punishment as the people of Egypt would.

As a revered animal, some cats also received the same mummification after death as humans. Cats were sometimes mummified as beloved pets, perhaps in the hope that they could join their owners in the next life. However, the majority were mummified for religious reasons unconnected with human burial, and were made as offerings in the hope of receiving the favor of the god or goddess they represented. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer uncovered a large tomb containing more than eighty thousand mummified cats and kittens outside the town of Beni Hasan. Since then, many more cat cemeteries have been found. However, the majority of them were plundered before archaeologists could work on them: in the 19 th century, a shipment of as many as 180,000 mummified cats was taken to Britain to be processed into fertilizer.

A mummified cat ( Wikimedia Commons )

Cats remain one of the most prominent symbols of ancient Egyptian culture. They are recognized as emblems of Egyptian society and the face of their ancient world, even if nothing else of their cult is remembered today. The Sphinx is an overwhelming example of this. Just as the ancient cats themselves were mummified to maintain their status and integrity after death, their worship was equally well preserved.

Featured image: ‘The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat’ by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886. A priestess offers gifts of food and milk to the spirit of a cat. ( Wikimedia Commons )


Herodotus. Histories Volume 1 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013.)

Matthews, John and Caitlin. Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: the ultimate a-z of fantastic beings from myth and magic (HarperElement: New York, 2005.)

Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History, Volume I, Books 1-2.34 (Loeb Classical Library: Harvard, 1933.)

Spence, Lewis. Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends (Barnes and Noble Books: New York, 2005.)

By Ryan Stone

Cat gods: When ancient humans worshipped cats

Cats were held in high esteem by ancient civilisations and were sometimes worshipped as deities. (Rawpixel pic)

The late author, Terry Pratchett, is often quoted as saying, “In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods they have not forgotten this.” While dogs are more than happy to serve their masters, cats like to behave as though they are the masters of their household.

Cats have been living with humans for many millennia, since the beginning of human civilisation. Cats were important members of the household as they hunted down vermin. This important role would propel them to such a high status that some ancient civilisations even viewed them as gods.

From Egypt to China, there’s no shortage of myths and legends to be told about these furry felines.

Ancient Egypt

Cats were viewed as protectors by the ancient Egyptians and figurines and mummies of cats are often found in tombs. (Pixabay pic)

The worship of cats in ancient Egypt is particularly well known, with temples and shrines dedicated to cats. Bast was a popular Egyptian goddess, often depicted as a cat or a cat-headed woman, who protected the family against disease and demons.

Egyptians took their religion seriously and harming a cat could result in execution. And according to the Greek historian Herodotus, if the house was on fire, Egyptians were more concerned about saving their cats than their other belongings.

When a cat died, a mourning period was observed and, in some cases, the deceased cat would be mummified.

However, this devotion to cats would be used against the Egyptians during an invasion by the Persian King Cambyses II.

During the siege of Pelusium, the Persians painted cats onto their shields and are said to have carried cats as they marched against the Egyptians.

The Egyptians were fearful of harming the animals and eventually surrendered the city to the Persians.

Cambyses is believed to have gloated about his victory by flinging cats into the faces of his vanquished foes afterwards.

Middle East

Persian cats are highly valued due to their exquisite looks. (Pixabay pic)

The Persians themselves had some stories about the cat, particularly the Persian cat that is said to have been made with stars.

A Persian hero named Rustum rescued a magician from some bandits and the grateful man wished to reward his rescuer. Rustum said he desired nothing as he was already surrounded by the beauty of nature itself.

In response, the magician plucked two of the brightest stars in the sky and combined them with smoke and fire to gift Rustum with the first Persian cat.

The Prophet Muhammad was also particularly fond of cats, which he admired for their cleanliness. He had a favourite cat named Muezza that was said to have sat on his lap as the Prophet preached.

One story of Muezza saw the cat saving the Prophet from a venomous snake, while another tells of how Muhammad cut off a piece of his robe to avoid disturbing the cat snoozing on it.

In Islam, deliberately harming an animal is seen as a particularly severe crime.

Ancient China and Japan

Japanese fortune cats are often placed in shops to bring in good fortune. (Pixabay pic)

In some local Chinese shops, you can find an adorable figurine of a cat waving its paw. While some people call it a “fortune cat”, it is actually called a “maneki-neko” in its native Japan, meaning “beckoning cat”.

