ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Cats
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Source: 'Les Merveilles du Louvre', Hachette 1958-Bastet
Source: 'Les Merveilles du Louvre', Hachette 1958
    A number of cat species were endemic to Egypt. It appears that the house cat, Felis catus, Egyptian mjw,[7] arose from African Wildcats, Felis silvestris libyca, which underwent domestication, possibly self-domestication, in the Levant before the sixth millennium BCE.[3] Cat remains dating to the pre-dynastic were found in a tomb near Asyut,[2] but it is uncertain whether one can speak of truly domesticated cats before the second millennium BCE.[4]
    After their domestication house cats became pets, but continued to play an important part in keeping the rodents at bay which destroyed sizable portions of the vital grain stores. From the Middle Kingdom onwards cats were quite often depicted in tombs, both in domestic and hunting scenes.[2]
    Herodotus seems to have heard stories about how male lions kill cubs after taking over a pride and misapplied it to house cats.
    Of the animals that live with men there are great numbers, and would be many more but for the accidents which befall the cats. For when the females have produced young they are no longer in the habit of going to the males, and these seeking to be united with them are not able. To this end then they contrive as follows,--they either take away by force or remove secretly the young from the females and kill them (but after killing they do not eat them), and the females being deprived of their young and desiring more, therefore come to the males, for it is a creature that is fond of its young.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
This misunderstanding may have come about because the Egyptians never distinguished sharply between the various animal species. When during the Saite period a man erected a stela giving expression to the notion of sacredness of whole species of animals, the cats he referred to were probably rather the wild species Felis silvestris libyca and Felis chaus, the jungle cat:
I gave bread to the hungry, water [to] the thirsty, clothing to the naked; I gave food to the ibis, the hawk, the cat and the jackal.
Miramar, 664-525 BCE.[5]
Fifteen hundred years earlier the nomarch Henku had expressed similar sentiments when he satisfied the wolves of the mountains and the fowl of heaven with the [flesh] of small cattle; the wolves in this styatement seem to have included all canine predators.[5]
    Domesticated cats were carried to all corners of the Mediterranean, and new breeds began to appear, often strikingly different from their ancestors, e.g. Egyptian cats had significantly longer legs than their European descendants.

Cats and the divine

    The divinity of the cats was firmly entrenched in the Egyptian mind. Herodotus who visited Egypt during the Late Period reported:
    Moreover when a fire occurs, the cats seem to be divinely possessed; for while the Egyptians stand at intervals and look after the cats, not taking any care to extinguish the fire, the cats slipping through or leaping over the men, jump into the fire; and when this happens, great mourning comes upon the Egyptians.
    And in whatever houses a cat has died by a natural death, all those who dwell in this house shave their eyebrows only, but those in which a dog has died shave their whole body and also their head. The cats when they are dead are carried away to sacred buildings in the city of Bubastis, where after being embalmed they are buried.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
Cat mummy, Source: 'Ancient Egypt', Time-Life books

Cat mummy
Source: 'Ancient Egypt' by Lionel Casson, Time-Life books

    The cat as the Great-tom-cat was connected with the solar aspects of the gods, especially Re. He is shown fighting Re's ennemies, and a passage in the Book of the Dead reads:
I am that Great-tom-cat who has split the persea tree beside him, in that night of the struggle, when the rebels were being kept watch over, on the day when his enemies were destroyed.
pKairo CG 51189 [6]
Cats are occasionally depicted cutting off the heads of snakes with a knife. Mafdet, at times depicted as a cat but also as a mongoose, will use a knife or dispatch the snake with a bite to its neck.
    The goddess Bastet was represented as a cat, not a lazy, cuddly pet but a wild hunter. Because of this divine connection cats were often mummified. Large numbers of cats were killed at Saqqara and used as votive offerings to Bastet. Archaeologist have found that a large percentage of these mummies (about four out of ten) were fakes, containing little or no cat remains [1]. Similar practices in the falcon mummy trade were uncovered in antiquity.
    In the Myth of the Eye of Re Tefnut as the daughter of the sun god quarrels with her father, and goes to live in the Nubian exile in the form of a cat. It is the son of the god of wisdom Thoth who is sent to reconcile father and daughter.[8]
[1] C. Callou, R. Lichtenberg and A. Zivie, "The cat mummies discovered in the Bubasteion of Saqqarah, Egypt", Poznan Symposium, 2003
[2] Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 1995, p.62
[3] Simon J. M. Davis, The Archaeology of Animals,Routledge, 1987, p.127
[4] David Anthony, Man and animals: living, working, and changing together, UPenn Museum of Archaeology, 1984, p.58
[5] James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 281, footnote
[6] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften -> pKairo CG 51189 (pJuja) -> Tb 017
[7] MdC transliteration mjw, apparently of onomatopoeic origin, Wb 2, 42.1-3
[8] Joachim Friedrich Quack, "Tier des Sonnengottes und Schlangenbek?mpfer Zur Theologie der Katze im Alten ?gypten" in R. Kampling (Hrsg.), Eine seltsame Gef?hrtin. Katzen, Religion, Theologie und Theologen, Apeliotes 1, Frankfurt 2007, p.27

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June 2012
August 2009