Egyptian Goddesses Reborn. The Myth Behind Cats in Ancient Egypt

Introduction

Cats were highly revered in ancient Egyptian culture and considered sacred animals. Egyptians observed and admired the cat’s hunting skills and ability to kill venomous snakes, leading to associations with deities related to protection and motherhood. The cat goddess Bastet emerged as one of the most important goddesses in ancient Egypt.

Egyptians dedicated enormous resources to caring for cats and worshipping cat gods and goddesses. When a cat died, its owners would go into mourning and often shave their eyebrows as a sign of grief. Many cats were mummified and buried in elaborate cat cemeteries or temples. Cats were so sacred that killing one, even accidentally, could result in severe punishment or death.

The veneration of cats declined after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, which ushered in widespread persecution of Egyptian religions. However, cats maintained an important cultural status and were depicted in Egyptian art and literature for centuries afterwards.

Bastet

Bastet was originally a fierce lioness warrior goddess of the sun in ancient Egyptian religion. She was seen as a protector goddess associated with sunlight, fire and fertility. Over time, Bastet began to be depicted as a domestic cat rather than a lioness. She evolved into a goddess of protection, fertility, music, dance and joy. Bastet became known as the cat goddess par excellence and her cult center was in the city of Bubastis in the Nile Delta. Cats were very important to ancient Egyptians and were revered for protecting the crops from vermin like mice and rats. Egyptians even mummified cats as an offering to Bastet. The goddess Bastet became strongly associated with cats, although she originally had a lioness head when she was known as Bast in earlier times. Ancient Egyptians believed cats were sacred animals associated with divinity, fertility and motherhood because of their connection to Bastet.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bastet

Cat Cemeteries

Cats held an exalted status in ancient Egypt, and Egyptians often mummified and buried cats along with their human owners. Archeologists have discovered numerous large cat cemeteries across Egypt containing thousands of cat mummies. One of the oldest and largest cat cemeteries was uncovered in the 19th century at Beni Hasan on the banks of the Nile. It contained over 300,000 cat mummies from the first century BC.

In 2021, archaeologists announced the discovery of a 2,000 year old cat cemetery in Berenice on Egypt’s Red Sea coast containing hundreds of mummified cats and other animals like dogs, monkeys, and falcons. The cemetery dates to the first and second centuries AD when Berenice was an important trading port. While most of the animals were cats, dogs were the second most common. The animals were carefully wrapped in linen or strips of papyrus and many had collars still around their necks. The cemetery provides evidence of the strong relationships and care ancient Egyptians had for their pets.

These large pet cemeteries illustrate how cats were revered in ancient Egypt. As sacred animals closely linked to gods and goddesses, cats were treated with honor when they died through mummification and burial. The cemeteries also reveal the high status domesticated cats held in Egyptian society and culture.

Cats and the Afterlife

Ancient Egyptians believed that cats helped guide the souls of their owners into the afterlife. When an Egyptian died, it was common for their pet cat to be mummified and buried in the tomb with them. Cats were seen as protectors who would use their divine power to guide the soul into the next life.

According to History.com, cat mummies were sometimes placed on the deceased person’s chest or nearby their sarcophagus. The Egyptians believed the cat would be waiting in the afterlife to continue providing companionship and protection. Having their cat with them was thought to ease the transition into the netherworld.

The special reverence for cats is evident in the enormous cemeteries devoted solely to cat burials. At the cat necropolis in Saqqara alone, archaeologists have uncovered over 300,000 cat mummies along with mummified mice and birds. The effort and resources required to mummify felines demonstrates how important Egyptians viewed their journey to the afterlife with their beloved cats.

The Cat and the Sun

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the sun god Ra was seen as the ruler of the heavens. He was believed to travel across the sky during the day in his solar boat and make a perilous journey through the underworld at night. According to myths, Ra was protected on this nightly voyage by a fierce lioness or cat named Bastet. Bastet would accompany Ra on his solar boat and defend him against his archenemy, the evil serpent god Apophis. Apophis was believed to attack Ra every night as he passed through the underworld. In some versions of the myth, Bastet attacked Apophis herself, while in others she sent her kittens to battle the serpent. Her protection allowed Ra to emerge safely at dawn and bring light to the world once more.[1]

Bastet’s role as a protector of Ra highlights the importance of cats in ancient Egyptian culture. They were revered for their protective abilities and connections to the sun god. The Egyptians even mummified cats and dedicated them to Bastet. This myth exemplifies how cats came to be associated with divinity, protection, and solar symbology in ancient Egypt.

