Cats in ancient Egypt
Cats in ancient Egypt were mummified and buried in large quantities, hence held a special place in the culture of Ancient Egypt. Several deities were depicted and sculptured with cat-like heads such as Mafdet, Bastet and Sekhmet, representing justice, fertility and power. The deity Mut has also been depicted as a cat and in the company of a cat.
Cats were praised for killing poisonous snakes and protecting the Pharaoh since at least the First Dynasty of Egypt. Skeletal remains of cats were found among funerary goods dating to the 12th Dynasty. The protective function of cats is indicated in the Book of the Dead, where a cat represents Ra and the benefits of the sun for life on Earth. Cat-shaped decorations used during the New Kingdom of Egypt indicate that the cat cult became more popular in daily life. Cats were depicted in association with the name of Bastet.
In the late 1880s, more than 200,000 mummified animals, most of them cats, were found in the cemetery of Beni Hasan in central Egypt. Among the mummified animals excavated in Gizeh, the African wildcat (Felis lybica) is the most common cat followed by the jungle cat (Felis chaus). In view of the huge number of cat mummies found in Egypt, the cat cult was certainly important for the country's economy, as it required breeding of cats and a trading network for the supply of food, oils and resins for embalming them.
Mafdet was the first known cat-headed deity in ancient Egypt. During the First Dynasty 2920–2770 BC, she was regarded as protector of the Pharaoh's chambers against snakes, scorpions and evil. She was often also depicted with a head of a leopard (Panthera pardus). She was in particular prominent during the reign of Den.
The deity Bastet is known from at least the Second Dynasty 2890 BC onwards. At the time, she was depicted with a lion (Panthera leo) head. Seals and stone vessels with her name were found in the tombs of the pharaohs Khafra and Nyuserre Ini, indicating that she was regarded as protector since the mid 30th century BC during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. A wall painting in the Fifth Dynasty’s burial ground at Saqqara shows a small cat with a collar, suggesting that tamed African wildcats were kept in the pharaonic quarters by the 26th century BC.
Flinders Petrie excavated 17 cat skeletons in a tomb at the necropolis Umm El Qa'ab dating to the 12th Dynasty 1991–1783 BC. Next to the skeletons stood small pots that are thought to have contained milk for the cats.
From the 22nd Dynasty at around the mid 950s BC onwards, the deity Bastet and her temple in the city of Bubastis became popular. She is now shown only with a small cat head. During the reign of Pharaoh Osorkon II in the 9th century BC, the temple of Bastet was enlarged by a festival hall. Cat statues and statuettes from this period exist in diverse sizes and materials, including solid and hollow cast bronze, alabaster and faïence.
By the end of the 10th century BC, domestic cats became popular. When they died, they were embalmed, coffined and buried in cat cemeteries. The domestic cat (Felis catus) was regarded as living incarnation of Bastet who protects the household against granivores, and the lion-headed deity Sekhmet was worshipped as protector of Egypt. Mummifying animals grew in popularity during the Late Period of ancient Egypt from 664 BC onwards. Mummies were used for votive offerings to the associated deity, mostly during festivals or by pilgrims. Catacombs from the New Kingdom period in the Bubastis, Saqqara and Beni Hasan necropoli were reused as cemeteries for mummies offered to Bastet.
As described by Diodorus Siculus, killing a cat was regarded a serious crime. In the years between 60 and 56 BC, outraged people lynched a Roman for killing a cat, although pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes tried to intervene.
Cats and religion began to be disassociated from 30 AD onwards, when Egypt became a Roman province. A series of decrees and edicts issued by Roman Emperors in the 4th and 5th centuries AD gradually curtailed the practise of paganism and pagan rituals in Egypt. Pagan temples were impounded and sacrifices prohibited by 380 AD. Three edicts issued between 391 and 392 prohibited pagan rituals and burial ceremonies at all cult sites. Death penalty for offenders was introduced in 395, and destruction of pagan temples decreed in 399. By 415, the Christian church received all property that was formerly dedicated to paganism. Pagans were exiled by 423, and crosses replaced pagan symbols following a decree from 435. Egypt has since experienced a decline in the respect once held for cats; they are still kept as pets and tolerated outside the home because they catch pests. However, the cat has not lost all religious significance among modern Egypt's largely Islamic population, since cats are also revered to some extent in Muslim tradition.
In 1890, William Martin Conway wrote about excavations in Speos Artemidos near Beni Hasan: "The plundering of the cemetery was a sight to see, but one had to stand well windward. The village children came from day to day and provided themselves with the most attractive mummies they could find. These they took down the river bank to sell for the smallest coin to passing travelers. The path became strewn with mummy cloth and bits of cats' skulls and bones and fur in horrid positions, and the wind blew the fragments about and carried the stink afar." In 1890, a shipment of thousands of animal mummies reached Liverpool. Most of them were cat mummies. A large part was sold as fertiliser, a small part was purchased by the zoological museum of the city's university college.
In 1907, the British Museum received a collection of 192 mummified cats and 11 small carnivores excavated at Gizeh. The mummies probably date to between 600 and 200 BC. Two of these cat mummies were radiographed in 1980. The analysis revealed that they were deliberately strangulated before they reached the age of two years. They were probably used to supply the demand for mummified cats as votive offerings.
Excavations in the Bubasteum area at Saqqara during the 1990s yielded 184 cat mummies, 11 packets with a few cat bones and 84 packets containing mud, clay and pebbles. Radiographic examination showed that mostly young cats were mummified; most cats died of skull fractures and had dislocated spinal bones, indicating that they were beaten to death. In this site, the tomb of Tutankhamun's wet nurse Maia was discovered in 1996, which contained cat mummies next to human mummies. In 2001, the skeleton of a male lion was found in this tomb that also showed signs of mummification. It was about nine years old, probably lived in captivity for many years and showed signs of malnutrition. It had probably lived and died in the Ptolemaic period. Mummified remains of 335 domestic and 29 jungle cats were excavated in the catacombs of Anubis at Saqqara during works started in 2009.
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- "Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt". Museum Exhibition. Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 15 April 2014.