In Japan, a popular legend centred around Tokyo’s Gotoku-ji temple is told about the cat. A feudal lord was riding through a thunderstorm when he saw the temple’s resident cat raising its paw as though beckoning him inside.

Curious, he went in and, sure enough, lightning struck the spot he had been standing on a few seconds earlier. In gratitude, the lord became the patron of the temple and, to this day, the temple is filled to the brim with cat figurines.

The fortune cat is believed to bring prosperity and good luck, and cats themselves were often kept by the nobility only. In neighbouring China, the cat goddess Li Shou was worshipped for her intervention in the pest control and fertility department.

There is a myth that tells of how cats were appointed by heaven to oversee the earth and were given the power of speech. Much to the annoyance of the heavenly authorities, however, the cats were less interested in managing the earth than they were in snoozing and playing with flowers.

The cats eventually suggested that humans take up the role instead of them, and so humans got the job instead.

Ancient Greece and Rome

A Roman mosaic depicting a cat was found in the ruins of Pompeii. (Wikipedia pic)

Cats were kept as pets by the Greeks and Romans and were admired for their independent nature.

The Greeks also associated the cat with Hecate, the goddess of magic. According to myth, a maidservant named Galinthius foiled an attempt by Hera, the Queen Goddess, to kill the woman who was pregnant with the future Greek hero Hercules.

Enraged, Hera turned Galinthius into a cat and exiled her to the Underworld where she would serve the goddess Hecate as a servant. This was the foundation of the belief in medieval Europe that cats were the servants of witches.


Throughout the history of ancient Egypt, animals were highly respected. In no other culture have animals been as influential in so many aspects of life, nor has any culture depicted animals so often in their artwork or writing. [3] It is estimated that two in every four or five Egyptian hieroglyphs relates to animals. [3] Egyptians believed that animals were crucial to both physical and spiritual survival—vital to physical survival because they were a major source of food and to spiritual survival based on how well a person treated animals during their life on earth. [3] Some animals were considered to be literal incarnations of the deities, and therefore, it is understandable why Egyptians would have wanted to hold such animals in the highest regard, giving them a proper burial through mummification. [4] The Egyptian religion taught of life after death. In order to determine a person's admittance or denial to the afterlife, the deities would ask a series of judgment questions. [3] One of these crucial questions would be whether they had mistreated any animals during their life on earth. [3] Because of this religious belief, the killing of an animal was considered a serious crime punishable by death. [5] Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from the first century B.C., witnessed the lynching of a Roman who had accidentally killed a cat during a visit to Egypt. Understandably, this punishment frightened many Egyptians to the point that if one would happen upon a dead animal, they would flee from it as to avoid the accusation of being its killer. [6]

Beloved pets Edit

Long before animal mummies were used as religious offerings, animals in Egypt were occasionally mummified for a more personal reason—as beloved pets that were to keep the deceased company in the afterlife. [7] The most common Egyptian pets included cats, dogs, mongooses, monkeys, gazelles, and birds. Many Egyptians loved their pets, and the customary process of mourning the loss of a loved pet included crying and shaving one's eyebrows. Ancient Egyptian pets were given names like we name our pets today, evidenced by more than seventy names deciphered in inscriptions identifying pet dog mummies. [8] Pets were often depicted on the tombs of Egyptians, indicating their masters’ affection toward the animals. [9] Egyptians believed that mummification was imperative in order to gain admittance to the afterlife, and therefore the belief was that the mummification of these pets would ensure the animals’ immortality. [9]

Specific archaeological findings have confirmed that pets were mummified. The most famous example of this is the Theban priestess Maatkare Mutemhat’s African green monkey (Chlorocebus aethiops). When her tomb was discovered, there was a small, mummified bundle present at her feet, which was initially believed to be her child. This puzzled archaeologists because Maatkare Mutemhat was a High Priestess who had taken a serious vow of celibacy. [10] If this had been her child, it would have meant that she had, at some point, broken the oath she had taken as High Priestess, raising a slew of other questions regarding her life. [10] Finally, in 1968, an X-ray was done on the small mummy and it was determined to be an adult African green monkey (Chlorocebus aethiops), not a child. [4] Similarly, Makare's half sister, Esemkhet, was discovered buried with a mummified pet—she had a mummified gazelle in her tomb. [10]

