When Were Cats Regarded as Sacred?
Cats were regarded as sacred by the ancient Egyptians 3,000 years ago. They were worshiped in the temples and adorned with jewels in their ears and with necklaces. Figures of cats were kept in people’s homes and buried in their tombs.
When cats died they were buried with great respect amid public mourning, and their bodies were mummified to preserve them for the Day of Judgment. Special reverence was paid to the cat in the temple of Bubastes where Pasht, the local goddess of the city, was represented as a woman with a cat’s head. A festival was held in her honor every year.
A curious custom which may have had its origin in pilgrimages to the goddess’s shrine survived until recent years among Egyptian Mohammedans. Before starting on a pilgrimage to Mecca, they would set apart a camel for the conveyance of cats.
Cats (Felis silvestris catus), known in ancient Egypt as “Mau”, were praised for controlling vermin and its ability to kill snakes such as cobras, the domesticated cat became a symbol of grace and poise. As domestication was not as steadfast with cats as today, wealthy families would often curate examples of well-bred felines, show them, and pride themselves in the coloration and behavioural adaptations that are seen in today’s organized shows.
The goddess Mafdet, the deification of justice and execution, was a lion-headed goddess. The cat goddess Bast (also known as Bastet) eventually replaced Mafdet, and Bast’s image softened over time and she became the deity representing protection, fertility, and motherhood.
As a revered animal and one important to Egyptian society and religion, some cats received the same mummification after death as humans. Mummified cats were given in offering to Bast. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer uncovered a large tomb with mummified cats and kittens. This discovery outside the town of Beni Hasan had eighty thousand cat mummies, dated after 1000 BC. The punishments for harming cats were severe.
Cats were one of the most recognizable species in Egyptian culture and were domesticated much later than dogs. Two types of smaller cats appeared in ancient Egypt: the jungle cat (Felis chaus) and the African wild cat (Felis silvestris libyca). The African wild cat was domesticated from the Predynastic Period onward. Wild cats naturally preyed upon the rats and other vermin that ate from the royal granaries. They earned their place in towns and cities by killing mice, venomous snakes, and other pests. They were worshipped by the Egyptians and given jewelry in hieroglyphics.
Small cats would often be found underneath women’s chairs on reliefs, evoking fertility and sexuality. The other variety of cat, the lion, was also prevalent in Egyptian culture. Although most lions receded to the south around the Predynastic Period, lions were rare in pharaonic times, but were extremely important in Egyptian iconography. Lions represented royal authority because of their aggressive nature and power.