There’s an internet meme making the rounds that says if dogs are “man’s best friend” then cats are basically weird roommates. However, if you happened to live in ancient Egypt, you’d consider cats to be tad more special—a veritable link to the divine, in fact. Cats were of great importance in matters both earthbound and spiritual in Egypt, beginning even before the First Dynasty over 5,000 years ago. Aloof but lovable, cats played the role of pet, hunter, and deity in ancient Egypt and to this day they haven’t forgotten. Believe me, cats know.
Let’s start with the practical role that cats played in Egypt. Has yours ever left you a present of a dead mouse or bird? Odds are that it has—whether you liked it or not. Ancient Egyptians valued cats for this very skill. Cats hunted the rodents that threatened to devour Egyptian grain and spread deadly diseases. Cats also hunted animals dangerous to humans like snakes and scorpions. Tomb paintings also depict cats helping their royal owners hunt elusive marsh birds for sport. Egyptians loved cats for their companionship as well—not just as hard-working professionals—and played a major role in domesticating them. Ancient Egyptian art captures cats wearing collars and lurking under chairs not so differently from the cats that keep us company today.
When cats stretched themselves out in the sun for a catnap, ancient Egyptians associated them with the sun god Ra and his daughter Bastet. Bastet was the goddess of the home, fertility, joy, and the protection of children; and she is often depicted in statuary as a woman with the head of an alert, attentive cat. Even earlier depictions of Bastet, however, show a fierce and wild lioness. Some scholars believe this shift in imagery is connected to the domestication of cats—from the Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) to the modern-day housecat (Felis catus). These traits of the goddess Bastet—vigilance, protectiveness, companionship—were reflected in the characteristics of Felis catus. Ra, in his cat form, also shared these characteristics. When accompanying a deceased Egyptian to the afterlife, Ra was prepared to defend them from Apep, the serpent god of chaos and disorder.
By the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history (305-30 BCE), Bastet was hugely popular. Her temples drew thousands of pilgrims every year. These pilgrims would buy statuettes of the goddess or actual cat mummies to leave at the temple. This was a way for the pilgrims to commemorate their visit and to venerate Bastet. When the number of these statues and cat mummies grew too large, the priests of the temple would dig special trenches and bury them to make room for more. About two thousand years later in the nineteenth century, archeologists would begin to unearth these trenches and discover more cat mummies and Bastet statuary than they knew what to do with. Unfortunately, some English excavators even sent the cat mummies they discovered back to Britain…to be ground into fertilizer!
Millions of cats were mummified in ancient Egypt either to be buried alongside their owner or to be sold to pilgrims devoted to Bastet. Cat mummification in the name of Bastet became an industry because many temples—depending on the whim of pharaonic decree—had to sustain themselves financially on their own. Sometimes a temple might sell a pilgrim a “fake” cat mummy! And it’s one of these curiosities that the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has on display in Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt. While it looks like a standard-issue cat mummy (Roman period, c. 30 BCE), an x-ray led to the discovery that the remains belong to another undetermined animal.
Cats played a central role in the daily life and religious practices of ancient Egyptians. They kept their humans safe from snakes and scorpions and Egypt’s grain supply safe from rats and mice. Cats even came to represent in animal form some of Egypt’s most important gods. So, the next time your cat ignores you and wanders off, know that one of its ancestors quite possibly did the same thing to a pharaoh.
Nicholas Sauer is a Gallery Experiences Presenter and Natural History Interpreter at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
“Bastet.” The Louvre Museum. 2009. <https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/bastet>.
Castellano, Nuria. “The Sacred and Secret Rituals in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” National Geographic, 8 February 2018. <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2016/01-02/egypt-book-of-the-dead/>.
Grimm, David. “Ancient Egyptians May Have Given Cats the Personality to Conquer the World.” Science Magazine, 19 June 2017. <https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/ancient-egyptians-may-have-given-cats-personality-conquer-world>.
Little, Becky. “Kitten Mummies.” History.com, 18 November 2018. <https://www.history.com/news/ancient-egypt-cat-mummy-discovery-scarab>.
Macdonald, James. “Why Ancient Egyptians Loved Cats So Much.” JSTOR Daily, 27 November 2018. <https://daily.jstor.org/why-ancient-egyptians-loved-cats-so-much/>.
“Paintings from the Tomb-chapel of Nebamun.” Khan Academy. 2020. <https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/egypt-art/new-kingdom/a/paintings-from-the-tomb-chapel-of-nebamun>.