Cats in Ancient Egypt: Guardians, Companions, and Rat-Catchers
Cats hold a special place in the hearts of people around the world, but their unique bond with humans can be traced back to ancient times. Among the ancient civilizations, none revered and cherished cats quite like the ancient Egyptians. They not only domesticated cats but also esteemed them for their exceptional ability as rat-catchers.
The Origins of Cat Domestication
The domestic cat (Felis catus) is believed to have descended from the African wildcat (Felis lybica), which inhabited the Nile Valley and surrounding regions. The close proximity of humans and wildcats led to an intriguing relationship, where humans began to appreciate the cats’ hunting skills and their ability to keep vermin at bay.
Domestication and Coexistence
Over time, cats became more integrated into Egyptian households. Egyptians started taming and selectively breeding cats, which led to the development of specific breeds with distinct physical characteristics. This domestication process not only solidified their roles as companions and protectors but also cemented their status as revered creatures within society.
Contrary to the commonly romanticized view, extensive research suggests that the ancient Egyptians’ fascination with cats had a darker side. It is believed that there were entire industries dedicated to breeding millions of kittens, destined to be sacrificed and mummified alongside their human counterparts in burial rituals. This practice primarily took place between approximately 700 B.C. and A.D. 300.
The kittens served as votive offerings to the gods of ancient Egypt, representing a way to appease or seek assistance from the deities in conjunction with verbal prayers. Unfortunately, the exact reasons behind the desire to acquire cats for burial purposes remain unclear.
However, it is apparent that a fine line existed between the reverence shown towards cats and an infatuation that led to their sacrificial use. The complex nature of this relationship highlights the intricate interplay between veneration and darker practices within ancient Egyptian culture.
Cats were regarded as guardians of households and were particularly valued for their exceptional hunting abilities. Egyptian homes, especially in rural areas, often faced infestations of rats, mice, and snakes that threatened the well-being of the inhabitants. By keeping these pests in check, cats provided a valuable service and were highly regarded for their prowess as rat-catchers.
The Ancient Egyptians had such a profound adoration for cats that they often name or nicknamed their children after them. For instance, girls were given the name “Miut” or “Mitt,” which signifies “cat.”
Protecting Granaries and Food Stores
One of the critical roles cats played in ancient Egypt was protecting granaries and food stores. Egypt was an agricultural society heavily reliant on grain, which was vulnerable to rodent infestations. Cats were assigned the duty of safeguarding these precious food sources, ensuring the sustenance and prosperity of the community. Their mere presence acted as a deterrent to rodents, as the scent and sight of a cat would discourage these pests from infiltrating the stores.
Felines were seen by Ancient Egyptians as mutually beneficial companions. Much of what is known about the function of cats in Egyptian society comes from everyday life scene depictions in tomb paintings. Cats would come inside on hot days, and in turn would chase away dangerous animals such as rats, snakes or scorpions.
Additionally, in certain mortuary texts, cats are depicted wielding a dagger and courageously confronting Apopis, the snake deity that posed a threat to Ra, the sun god, during nocturnal journeys in the Underworld. These depictions highlight the significant roles cats played in both practical and symbolic contexts in ancient Egyptian culture.
Veneration of Cats in Ancient Egypt
Cats played a prominent role in ancient Egyptian society, both in the secular and religious spheres. Egyptians believed cats were magical creatures, capable of bringing good luck to the people who housed them.
Killing a cat was punishable by death, even if it was an accident. When a family cat died it was common for its owners to shave their eyebrows as part of the mourning process.
The Ancient Egyptians also believed that their gods could assume different forms, including that of animals. Not only the gods could appear with the head of a lion or a cat, but it was believed that they could also inhabit the body of animals. Cats were not worshipped as gods themselves, but as vessels that the gods chose to inhabit, and whose likeness gods chose to adopt.
Cats were considered sacred animals and revered for their connection to the goddess Sakhmet (also spelt Sekhmet) and Bastet (also known as Bast). Sakhmet was a protective deity, particularly during transition periods between dawn and dusk. She was depicted as having the head of a lion and the body of a woman.
Bastet (also known as Bast), was the goddess of home, fertility, protection and bringer of good health. Bastet was often depicted with the head of a lioness or as a lioness herself, and later she became the cat goddess that is if most familiar to us today.
The ancient Egyptians held cats in great reverence because they thought their gods and rules had cat-like qualities. Specifically, cats were believed to possess a fascinating duality of temperament. On one hand, they were regarded as protective, loyal, and nurturing beings. On the other hand, they exhibited qualities of being pugnacious, independent, and fierce. This intriguing combination of characteristics further elevated the status of cats in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians.
Burial Customs and Rituals
The high regard for cats in ancient Egypt is evident in the burial customs and rituals associated with them. Cats were often mummified and buried alongside their human counterparts, highlighting their elevated status and their belief in their role as protectors in the afterlife.
The Ancient Egyptians even created the world’s first known pet cemetery. A nearly 2,000-year-old burial ground filled largely with cats, but also other well-loved animals such as dogs, monkeys, and even a fox and a falcon.
However, new evidence suggests that cat taming in Ancient Egypt might have occurred 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to unearthed bones dating back between 3600 B.C. and 3800 B.C
These mummified cats were frequently adorned with iron collars, and other types of remarkable jewellery such as beaded glass or stone necklaces, attesting to the deep emotional connection and veneration the Egyptians had for these remarkable creatures.
The domestication of cats in ancient Egypt played a significant role in the society’s development and cultural fabric. From their humble beginnings as skilled hunters, cats ascended to become cherished companions, protectors of homes and food stores, and sacred animals venerated for their connection to the goddess Bastet. The ancient Egyptians’ appreciation for cats as rat-catchers showcases the unique bond formed between humans and these enigmatic creatures, which has persisted throughout history and into the modern era.
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