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Egyptian Cats

The ancient Egyptians held cats in the highest esteem – Cats have not forgotten this!

The ancient Egyptians were respectful towards the animals that shared their world and associated many of them with deities or positive human characteristics. However, no animal was held in such esteem as the cat. Cats were closely connected to a number of gods and goddesses, and there is evidence that they were considered to be demi-gods in their own right.

They worshipped a Cat Goddess, often represented as half feline, half woman, whom they called Bastet. The main centre for the worship of Bastet was in northern Egypt at the city of Bubastis.

Perhaps the earliest feline Egyptian goddess recorded was called Mafdet. and is described in the Pyramid Texts as killing a serpent with her claws. A representation of Mafdet (possibly translated as "runner") found on a stone vase in a tomb at Abydos (approx. 2800 BC) shows a large cat probably a cheetah or leopard. While the Egyptians had several other feline Goddesses, such as the lioness headed Sekhmet, only Bastet was represented by the domesticated cat.

Nearly all homes had a cat. Cats caught rats and snakes and mice. But that was just a bonus. The ancient Egyptians did not worship cats, but they did believe that cats had magical powers. They believed cats guarded their children and their homes. It was against the law in ancient Egypt to harm a cat. If you killed a cat, the punishment could be death.

The ancient Egyptians were respectful towards the animals that shared their world and associated many of them with deities or positive human characteristics. However, no animal was held in such esteem as the cat.

It seems that the cat is in fact indigenous to Egypt. There is evidence that the majority of the world's cats can trace their ancestry to an Egyptian cat. It is sometimes suggested that cats were introduced into Egypt from Persia around 2000 B.C.E or from Nubia during the New Kingdom but this is unlikely due to significant evidence that cats lived in Egypt before these dates. In fact, archaeologists found a man interred with his cat in a burial mound in Mostagedda near Asyut dated to around 6,000 years ago. The cat may not have been domesticated, but was clearly important to the deceased. It is generally suggested that cats were domesticated in Egypt around 2000 B.C.E. Dogs had already been domesticated for over a thousand years by this time. 

Cat’s diets changed somewhat as they were provided with food by grateful humans, and breeding programs heightened certain characteristics in the formerly wild animals. The ancient Egyptians even hunted with their cats, a seemingly amazing feat of co-operation with an animal renowned for its stubborn individualism. Most importantly, they loved and respected their cats for being playful and affectionate companions but also highly intelligent skilful predators.

Cats were also important in the interpretation of dreams. Apparently seeing a cat in your dream confirmed that you would have a good harvest.

The Egyptians did not distinguish between a wild cat and a domesticated cat; all cats were known as "miu" (or "miut") often translated as "he or she who mews". The origin of this name is not clear but it seems likely that it is an onomatopoetic reference to the sound a cat makes (mew). Little girls were often named "Miut" (literally meaning "female cat") displaying the Egyptians fondness for both cats and children.

When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows. The cat would then be mummified and buried along with provisions such as milk, mice and rats. Cats were often taken to Bubastis to be buried, but tombs have also been discovered in Giza, Abydos, Denderah and Beni Hasan. For example, a tomb in Beni Hassan was discovered in 1888 which contained an estimated 80,000 feline burials.

The deceased cat was wrapped in fine linen and taken to be embalmed. Diodorus recorded that the deceased cat was "treated with cedar oil and such spices as have the quality of imparting a pleasant odour and of preserving the body for a long time."

Often, throughout our many incarnations, we have a preference for certain animals. If you have a love of cats – maybe you were an Egyptian in a previous life!!

Christine Chambers




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