The Domestic Cat in Ancient Egypt
In today’s world, there are as many people with cats in their homes as with dogs. But this love for cats did not arise recently, and one of the civilizations that most loved their cats was Ancient Egypt.
In the ancient Egyptians cat called Mau and considered sacred. DNA tests have shown that these ancient domestic cats were first domesticated in the Middle East from a subspecies of wild cats about 10,000 years ago. A few thousand years later, the domestic cat was on its way to Egypt, where in Upper and Lower Egypt they were considered part of the country’s religion.
In fact, in Egypt there were many gods and goddesses, represented in the form of cats or in the form of cats. These include Mafdet, the goddess of justice and execution, who was depicted with the head of a lion, and the most famous Bast, the goddess of cats, who came to personify protection, fertility and motherhood.
Bubastis became the center of Bastu worship in the New Kingdom, an important city east of the Nile Delta. Here Bast became associated with the positive aspects of the sun and its god Ra, and the cult gained huge success: every year thousands of pilgrims came to the city. Bubastis became another name of the goddess.
The Bubastis market has also become the key to sharing images of the goddess, mainly after images of cats. Bronze sculptures and amulets were usually made for parishioners, and the image of cats and kittens made a fertility amulet for women trying to conceive a child. They pray that Bast will give them as many children as the kittens on the amulet.
The annual celebration of Bast, held in the city, was one of the most popular events in the calendar, as mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus. Pilgrims traveled the Nile by ferries and celebrated until they arrived in the city, where parties were held in honor of the goddess and sacrifices were made.
Because cats are considered sacred, some of them have undergone the same mummification rituals after death as humans. The tomb, found near the town of Beni Hassan, contained 80,000 cat mummies dating back to 1000 BC. Mummified cats were considered an offering to the cat goddess Bast.
Herodotus also noted that after the death of many cats were taken to Bubastis for mummification. Not all cats were mummified, and Swiss Egyptologist Eduard Navil discovered a burial site near the city with more than 720 cubic feet of cat remains, including bones in burnt grave pits.
There were two species of little cats that settled in Egypt; jungle cat (Felis chaus) and African wild cat (Felis silvestris libyca) and she was the last domesticated since the pre-dynastic period. At first, they caught people’s attention by preying on parasites such as rats that ate in royal seals, as well as the killing of venomous snakes.
Cats were often depicted on bas-reliefs sitting under a woman’s chair because of their connection to fertility.
Lions were also a popular motif in ancient Egypt, with lions found in the south of the country during the pre-dynastic period. Leo personified the royal power because of his powerful and aggressive character.
The cult of cats went out of fashion with the change of religion in Egypt and was officially banned in 390 AD. After that, cats became pets, but they were still appreciated for their ability to catch parasites. They still have a special meaning in modern Egypt, as cats are to some extent revered in Muslim traditions.