Prince Tuthmosis of the Eighteenth Dynasty was also buried with a beloved animal—his pet cat was mummified and placed in a stone coffin in his tomb. [9] Another Egyptian, named Hapymen, had his pet dog mummified, wrapped in cloth, and placed at the side of his coffin. [11] At the tomb KV50 in the Valley of Kings, a mummified dog and baboon were discovered buried together, although the owner is unknown. [11]

Food for the afterlife Edit

Egyptians believed that the afterlife would be a continuation of this one, allowing for the transportation of items from this life to the next. [10] In order to bring food to the afterlife, Egyptians would surround human mummies by what are known as victual mummies. [11] These animals were prepared by dehydrating the meat and wrapping it in linen bandages, to indicate that the animals were food, not pets. [11] They were not mummified to the same meticulous extent that a pet or human mummy would be, but the animals were nonetheless carefully preserved using natron and other special salts. [11] This food was included in tombs in order to sustain the deceased person's soul, called the ka, during the journey to the next world. [10] A variety of food has been found in many tombs, mostly breads, meats, and fowl. [10] King Tutankhamun's tomb held several coffin-shaped wooden boxes containing this type of mummified animal, in his case duck and other types of meat. [10]

Religious purposes Edit

Ancient Egyptian religion was characterized by polytheism, the belief in multiple deities. [4] Prior to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, there were a tremendous number of these deities, each representative of a different element of the natural world. [5] After the great unification, a more limited list of deities developed. [5] These were usually depicted as having a human body and an animal head, further emphasizing the importance of animals in Egyptian religion. [5] Over time, religious cults emerged for the worship of each specific deity. Two main types of worship distinguished the cults: the first choosing to worship the god through mass mummified animal offerings, and the second selecting a totem animal to represent the god, [5] which was mummified at the time of its death.

Votive offerings Edit

The vast majority of Egyptian animal mummies were religious offerings. [10] If an Egyptian sought a favor from a deity, an offering would be made or purchased, and placed at the appropriate temple of the god. [3] Before animal mummification became common, these offerings were usually bronze statues depicting the animals. [10] However, eventually a cheaper alternative to bronze statues (i.e., animal mummies) became the most popular form of offering. Literally millions of these mummified animals have been discovered throughout Egypt. Inspection of these mummies, usually done through CT scans which allow researchers to examine the skeletons of the mummies without damaging the outer wrappings, has suggested that these types of animals were bred for the sole purpose of offerings. As the process of animal mummification for the purpose of offerings grew, mummification techniques became progressively less meticulous. Studies have revealed many of the large-scale animal offerings to be "fakes" (the wrappings containing only a few bones, feathers, reeds, wood, or pieces of pottery). The animals were raised on temple grounds, and then sold to pilgrims or regular citizens. The necks of the animals were often broken, an indication that their sole purpose in life was to be sacrificed as offerings. When visiting the temples, Egyptians of the general public would purchase these pre-mummified animals and offer them to the gods.

The Egyptian god Hor, living in the second century BCE suggests the purpose underlying the practice of mummifying animals: "The benefit [of mummification] which is performed for the Ibis, the soul of Toth, the greatest one, is made for the Hawk also, the soul of Ptah, the soul of Apis, the soul of Pre, the soul of Shu, the soul of Tefnut, the soul of Geb, the soul of Osiris, the soul of Isis, the soul of Nephtys, the great gods of Egypt, the Ibis and the Hawk." Hor believes that the mummies are the souls of the gods: he describes the ibis as the soul of Toth and the hawk as the soul of many different gods. That is to say, some animals were, or contained, a ba, a part of the soul that is an active agents in this world and the spiritual world. Therefore, votive animal mummies are the animals' souls acted as messengers between people on earth and the gods. [12]

Felines are more than just pets

Evidence from Egypt further showed that cats were not just treated as a pest control. Instead, they also became sacred, treated as a demigod.

They gained much adoration and praise from humans because of their ability to combat and kill snakes, scorpions, and other entities that prey on the fields.

Later on, Egyptians attributed feline-like appearance to some of their goddesses.


Various feline forms were attributed to Mafdet – lion, cheetah, and housecat. Sometimes, she was also presented as a cat with a woman’s head.

She was believed to be a guardian of the home and the kingdom as a whole.

She was usually sought when people of the old needed protection, especially from snakes, scorpions, and other venomous animals.

