The Veneration and Worship of Felines in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians revered and worshipped many animals, just as the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse did, but none were worshipped as reverently as the cat. It was not until the Pre-dynastic Period that they were domesticated—interestingly, much later than dogs—yet their prominence in Egyptian culture remains highly identifiable even today.
The first primary feline god was Mafdet, a female deity who traces back as far as the First Dynasty of Egypt between 3,400BC and 3000BC. As a feline goddess, she was associated with protecting against venomous bites especially those of snakes and scorpions (probably due to the fact that cats are killers of snakes and scorpions). The more well-known goddess Bastet took Mafdet’s place as a guardian of Lower Egypt, the pharaoh, and the sun god Ra. A similar female deity with the body of a woman and the head of a cat, Bastet was considered a personification of the sun herself, with her chief shrine at the site of Bubastis in Egypt.
The so called 'Gayer Anderson' cat. A late period bronze cat in the form of the goddess Bastet. Jewelry is ancient but not necessarily original to this piece. British Museum (Wikimedia Commons)
Bastet and Mafdet both possibly originate from the legend of a divine jungle cat named Mau/Muit who defended one of the sacred Persea trees in Annu from the serpent Apophis. The cat caught the snake in the act of attempting to strangle the tree, and cut off its head for its crimes. Bastet and Mafdet are often interchanged as the jungle cat heroine. Bastet, however, was eventually similarly displaced.
Ra in the form of a feline slaying the snake Apophis, Tomb of Inherkha, 1160 BC, Thebes.
Toward the beginning of the 3 rd millennium, Bastet was associated with all cats and each feline was considered a physical representation of her spirit. Over time, however, the gods once again shifted and altered, often a result royal personal preference. By the time Lower and Upper Egypt unified around 3000 BC, Bastet was replaced by another goddess called Sekhmet. Sekhmet's form was much fiercer than Bastet's; though similar, the former had the head of a lioness, not a mere cat. With this change in the Egyptian's mythos, Bastet was regulated as the guardian of domesticated cats while Sekhmet became the goddess of the lionesses.
It should be noted that there were other gods associated with cats, such as Neith and Mut, but Bastet and Sekhmet were the two foremost deities.
Bas-relief representing the goddess Sekhmet on a column of the Temple of Kom Ombo in Kom Ombo - Egypt . (Wikimedia Commons)
In the mortal realm, humans and cats lived and worked in harmony. Cats were a perfect solution to the overwhelming rat and snake problems of ancient Egypt, and in exchange, humans would protect those same cats from other predators who might deign to feast on a feline for dinner (especially now that rats were no longer an option). It was in this way that cats began to become domesticated—the humans would coax them to their homes to fetter out the vermin by offering the cats food. From there, it was a short step to invite the creatures to move in for safe keeping and constant pest purging.
Ancient Egyptian relief in Edfu Temple (Wikimedia Commons)
These cats, however, were not as cats appear today—at least not at first. In ancient Egypt, there were two different primary breeds: one the fierce jungle cats, the other the more peaceful African wildcats. As time went on and the two species merged, as well as both cats became accustomed to softer, human food, the species grew to become sleeker, less muscled, and much more tolerant. In a way, the Egyptians' attempts to gain protection of their foods and resources resulted in the taming of their protectors.
The sarcophagus of the cat of the Crown Prince Thutmose, the eldest son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. (Wikimedia Commons)
What must be understood in light of the humans' intense affection for cats is that the animals were not considered divine themselves. There are records that they might have been akin to demi-gods, but they were primarily thought of as bodily representations of the feline gods. Because of this, cats were protected for reasons beyond just their vermin-killing capabilities. To harm a cat was to attempt harm to a god, and that was entirely out of the question in ancient Egypt. Killing a cat was punishable by death a certain period of Egyptian history, whether intentional or not. Diodorus, one of the most well-read historians from the ancient world, records an incident in which a Roman accidentally slaughtered a cat, and he suffered the same punishment as the people of Egypt would.
As a revered animal, some cats also received the same mummification after death as humans. Cats were sometimes mummified as beloved pets, perhaps in the hope that they could join their owners in the next life. However, the majority were mummified for religious reasons unconnected with human burial, and were made as offerings in the hope of receiving the favor of the god or goddess they represented. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer uncovered a large tomb containing more than eighty thousand mummified cats and kittens outside the town of Beni Hasan. Since then, many more cat cemeteries have been found. However, the majority of them were plundered before archaeologists could work on them: in the 19 th century, a shipment of as many as 180,000 mummified cats was taken to Britain to be processed into fertilizer.
A mummified cat (Wikimedia Commons)
Cats remain one of the most prominent symbols of ancient Egyptian culture. They are recognized as emblems of Egyptian society and the face of their ancient world, even if nothing else of their cult is remembered today. The Sphinx is an overwhelming example of this. Just as the ancient cats themselves were mummified to maintain their status and integrity after death, their worship was equally well preserved.
Featured image: ‘The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat’ by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886. A priestess offers gifts of food and milk to the spirit of a cat. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Spence, Lewis. Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends (Barnes and Noble Books: New York, 2005.)
By Ryan Stone