Cats vs. Snakes

In Egyptian mythology, cats were revered for their ability to kill venomous snakes. The cat goddess Bastet was often depicted as a protective goddess who defended the sun god Ra from the evil serpent Apep (Bastet). According to myth, Ra’s feline companions would hunt and slay snakes to prevent them from threatening the sun god during his nightly journey through the underworld.

Cats were seen as protectors against snakes and were valued for their speed and cunning in dispatching these dangerous reptiles. Snake gods such as Apep represented chaos and destruction, while the domestic cat embodied hearth and home. By killing snakes, cats were believed to uphold order over disorder (In Egyptian mythology why was Ra depicted as a …). Images of cats fiercely defending the sun god by cutting down serpents with knives or swords can be found throughout Egyptian iconography.

Breeds

The first domesticated cats in ancient Egypt likely descended from the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), a subspecies of wildcat native to Africa and the Middle East. These wildcats were tamed by Egyptians and over time developed into distinct breeds adapted to the Egyptian climate and culture.

Some cat breeds today are thought to have origins tracing back to ancient Egypt, such as the Egyptian Mau, a natural breed known for its elegant spotted coat and fascination with water. The Abyssinian cat may also have connections to cats depicted in ancient Egyptian artwork dating to over 4,000 years ago. Other possible Egyptian cat descendants include the Arabian Mau, Savannah cat, and Ocicat.

While the exact origins are uncertain, these breeds likely share some DNA with the revered cats of ancient Egypt and retain hints of their appearance and personality. Selective breeding over thousands of years has led to their distinctive looks and behaviors prized by cat fanciers today.

Punishment for Cat Killers

Cats were so highly valued in ancient Egyptian society that killing one, even accidentally, could result in severe punishment. According to some sources, the penalty for killing a cat was death. For example, one account from the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus states that Egyptians would assemble in crowds to kill anyone who killed a cat, even if unintentionally (https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/jlvkz3/according_to_diodorus_siculus_killing_a_cat_in/). This demonstrates how sacred cats were believed to be.

There were strict laws in place to protect cats. If a person was found guilty of killing a cat, even accidentally, they would be sentenced to death as punishment. Some records indicate that this law was taken very seriously – those who killed cats faced public execution. Killing or harming cats was seen as a terrible crime in ancient Egyptian society.

Cats in Art and Literature

Cats were a popular subject in ancient Egyptian art and literature. In paintings and reliefs, cats were often depicted as sitting under chairs, catching birds and mice, playing with balls of yarn, or accompanying women. Cats were featured in paintings on tomb walls, on plates and bowls, and in figurines and sculptures made of materials like bronze, wood, and clay. The cat goddess Bastet was also commonly depicted as a cat-headed woman or as a cat itself.

The ancient Egyptians wore jewelry featuring cat designs and hieroglyphs. Amulets of cats were popular, as were small cat statues. Cats were seen as guardians, and their images invoked ideas of protection. Images of sleeping cats conveyed notions of relaxation and trust.

In literature, stories praised cats for their abilities and loyalty. In the Story of Two Brothers from 13th century BCE, a cowherd’s brother gets turned into a bull, who later fathers two calves. When the calves are in danger, a cat comes to their aid and protects them.

Overall, cats were prominent in Egyptian art and stories as figures of divinity, grace, power and protection. Their images conveyed deep symbolic meaning about the afterlife, fertility and rebirth for the ancient Egyptians.

Decline of Cat Worship

Cats continued to be highly valued animals in ancient Egyptian society for many years, but their religious significance gradually faded over time. According to Wikipedia, cats and religion began to be disassociated after Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC. The rise of other cults devoted to animal gods such as crocodiles and jackals contributed to the decline in importance of cat worship.

The arrival of Christianity and Islam in Egypt also led to a move away from the Egyptian pantheon of gods that included cat deities like Bastet. As monotheistic religions became more prominent in Egypt, reverence for animals as divine figures dwindled. While cats were still appreciated for their vermin-hunting abilities, over time they were no longer worshipped or mummified as offerings to the gods.

Despite this decline in religious stature, cats continued to hold an important place in Egyptian iconography and folklore for centuries. Images of cats can still be found in Egyptian art and jewelry from later historical periods. So while cat worship faded, cats remained a beloved aspect of Egyptian culture.

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