Bastet / Bast

Mafdet was later on replaced by Bastet as the feline goddess. She was also called the "Eye of Ra."

Still attributing to cats' ability to kill venomous animals and other vermin, Bastet was regarded as the protector of homes.

She was also believed to be a guardian of children and the royalty as well.

More so, it was believed that Bastet watched over the world and protected Egypt from the enemies and invaders.


[1]Mark, Joshua J. “The Battle of Pelusium: A Victory Decided by Cats.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 13, 2017.

[2]Barbash, Yekaterina. “Cats, Bastet and the Worship of Feline Gods.” American Research Center in Egypt | American Research Center In Egypt. Accessed January 18, 2021.

[3]Forster, Edward Seymour. “Dogs in ancient warfare.” Greece & Rome 10, no. 30 (1941): 114–117.

The Veneration and Worship of Felines in Ancient Egypt - History

Egyptian Mau with Egyptian cat statue

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer

Among the countless breeds of cats, no other but the Mau can claim direct descent from the divine felines of the Nile Valley. ‘O cats of Egypt my illustrious sires’, would be the poetic words of the Egyptian Mau if it could only speak.

Well should this breed of cat, introduced into North America in the early 1950s, be proud of its heritage for in the mist of history its ancestors were worshipped as gods. In the annals of humankind, never was another breed of feline to enjoy such a stature among the animals of the world as the forefathers of the Mau once reached in ancient Egypt. In that era of history, cats attained the zenith of their adoration, savouring their finest hour.

It is believed that cats were first domesticated in that historic land about 3,000 B.C., long after the taming of the dog that some historians say was made some 50,000 years ago. The earliest known records of the domesticated African wildcat were duplicated on early Egyptian tomb murals. Historians believe that the Nile Valley farmers first tamed the feline to protect their granaries from mice and rats.

In the ensuing centuries, the aristocracy adopted cats as honoured guests and trained them to retrieve the quarry of hunters. They were, like their children, highly cared for, pampered and protected. Figures found in tombs often show them bedecked with gold ear-rings and amulet necklaces. Fine Egyptian ladies, as a sign of beauty, lined their eyes to resemble those of their cats. They were associated with entertainment and despite their lack of vocal abilities, they were somehow identified with music and a musical instrument called a seshesh was fashioned in their shape. Felines became a symbol of fertility and happiness, many believing them to be the gift of the gods.

However, it was in religion that the cat attained its greatest glory. It became the recipient of veneration and worship. The priests made it an object for deification and elevated it to become the chief among Egypt’s sacred animals. In The Book of the Dead, a collection of hymns and religious texts, there is a vignette of a spotted tabby cat, symbolizing the sun, slaying the serpent, Apep, which represented darkness.

The goddess of moonlight and fertility with a human body and a cat’s head was known as Bast or Bastet, and sometimes as Pasht, and was linked to the great sun-god, Ra. The male feline was often presented as Ra himself. This supreme Egyptian deity was also referred to as the `Great Cat’ and, at other times, called ‘Mau’, the Egyptian name for cat which is the sound `mew’ – the cat’s voice

Temples all over the country were built in Bast’s honour and she became one of the major figures in the Egyptian pantheon. It is thought that the word ‘puss’ is likely a corruption of Bast and not, as commonly believed, the sound of the cat’s hiss. In addition, the important city of Bubastis (its ruins today known as Tel Basta) was named for this goddess and dedicated to her worship. In the subsequent centuries, the town became the country’s principal cemetery where cats were buried.

Practically every household in ancient Egypt owned a cat and when it died every member of the family went into mourning. In the same manner as for humans, elaborate burial ceremonies were carried out. The felines of the aristocrats were embalmed, swathed in linen and placed in beautifully painted coffins. According to the Greek traveller and historian, Herodotus, when a cat died, men shaved their eyebrows as a sign of mourning and anyone who injured a cat was drastically punished – to kill one was to court the death penalty.

Cats that served in temples were accorded the most sumptuous funerals. The magnificence of these temple ceremonies were described by Herodotus when he visited Bubastis in 450 B.C. They were, some say, even more magnificent than those accorded the nobles of the land.

