Cats, Egyptians and Women

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Cats and Egyptians

Cats (Felis silvestris catus), known in Ancient Egypt as “mau“, were important in ancient Egyptian society. Based on recent DNA comparisons of living species, it has been estimated that cats were first domesticated from the Middle Eastern subspecies of the Wildcat about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent.

Thousands of years later, the peoples in what would later be Upper and Lower Egypt had a religion centering around the worship of animals, including cats.
Praised for controlling vermin and its ability to kill snakes such as cobras, the domesticated cat became a symbol of grace and poise. The goddess Mafdet, the deification of justice and execution, was a lion-headed goddess. The cat goddess Bast (also known as Bastet) eventually replaced the cult of 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, dating to 2000-1000 BC.

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The cat in ancient Egypt was a sacred and respected animal. It was in Egypt that cats were first domesticated more than 4000 years ago, and around 2000 BCE that the fully domesticated cat was brought into the houses of Egyptians.

The ancient Egyptians took their cats on hunting trips instead of dogs, and statues of cats were placed outside the house to protect the inhabitants and to ward off evil spirits. This showed that the cat had become an integral part of ancient Egyptian family life.

Cats were not only protected by almost every occupant of Egypt, but also by the law. So extreme in fact was the devoutness of the Egyptian culture to the cat, that if a human killed a feline, either intentionally or unintentionally, that human was sentenced to death.

Laws were set that also forbade the exportation of cats, though more often than not, many were smuggled to the neighboring Mediterranean countries.

The cat held a powerful spot in the history of Egypt. While she protected the land and its people, she also protected the mystique that was and is the cat in ancient Egypt.

Bastet the Goddess

Bastet was often depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a domestic cat. She was associated with the Eye of Ra, acting within the sun god’s power. The Egyptians loved Bastet so much that she became a household goddess and protector of women, children and domestic cats. She was also the goddess of sunrise, music, dance, pleasure, as well as family, fertility and birth.

She is the Sacred Cat and her name means devouring lady. She is depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a domestic cat. Baset (Bastet) is the daughter of the sun god Ra, wife of Ptah, and mother of Mihos.

Her supposed evil counterpart was the goddess Sekhmet who represented the cat goddess’ destructive force. She is known as the goddess of war and pestilence. But even she was tamed by Ra (who supposedly got her drunk) and she eventually became the powerful protector of humans.

Together, Bastet and Sekhmet represented the balance of the forces of nature.

Cats began to appear on objects of everyday life. There were gold cats on intricate bracelets, small golden cat pendants, cats amulets made of soapstone for necklaces and rings. Women made up their faces holding mirrors with cats on the wooden handles and on their cosmetic pots. The best part was that ordinary people could enjoy the protection of the cat goddess through their amulets on their clothing or around their necks or in their earlobes. Cats even figured in dream interpretation. In one book of ancient dreams, it was said that if a man sees a cat in a dream, it means he will have a good harvest.

Her worship began around the year 3200 BCE. The Egyptians celebrated Baset’s feast day with great joy and enthusiasm, honoring the goddess and protectress. She symbolized the moon in its function of making a woman fertile. She was also the Egyptian Goddess of pleasure, music, dancing and joy. The people of ancient Egypt turned to Baset for protection and for blessing. She was the protectress of women, children and domestic cats.

The earliest evidence of cats (to include lions) as deities comes from a 3100 BC crystal cup decorated with an image of the lion-headed goddess Mafdet. The goddess Bastet was originally depicted as a fiercely protective and warlike lioness, like Sekhmet, but as Bastet’s image “softened” over time, she became more strongly associated with domestic cats.

As cats were sacred to Bast, the practice of mummification was extended to them, and the respect that cats received after death mirrored the respect with which they were treated in everyday life. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that in the event of a fire, men would guard the fire to make certain that no cats ran into the flame. Herodotus also wrote that when a cat died, the household would go into mourning as if for a human relative, and would often shave their eyebrows to signify their loss.

Such was the strength of feeling towards cats that killing one, even accidentally, incurred the death penalty. Another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, describes an interesting example of swift justice imposed upon the killer of a cat: about 60 BC, he witnessed a Roman accidentally kill an Egyptian cat. An outraged mob gathered and, despite pleas from pharaoh Ptolemy XII, killed the Roman.

cats 220px-Louvre_egyptologie_21Herodotus noted that cats that died anywhere in Egypt were often taken to Bubastis to be mummified and buried in the great cemetery, but this may or may not have been the case. At the burial site in Bubastis the Swiss Egyptologist Édouard Naville found more than 20 m³ (720 cubic feet) of cat remains but also a great deal of evidence of cremation. Naville found stacks of cat bones in many pits, the walls of which were made up of bricks and clay. Near each pit lay a furnace, its bricks blackened from fire. This discovery causes some problems. The mummification and preservation of the body was intended to make it possible for the deceased’s ka to locate its host and subsequently be reborn into the afterlife. As the body would have to be intact for this process to occur, cremation would seem an undesirable way of dealing with the body of a sacred creature with a ka. Nevertheless, many cats were afforded the full embalming ceremony and buried in other great cemeteries along the Nile.

In her book The Cult of the Cat, Patricia Dale-Green states that, “The cat’s body was placed in a linen sheet and carried amidst bitter lamentations by the bereaved to a sacred house where it was treated with drugs and spices by an embalmer”.

She goes on to state that although the cat of an Egyptian noble would receive more extravagant burial status, the body of a worker’s cat would still be carefully prepared and the embalming carried out with the same conscientiousness as for a human body, often with provisions for the afterlife such as pots of milk and even mummified mice.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this appreciation shown more than in the colossal tomb at the temple of Bast discovered in 1888. This tomb, outside of Beni Hasan, held more than nineteen tonnes of animal mummies and remains, the vast majority being cats but a number of mongooses, dogs, and foxes were amongst the specimens that made it to the British Museum. The farmer who made the discovery sold most of the tomb’s contents to be ground up as fertilizer, but fortunately a number of specimens made it into the hands of scientists for testing and examination. Some of these are on display at the British Museum.

Beloved Bast, mistress of happiness and bounty, twin of the Sun God, slay the evil that afflicts our minds as you slew the serpent Apep. With your graceful stealth anticipate the moves of all who perpetrate cruelties and stay their hands against the children of light. Grant us the joy of song and dance, and ever watch over us in the lonely places in which we must walk“. Ancient Egyptian prayer

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