Ancient Egyptians Shaved Off Their Eyebrows When Their Cats Died
While perusing Herodotus’s captivating Histories, which explore the cultures of the ancient world, you may come across a curious mourning ritual. While discussing the veneration of animals by the ancient Egyptians, the Greek historian Herodotus claimed that when a cat died, all members of that household would shave off their eyebrows as a visible sign of respect and grief.
But this wasn’t just a sign that Egyptians really liked their pets. Within their worldview, animals were seen as sacred, playing an important role in day-to-day life and religious worship. Many were associated with particular gods with whom they shared characteristics.
Cats were particularly popular. Even the English word “cat” is derived from the North African term quattah. From statues to tomb paintings, cats were depicted in a plethora of objects which bear witness to their perceived protective and sacred qualities. There are even accounts that cats owned by royalty were adorned with luxurious gold jewelry.
But ancient Egyptians didn’t worship cats, per se. “What they did is to observe their behavior,” explained Antonietta Catanzariti, curator of Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt, in NPR. By observing their characteristics, such as their precision, aggression, or nurturing nature, the ancient Egyptians created gods in their image. This relationship has been described as similar to that of the cow within modern-day India.
A priestess offers gifts of food and milk to the spirit of a cat. “The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat” by John Reinhard Weguelin. (Public domain)
Archaeologists believe that cats were first domesticated as efficient pest control against vermin and poisonous snakes. As cats became more domestic, the popularity of Bastet—the ancient Egyptian cat-headed goddess of home, fertility and protection used to attract good luck and ward off evil spirits —increased exponentially. Keeping cats as pets was imbued with the same qualities. Bastet soon inspired the so-called Cult of the Cat centered around Bubastis.
Ancient Egyptians loved cats so much that they would mummify and bury them in elaborate rituals. They were often interred with their humans, so as to join them in the afterlife. Paradoxically, cats were also considered suitable sacrifices for the gods.
These customs spurred a thriving economy, whereby millions of cat mummies were created by breeding and embalming cats to create votive offerings. National Museums Liverpool reported that in 1890 over 180,000 mummified cats were shipped over to Liverpool. In an act of cultural genocide, they were then sold to be used as fertilizer.
In this cultural context, ensuring the welfare of cats was crucial to incur the god’s favor. “If a house catches fire, what happens to the cats is quite extraordinary,” wrote Herodotus. “The Egyptians do not bother to try to put the fire out, but position themselves at intervals around the house and look out for the cats.” Considering the prevailing cultural norms, shaving off eyebrows after the death of a revered household cat was an appropriate expression of respect necessary to ensure Bastet’s continued protection.
Top image: Representational image of a cat in front of the Egyptian pyramids. Source: Matheus / Adobe Stock