In the 19th century, vast graveyards with over 300,000 m mummified cats were dug up in the ruins of this once famous religious centre. Most were pulverized and sold as manure, wiping out a legacy of great value. The few that escaped found their way to the museums of Europe. Nevertheless, the worship of cats was so widespread that many other burials places were found and, today, some of these embalmed felines are exhibited in museums around the world.

For hundreds of years when the ancient Egyptians banned the export of cats and government agents were sent to the neighbouring lands to gather and return the cats that had been smuggled out of the country. Nevertheless, in spite of this tight control, Phoenician traders and, later Greek and Roman merchants carried them to all the known parts of the world. From these early Egyptian felines, it is said, all the countless breeds of cats in the world have evolved – most of them hardly resembling the original cats of the Nile Valley.

Only the Egyptian Maus, found in North America, can still directly trace their forebears to the time of the Pharaohs. They all began from a pair of cats, called Gepa and Ludol, which were brought in 1953 into the U.S.A from Egypt by way of the Lebanese Embassy in Rome. From these original imports, breeders have developed a pure line of the Mau in North America. It took 15 years from the time of Gepa and Ludol for the svelte Mau to be given official recognition as a championship class. Unlike many other feline species, today’s Egyptian Mau is a natural spotted breed, rather than a deliberate creation by modern-day breeders.

In the United Kingdom a similar type bearing the same name was established by the selective mating of Siamese and Havana Browns. Hence, it was much different than the later bred North American Egyptian Mau. When the Western Hemisphere’s Mau was developed, to avoid confusion with the American breed, its name in Great Britain was changed to `Oriental Spotted Tabby’.

Similar in body type to the Abyssinian breed, the Egyptian Mau is a very elegant and loving cat which carries most of the traits of its ancestors. Ancient Egyptian depictions of cats generally indicate colour and coat pattern similar to the present-day breed. Even the figure of the sacred beetle of ancient Egypt, marks the forehead of many present-day Maus. Carrying the markings of a spotted tabby, it displays the haughty air of its forefathers.

A quiet, well-balanced and large animal with a somewhat wild look, the Mau is an interesting short hair breed of domestic cat. It is a hardy, medium-sized feline with a thick-silky and fine textured coat, spotted like that of a leopard. They come in three basic colours: light bronze with varying shades of brown pale clear silver with charcoal irregular markings and smoke with jet black variable markings on grey with a silver undercoat.

The females are considerably smaller than the muscular males. Both have long graceful bodies positioned high on the legs with the back ones longer than the small and dainty-oval front. The ears, resting atop broad heads with long nuzzles, are large, pointed, tufted and alert. Their eyes are coloured amber, green or yellow.

Maus make excellent parents, caring and playing with their kittens. They are quiet with a melodious voice and dog-like in their love and devotion to their human masters. Somewhat aloof from strangers, they make very good family pets. Refined through thousands of years as house animals, there is no doubt that the Egyptian Maus, carrying the most illustrious pedigree of any cat breed, have a bright future.

Beadle, M. The Cat. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1977

Bicks, J.R. The Revolution in Cat Nutrition. Rawson Associates: New York, 1986

Carr, W.H.A. The New Basic Book of the Cat. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1978

Gay, M.C. How to Live With a Cat. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1953

Hart, E.H. & A.H. The Complete Guide to All Cats. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1980

Ing, C., G. Pond and S.A. Thompson. Champion Cats of the World. George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.: London, 1972

Loeb, J. and P. Loeb. You Can Train Your Cat. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1977

Pond, G. (ed.). The Complete Cat Encyclopedia. Crown Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1972

Pond, G. The Long-Haired Cats. A.S. Barnes and Co.: South Brunswick: New York, 1968

Sillar, F.C. and R.M. Meyler. Cats – Ancient and Modern. Studio Vista Ltd.: London, 1966

Spies, J.R. The Complete Cat. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1966

Wright, M. and S. Walters. The Book of the Cat. Summit Books: New York, 1980

Cats In Ancient Egypt

Cats in ancient Egypt were used for the benefit of people despite being worshipped, and despite the idea that they were treated extremely well, I would argue. I quite like cat history and trying to learn about the cat (or the human) through it. In looking again at the famous cats of ancient Egypt, I decided to look for extracts from publications that are in the public domain and which therefore can be published verbatim (for accuracy) and from a time nearer the actual events. The best of these are the writings of Herodotus who has an excellent reputation for writing about history. He lived not long after the end of the deification of the cat in about 300 AD.

