The connection between cats and Egyptians is hard to ignore. This can be drawn from feline sculptures which have dominated Egyptian homes for centuries, the use of cat imagery in ancient writings, and excavated temple ruins that contain feline mummies and artifacts among other indicators. Additionally, cats were revered as gods, complete with cult worship and huge celebrations. This begs the question: why did Egyptians worship cats?
The worship of cats in Egypt has been a topic of fascination for many cat owners and lovers. The Ancient Egyptians had Bastet and Sekhmet among other feline deities, and cats were even held in higher regard than men, drawing from the fact that harming a cat was an act punishable by death.
These are just but a few examples of the kind of high esteem that cats have been held to by both the current and past generations. We delve deep into the interesting subject of animal worship and specifically cat worship in Egypt.
In this article, we go back in time to the domestication of cats by Ancient Egyptians. After the domestication that started it all, we will explain the reasons that led to feline worship. We will also delve into the many cat deities and the kind of worship that they were accorded.
Domestication of Cats by the Ancient Egyptians
One of the most prevalent theories on the domestication of cats is that the Ancient Egyptians were the pioneers. Hieroglyphs, which are Ancient Egyptian writing characters, are full of cats’ depictions. This goes to show that cats shared a special place in the society to be accorded such honors.
Apart from these ancient writings, modern studies have identified North Africa as the possible birthplace of the domestic cat.
Comparison of DNA samples has identified the African Wildcat as the most likely ancestor of the domestic cat. This wild feline is native to the Ancient Egyptian settlements. It is estimated that the domestication took place about 10,000 years ago in this region known as the Fertile Crescent.
The region is surrounded by the rivers Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates. Egypt served as the center or capital of this community. The society at the time relied on fishing and farming for sustenance.
With fish being plentiful from the rivers, the wildcats started getting close to the human population. They would stay near the shores, waiting to feed on the fish left behind by fishermen or sneak up on boats for the delicacy.
See Also: Why Do Cats Like Fish
It was only a matter of time before the curious nature of cats got the better of them. They followed the humans back to their home and started living in bushes around the homesteads.
So how did the cats end up inside houses? The answer lies in the agrarian culture that was taking place at the same time. Wheat and other grains were plentiful and with them came with an increased population of rats.
The farm produce was stored inside the houses and granaries in the compounds. Cats, being excellent hunters and opportunistic feeders, soon discovered that rats chewing on grain were very easy to prey on. They would feed on the rodents when they get hungry and spend the rest of the day sleeping in the bushes.
Humans were awed by the hunting prowess of their new furry friends. They encouraged the cats to stay by providing them with food. The relationship was beneficial since rodents were plaguing their harvests. Cats could also kill snakes like cobras which hunted rats inside the homes.
Why Did Ancient Egyptians Worship Cats?
The practice of cat worship did not start in a day—it stemmed from a mutually beneficial relationship that eventually developed into admiration, then to reverence. How did this unfold? Here are some most likely scenarios:
#1: Cats Were Associated with Egyptian Royalty
Their prowess at getting rid of vermin endeared cats to all humans. The poor, however, could not spend much time playing with cats and therefore relied on cats for practicality without showing much affection. The wealthy and the royalty, on the other hand, could afford to keep cats as beloved pets and give them special care.
They started grooming and fashioning cats for shows, much like the current cat shows. Soon, cats were favored over other domestic animals and pets such as dogs. From there, it was a short leap to having cats viewed as royalty.
The pharaohs at the time held god-like status over the populace. They were believed to be god incarnates. Therefore, it’s just normal that their pets came to stand as deities or patrons in the eyes of the Ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphs from that era depict power and strength using a lion figure.
Humans tend to personify gods based on their own likeness or in the images of animals around them. Cats had carved a high status in the Ancient Egyptian society; no wonder they were on top of the list when it was time to start crafting god figures!
#2: Cats are Mysterious
The Ancient Egyptians were polytheists; their belief system allowed them to have multiple gods and goddesses. They used natural forces and phenomenon to personify the deities.
The sun, the moon, rivers, mountains, etc. were some of the symbolism that were used to represent these supernatural beings. The sun represented the creator god Aten; an island in the River Nile represented the god Khnum; the noon sun was used to signify the god Ra.
Mystery also played a big role in picking the representations of deities. Cats are mysterious, and that gave them an edge over the other animals. Cats have poise and grace—a creature that could kill with utter ruthlessness then curl up to sleep on someone’s lap.
Cats also had other weird behaviors that enticed the Ancient Egyptians’ awe. They could see at night as efficiently as they do during the day. Their stealthy walk made them appear and disappear at will, much like ghosts.
When it comes to detecting weather changes, cats seem to have an internal warning system. Before the weather changes for the worse, they would act spooked, be over-excited, or just adopt an unusual behavior.
The self-cleaning that would occupy most of a cat’s time was also out of the ordinary. The same goes for the burying of feces or foods that they don’t like. The Ancient Egyptians reacted to these behaviors by giving felines god-like adoration.
The Role Cats Played in Egyptian Religion
Several deities were depicted as cats in the Ancient Egyptian religion. Symbols of big cats like lions were used as a show of power and status. These feline deities were high on the hierarchy and were there to protect the others, mankind included.
Big male cats personified protection from the male perspective—they protect the females and their cubs. Female cats were fierce in the protection of their cubs.
Domestic cats were way softer and were representatives of the power held by man. They were the personification of earthly wealth and homeliness. They were the gods who were tasked with protecting homes from misfortunes—just like how your furry friend keeps the vermin away from your house.
Let’s take a look at the specific deities and the worship that was accorded to each.
