Along with hieroglyphics, obelisks, and geometric patterns, cats feature prominently in ancient Egyptian art, reflecting the animal’s unique status among the inhabitants of the Nile. Animals were first adopted as useful predators in ancient Egypt and gradually became symbols of divinity and protection.
“Although it is difficult to say that the Egyptians meant one thing or another, given that so many changes have occurred in their more than 3,000 year history, the ancient Egyptians in general did not did not adore animals “, explains Julia Troche, Egyptologist, assistant professor. of History at Missouri State University and author of Death, power and apotheosis in ancient Egypt: the Old and the Middle Kingdom. “Rather, [they] viewed animals as representations of the divine aspects of their gods.
Whether or not worshiped as deities, cats were an integral part of ancient Egyptian life. And, based on the mummified cats discovered in graves alongside humans, they also played an important role in the afterlife.
Cats provided with companion and pest control
For most of the history of civilization, the ancient Egyptians viewed cats as mutually beneficial companions, according to Troche. “Cats could get inside when it was hot, and they in turn hunted dangerous animals, such as snakes, many of which were poisonous, and scorpions,” she explains.
Some of what we know about the function of cats in ancient Egyptian society comes from scenes from everyday life depicted in paintings on the walls of tombs. “In tomb scenes, cats are depicted lying down or sitting under chairs, chasing birds and playing,” explains Troche. “In some funeral texts, they are shown with a dagger, cutting Apopis: the serpent deity who threatens Ra (the sun) at night in the underworld. “
The company in the afterlife
After keeping a cat as a pet during their lifetime, the ancient Egyptians continued this relationship into the afterlife. “The tomb was his posthumous home for all eternity,” explains Troche. “In your graves you would describe your family, your greatest titles and awards, and the things you loved to do. Thus, seeing cats included in these paintings testifies to their importance both in the daily life of the ancient Egyptians and in their hope that they will continue with them in the afterlife.
In Nebamon’s tomb, now in the British Museum, a painting shows a cat accompanying Nebamon while he is fishing and hunting. The cat grabbed a bird in its mouth and grabbed two more birds in its claws. One of the cat’s eyes is adorned with gold leaf gilding, which, according to the British Museum, is “the only known example of gilding on wall paintings in Theban burial chapels.”
According to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the presence of cats in graves was not limited to paintings – sometimes cats were mummified and placed inside the grave of their human companion. One of the reasons this was done, Skidmore says, is that when cats were mummified, they could then be used as burial items. “This meant that the deceased could inhabit the body of the mummified cat in the afterlife,” she explains.
Ancient royals made cats in fashion
As is the case in various civilizations and cultures, the ancient Egyptians viewed members of the royal family as pioneers, drawing inspiration from the creators of taste with power over everything from food to fashions to felines.
“The ancient Egyptians held cats in such high esteem because of the practices and preferences of their gods, but also because their kings, the pharaohs, kept giant cats,” explains Monique Skidmore, professor of anthropology at the University. Deakin and editor of Trip Anthropologist. “Members of the Egyptian royal class dressed their cats in gold and let them eat on their plates.” Although members of the lower classes weren’t able to dress their cats in precious metals, she notes that they made and wore their own jewelry with feline designs.
And while cats were a favorite of the Pharaohs, some of their characteristics were more important in certain dynastic eras than others, Skidmore explains. “Bastet, for example, the daughter of the gods Ra and Isis, was first depicted as a fierce lioness, but later as a domestic cat: a devoted mother with several kittens and a protector of the family,” he adds. -she.
Cats had coveted characteristics
In addition to appreciating their ability to ward off rodents, snakes, and other pests from their homes, the ancient Egyptians understood that cats of all sizes are smart, fast, and powerful.
“Sekhmet was a lioness goddess who was a warrior and protective deity who kept enemies of the solar god Ra (also spelled ‘Ra’) at bay and who also warded off sickness and disease,” notes Troche. “In this way, we can see that the ancient Egyptians viewed cats, more generally, as protectors, while respecting their ferocity. “
Cats in ancient Egypt were also considered to possess another type of power: fertility. “They are often depicted sitting under women’s chairs, which implies a connection with women, and perhaps fertility more broadly,” explains Troche, noting that the association may come from the fact that cats have multiple kittens in the a scope.
The ancient Egyptians believed that their gods could take different forms, and over the centuries it became more and more common for gods to take the form of animals, including cats.
“These gods could not only appear with the head of a cat, for example, but could also inhabit the bodies of cats,” Skidmore explains. “This is why cats were mummified, and a whole economy around the breeding and mummification of cats was created in ancient Egypt.” In fact, the slaughter of cats was prohibited in ancient Egypt with one exception: mummification.
“Cats were not worshiped as gods themselves, but as vessels which the gods chose to inhabit and which the gods chose to adopt the likeness of,” Skidmore explains. Through their ubiquitous presence in ancient Egyptian art, fashion, and home ornamentation, cats served as a daily reminder of the power of the gods.