Accordingly, the account is likely to be more accurate. I think that what he says is quite enlightening and not quite in line with the classic account.

In essence the cat was, I feel, used by the Egyptians either as a means to find solace and assistance in worshiping it as a god or in killing it and mummifying it as a commercial enterprise to sell to pilgrims who wished to worship Bastet. And of course the cat (and civet or mongoose) was used as a utility animal to kill snakes and rodents, which were abundant around the Nile. Overall, this is not the conventional view but it can be gleaned from old text. And the Egyptians it seems worshiped almost anything that moved! Although rarely mentioned there was a lot of reverence towards the dog too.

There are other more recent texts and notes on the text by the authors and commentators of the books from which these extracts are taken. I have broken these extracts down for that reason. The text is old fashioned so a bit heavy but the information is there.


Herodotus – his description of cats in ancient Egypt (and dogs)

Herodotus was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC (c. 484BC – c. 425 BC). He is regarded as the “Father of History” in Western culture.He was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. The following extracts come from his translated work and the notes made by the the author Rev. William Beloe. This is his account of the cats of ancient Egypt….

The number of domestic cats in Egypt is very great and would be greater if the increase of cats were not frustrated. The female cats when delivered oftheir young carefully avoid the company of the males who to obtain a second commerce with them contrive and execute this stratagem they steal the young from the mother which they destroy but do not eat.

This animal which is very fond of its young from its desire to have more again covets the company of the male. In every accident of fire the cats seem to be actuated by some supernatural impulse for the Egyptians surrounding the place which is burning appear to be occupied with no thought but that of preserving their cats.

These, however, by stealing between the legs of the spectators, or by leaping over their heads, endeavour to dart into the flames. This circumstance whenever it happens diffuses universal sorrow. In whatever family a cat by accident happens to die every individual cuts off his eye brows but on the death of a dogthey shave their heads and every part of bodies.

The cats when dead are carried to sacred buildings and after being salted,buried in the city Bubastis. Of the canine species, the females are buried in consecrated chests, wherever they may happen to die ceremony is also observed with respect to ichneumons.

The shrew-mice and hawks are always removed to Butos the ibis to Hermo-polis the bears an animal rarely seen Egypt and the wolves which are not bigger than foxes are buried in whatever place they die 1 .

Notes on Herodotus by contemporary authors

There occurs, I own, a difficulty in the Egyptian system of theology. It evident from their method of propagation that a couple of cats in fifty years would stock a whole kingdom. If religious veneration were paid them it would in twenty more not only be easier in Egypt to find a god than man (which Petronius says was the case in some of Italy) but the gods must at last entirely starve men and leave themselves neither priests nor remaining.

It is probabletherefore that this wise nation, the most celebrated in antiquity for prudence and policy, foreseeing such dangerous consequences, reserved all their worship for the full grown divinities and used the freedom to drown the holy spawn or little sucking gods without any scruple or remorse. And thus the practice of warping the tenets of religion in order to serve temporal interests is not by any means to be regarded as an invention of these later ages. Note by a person called “Hume”. This is a reference to drowning kittens.

The cat was also held in the extremest veneration by the ancient Egyptians and Diodorus Siculus relates that a Roman having by accident killed a cat, the common people instantly surrounded his house with every demonstration of fury. The king’s guards were instantly dispatched to rescue him from their rage, but in vain hisauthority and Roman name were equally ineffectual. In the most extreme necessities of famine they rather chose to feed human flesh than on theseanimals.

My note on Herodotus

The ichneumons are referred to below – a type of civet or mongoose, I am not sure which.

Associated articles – cat in ancient Egypt:

Article of 1839 on cats in ancient Egypt

Cats in ancient Egypt were held in high veneration by the ancient Egyptians. When a cat died in a house the owner of the house shaved his eye brows. They carried the cats when dead into consecrated houses to be e mbalmed and interred them at Bubastis a considerable city of Lower Egypt. If any killed a cat thoughby accident he could not escape death. Even in the present day they are treated with the utmost care in that country on account of their destroying the rats and mice. They are trained in some of the Grecian islands to attack and destroy serpents with which those islands abound.