Bastet or simply Bast is the most recognized cat goddess from the ancient times. The popularity of the deity has persisted, and she often features in today’s Wiccan religions. Pop culture has not been left behind either; films like ‘Black Panther’ depicts Bast as a panther goddess of the fictional country of Wakanda.
The goddess is also known as Ubasti, Baast, Pasht, or Pakhet. The name is usually translated to ‘devourer’ or ‘she of the ointment jar.’ The polytheist nature of the religions at the time allowed other cultures to adopt gods. This explains why the same deity went by the name ‘Ailuros,’ which means ‘cat,’ among the Ancient Greeks.
People started worshiping the deity around 2900BCE. Her religion was centered in the area between Southern Egypt, Khartoum (Sudan), and Lower Egypt. Bast started off as a warrior lioness. With time, her image softened to the now common domestic cat-headed woman.
Her feminine form and soft kitty look led to the deity being associated with motherhood, fertility, and protection. Apart from protecting homes from attacks, she protects the furry animals too.
Her worship is well recorded by Herodotus who was an Ancient Greek historian. He talked of huge temples and lavish festivals held in honor of the deity.
Excavation of one such temple points to possible sacrifices in honor of Bast. Cats were kept in the temples and later sacrificed in honor of the goddess. Cats were mummified just like their owners. To further highlight the importance of the felines, they were buried next to their owners.
One such temple was at the Ancient Egyptian city of Bubastis where thousands of mummified cats were excavated. It’s good to note that mummification was for the royals, the wealthy folk, and of course, the ‘god-vessels.’
Sometimes in the 16th century BC or thereabouts, a new cult developed around Maahes. He was the god of war and was depicted as a lion-headed man. His mother was Bastet, and his father was Ra. Maahes was a protector god; this quality came from the protective nature of Bastet.
He was, however, also associated with winning wars brutally and at all costs—including by devouring his captives or slaves. This quality came from Ra who was the creator god. He was also believed to be a deity who advocated for truth and kept order in the society.
Maahes shared similarities with Apedemak, who was a feline god in the Kush kingdom (Sudan) and Western Egypt. His worship was centered in the Lower Egypt region of the Nile Delta. The main temple was at Leontopolis, an ancient city whose name means ‘city of lions.’ It was adjacent to Bast’s temple.
A Greek historian at the time wrote that live lions were kept in open enclosures around the temple. They were fed fresh beef and entertained with song and dance as they devoured their food!
The deity was a most feared warrior goddess. She was also known as Sakhmet, Sakhet, or Sekhet. Ancient Egyptians recognized her as the fiercest fighter and a military leader who guided pharaohs to battle. She was represented as a lioness, which made her a protector. She was also tasked with maintaining order and justice in the society.
In the arts, she was depicted as a lioness-headed woman with a solar disk and a cobra on top. Festivals were held after battles in her honor. These involved lots of drinking in an attempt to have the goddess recede her wrath. She was associated with having the Nile run red with the blood of Egypt’s enemies.
She is credited with leading the Upper Nile region in conquering the Lower Nile. This led to her rise in power over Bast. She took over the role of the protector of pharaohs and became more revered by the people. In her honor, well-fed lions were kept.
#4: The Sphinx
It’s hard to talk about Egyptian cat deities without talking about the Sphinx. The lion-bodied statue near the Giza pyramids features prominently in Egyptian culture even today.
The mythical creature has a human head and the body of a lion. Apart from the Egyptian one which is the most prominent, there are other sphinxes in other regions associated with early civilizations. These structures are depicted as being the entrances of temples and royal tombs. The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest of them all.
Through erosion, the grandeur of the Giza Sphinx has been lost. However, depictions of the beast on ancient works show that it had the wings of a bird. This kind of composite being is in line with other supernatural representations at the time. It embodied the strength and bravery of a lion, the flight of a bird, and the godliness of pharaohs.
Other hybrid creatures include the jackal-headed Anubis, the Egyptian god of mummification, the cobra-headed Amunet, an Egyptian primordial goddess, and the lion-man Urmahlullu, the Mesopotamian guardian spirit.
Respect Accorded to Cats in Egypt
In the Ancient Egyptian society, cats were viewed as sacred animals. They were protected by laws that aimed to reinforce their importance. Some of these laws saw felines being accorded higher status than men.
- There were cat cemeteries where the remains of felines were buried. This was preceded by mummification, which was an honor accorded to the ‘cream’ of the society.
- Killing a cat was punishable by death. No one was justified to kill a cat whether in self-defense or by accident.
- If a house caught on fire, the law demanded that men surround the house to keep cats from running into the fire.
- Having learned of the sacred nature of cats to their enemies, Persians would let loose cats on battle fields. This would make the Egyptians flee or surrender rather than harm the animals.
- There were laws prohibiting the export of the precious animals. This made them high-value commodities, leading to a thriving smuggling trade. Army units were set aside to patrol borders and stop the smuggling. Others were sent to border countries to return the smuggled felines.
Considering that these were the times of rampant slavery, it goes to show that cats must have held a special place in the hearts of men.
Cats were part and parcel of Egyptian worship. The relationship between these revered creatures and humans started with the domestication of cats. Initially, cats followed humans to benefit from food remains, but they gained a better position by proving their prowess in hunting and getting rid of vermin.
They later gained access to peoples’ homes, then to the laps of the wealthy and royalty who had time to shower them with affection.
Their association with the esteemed people plus their mysterious behavior led people to gaze upon them with awe, and it wasn’t long before Ancient Egyptians started revering cats.
They were held in such honor that deities were depicted in their images and rules were made against mistreating them in any way. They would also be buried next to their owners upon their death and accorded the honor of mummification—a practice that was reserved for the cream of the society.
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