It’s no secret cats were held in high regard in ancient Egypt. You might hear in conversations that they were treated as gods, magical entities, spirits to worship, or just simply respected by the population at large.
What is the truth though? What role did cats play in ancient Egypt? Why were they recorded so heavily in hieroglyphics, tablets, and wall paintings? Why were some mummified with their owners? Let’s dive into this subject and take a look.
Humble Beginnings, A Partner to Agriculture
As some of the very first agrarian societies began to pop up around the world, rodents moved from the countryside into the villages. An abundance of food stores made it an attractive place for them to live, bringing lots of difficulties to the farmers. The rodents would not only eat their food, but they brought disease and left droppings.
The humans weren’t the only ones to notice the rodents moving into town – wildcats noticed too. Cats started moving in from the mountains, the jungles, the deserts, and other ecosystems where they naturally thrive. As people noticed the cats keeping the rodents in check, they would leave leftovers, meats, and other food for them to encourage them to stick around.
Ancient Egypt was one of the earliest successful agrarian societies and one of the most well-documented. Farming was an important part of maintaining their strength as a nation. With cats keeping their crops safe and the streets clean of rodents, they certainly had a lot to thank them for. This most certainly was where ancient Egyptians began to spend more time with cats and take note of their personalities.
Of the Gods, Both Fierce and Friendly
There is some evidence that Egyptians admired the common personality traits found in cats; their dual nature. Cats are both loving and nurturing, but also independent and dangerous. These are qualities ancient Egyptians saw in their gods and therefore they felt cats deserved a second look. This duality was one of the central themes of a 2018 Smithsonian exhibit, Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt.
As a result of this belief in their ‘divine’ traits, the ruling class in ancient Egypt would keep large cats as pets, adorning them in jewellery and gold silks, allowing them to eat off their plates, sit under their chairs, and more.
Ancient Egyptians also loved their ability to ward off threats, such as rodents (disease) and snakes (poison), while simultaneously carrying themselves carefully and with grace. It is said in many parts of Egypt, to simply kill a cat (for purposes beyond religious sacrifice) would result in the death penalty. They were truly held in high regard.
People commonly make the mistake of claiming ancient Egyptians used to worship cats. What is more accurate is that cats were often the vessel the gods would choose to adopt. One excellent example is Sekhmet – the warrior goddess adorning the head of a lioness. According to myth, Sekhmet was the daughter of the sun god Amun Ra, who would send her to punish humans for their crimes. While known as a ferocious deity, she also was a staunch defender of the innocent.
The god Batstet also had the head of a lioness but was known as the goddess of fertility. She was also a fierce defender of the king and the sun god Ra. Capturing much of the dual nature mentioned earlier in this piece. Bastet was nurturing, yet still able to command respect through her ferocious acts.
One of ancient Egypt’s most iconic structures is the Great Sphinx of Giza. This sculpture is comprised of layers of limestone representing the head of a man on the body of a lion. It is said it appears as the Pharoah Khafre and was likely created sometime between 2558 to 2532 BC. Another reminder that cats have been a part of popular culture for thousands of years.
So, it appears as if cats and ancient Egypt go together naturally. When their society started to urbanize through agriculture, cats were there to protect the people from rodents and reptiles. As a result of all the good things they did for the people, they were elevated in their position in society. And rightfully so! As an organization that works exclusively with cats, we couldn’t agree more. They are incredible animals.