(MB Comment: the cat that is the modern day equivalent of the cats in ancient Egypt, the feral Egyptian Mau is generally ill treated. See Egyptian Mau Rescue. This is reported from Egypt 2

The Egyptian Mongoose was domesticated and worshiped too

The civet cat Viverra civetta was not unknown to the ancient Egyptians but the chief object of their regard was the Viverra ichneumon which was almost venerated with a species of worship This quadruped Herpestes Pharaonis is one of the most celebrated of the Egyptian animals. It possesses a strong instinct of destruction and in searching for its prey exterminates the young of many noxious reptiles.

The eggs of crocodiles form its favourite food and this portion of itshistory being mingled in early times with the fanciful notion of its being able to encounter and overcome that gigantic creature in the adult state.

Divine honours were awarded to it by the ancient Egyptians and it became and continued for ages an object of superstitious reverence to a people prone to this symbolical worship of the powers of nature.

Ichneumons are still domesticated in Egypt where they rid the houses of the smaller animals and perform the office of our domestic cats Like the latter they are said to become strongly attached to their accustomed dwellings from whence they seldom wander.

They recognise the persons and the voices of their masters and the chief remnant of their unsubdued or instinctive nature is perceptible during meal time when they retire with their food to some quiet and accustomed corner and manifest by an angry growling their jealous dislike to interruption.

The sense of smell is very acute in this animal. It dwells by the sides of rivers and in addition to its favorite repast of crocodiles eggs it eagerly sucks the blood of every creature which it is able to overcome.

Its body is about a foot and a half in length and its tail is of nearly equal dimensions. Its general colour is a grayish brown but when closely inspected each hair is found an nulated with a paler and a darker hue 3 .

Notes (by me, Michael)

I believe that Viverra ichneumon is intended to be an Egyptian mongoose 4 or a type of civet. These are animals of a similar size to the domestic cat and not that different in many respects. The scientific name now is Herpestes ichneumon. Called the Pharoah’s rat 5 .

The cat was almost worhiped in the United Kingdom before it was united…

Such was the scarcity of the domestic or sem-feral cat that the then Prince of Wales Howel Dha put a price on cats:

In the time of Howel Dha (Dha stands for the word “good” in the Welsh of that time) Howel the Good Prince of Wales, who died in the year 948, laws were made both to preserve and fix theprices of different animals among which the cat was included as being at that early period of great importance on account of its scarcity and utility. At that time the wild cat roamed Britain as did some large wild animals. This must have been some of the earliest moments of domestication of the wildcat in the UK.

The price of a kitten before it could see was fixed at one penny till proof could be given of its having caught a mouse, two pence after which it was rated at four pence. A great sum in those days when the value of specie was extremely high.

It was likewise required that the animal should be perfect in its senses of hearing and seeing should be a good mouser have its claws whole and if a female be a careful nurse. If it failed in any of these qualifications the seller was to forfeit to the buyer the third part of its value. If any one should steal or kill the cat that guarded the prince’s granary the offender was to forfeit either a milch ewe her fleece and lamb or as much wheat as when poured on the cat suspended by its tail (its head touching the floor) would form a heap high enough to cover the tip of the tail.

From these circumstances, says Pennant, we may conclude that cats were not originally natives of these islands and from the great care taken to improve and preserve the breed of this prolific creature we may with propriety suppose that they were but little known at that period 6 .

My notes on the price of domestic cats in Wales 938 AD

The rather odd mix of praise for the cat’s skills and ill treatment when measuring compensation for breach of contract, I think, mirrors how the cat was treated in ancient Egypt. The cat was mummified as were people in Egypt at that time, yes, but the cat was also slaughtered for commercial reasons so that pilgrims who wanted to worship the god Bastet had something to offer the god toappease her and thereby be more likely to grant a wish. It is not all about being held in high esteem.

We seem to think that ancient Egypt was a utopian time for the domestic cat. Firstly, I am not sure it was as rosy as we imagine and secondly, in Wales (UK), in the year 948 (some 1000 years after the time when the cat was worshipped by Egyptians), the cat was equally treasured as a mouser (the reason why, originally, the cat was so appreciated in Egypt).

Wales is now part of the United Kingdom (UK).

2 The Mirror of Literature Amusement and InstructionArticle written 1829.

3 extracted from View of ancient and modern Egypt: an outline of its natural history By Michael Russell – 1831.

6 extracted from View of ancient and modern Egypt: an outline of its natural history By Michael Russell – 1831.

12 Amazing facts about cats in ancient Egypt

1- The goddess Bastet had the cat as her sacred animal and was usually depicted as a woman with cat’s head or an entire cat and defended Ra, god of the Sun. Bastet represented beauty, love, joy, happiness and was also the protector of humans.

2- In Egypt it was forbidden to take cats out of the country. Even a law was enacted in this regard.

3- In the temples or in the wealthiest families it was customary to mummify the cats that died.

4- Causing the death of a cat entailed capital punishment. It is believed that not even Pharaoh could commute the penalty.

5- The death of a family cat was a tragedy in Ancient Egypt. The family began mourning that in many cases involved shaving their eyebrows (according to the Greek historian Herodotus) as a symbol of the pain they felt.

6- An ancient cat cemetery was discovered in an archeological excavation carried out in 1890. More than 170,000 cats were buried in it.

7- The Egyptian word for cat was “miu” or “mieu.”

8- As they were associated with divinity, the ancient Egyptians believed that cats, with their eyes, could see inside the human soul.

9- As the eyes of cats had that supernatural consideration, the women put on their makeup trying to look like those of the cats.

10- Cats were used for hunting. The ancient Egyptians hunted birds with a wooden object that they threw into the air. The cat collected the piece charged, replacing the dog in these tasks.

11- In Egypt we can distinguish two types: The jungle cat (Felis catus), also called reed cat or swamp cat and the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica).

The Felis catus is somewhat larger than the Felis (silvestris) lybica, of robust physique, long legs and rather short tail. The Felis (silvestris) lybicaIt has a physique and characteristics similar to the European domestic cat, although it has a slightly shorter tail than the domestic cat.

12- Cat in general was a solar symbol, but, in addition, it was a protector of the home, becoming a beloved and appreciated pet, judging by the representations recorded in the tombs of the New Kingdom, from the reign of Thutmose III.

Importance of cats in Egyptian culture

During childbirth and the harvest seasons, chains and amulets with cats were worn by Egyptian men and women alike. They believed that these charms would bring good luck to them and the people around them. When this belief was dominant in the second century B.C., even accidental killing of a cat meant a death sentence for the ‘killer’. If their pet cat died because of natural causes, they would shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.

Interestingly, the sacrifice of cats was allowed so that they could be mummified and buried along with their owners. This way, they could accompany them in the afterlife. Even the destruction of these mummified cats was prohibited in ancient Egypt. Nobody wanted the wrath of Bastet to befall upon them. Instead, they were buried in limestone coffins in catacombs.

Several preserved cats in the form of mummies have been excavated from ancient Egyptian burial sites, especially in the old worship sites of Saqqara and Bubastis in Egypt. These places hold thousands, if not millions of mummified cats in their catacombs. In a ‘Temple of Bast’ in Bubastis, the priests would sell mummified cats to the worshipers during ancient times. The pilgrims would buy these cats in the hope of gaining some of the ‘divine’ energy from these cats.

Differences between human and non-human animal mummification

The distinguishing factor between the process of non-human animal and human mummification is when the two types were mummified. Humans had been mummified consistently since the days of the early conquerors of Lower Egypt, hundreds of years before even the first non-human animal was mummified. The earliest signs of non-human animal mummies are dated to the Badarian Predynastic Period (5500â€"4000BC) after the unification of upper and lower Egypt. It is likely that animal mummies did not exist earlier on because mummification was less accessible primarily due to cost. In general, the mummifying of animals was not given the careful attention afforded to humans. Mummies sold to pilgrims as offerings were only minimally treated, and unlike humans, even the most sacred of animals, such as the Apis bulls, did not have their internal organs preserved. The large scale of production indicates that relatively little care and expense was involved in animal preparation compared to human mummies. However, recent radiological studies by archeologists indicate that animal mummification may more closely follow human mummification than was originally thought. The accepted view is that animals were merely wrapped in coarse linen bandages and/or dipped in resin before death. However, as with human mummification there was a range in terms of the quality of treatments. A simple visual analysis of the mummies suggests that some animal mummies were treated with the same complexity as those of humans. Egyptians treated animals with great respect, regarding them both as domestic pets and representatives of the gods. The presence of fats, oils, beeswax, sugar gum, petroleum bitumen, and coniferous cedar resins in animal mummies shows that the chemicals used to embalm animals were similar to those used on humans.