Divine Felines: The History Of Cats In Egypt

By Irina Yakubin October 22, 2018

Many cats definitely act like they own the world. But to the ancient Egyptians, cats were a representation of the divine and seen as protectors against evil. Despite the popular theory that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate cats, modern research tells us that cats were actually domesticated several centuries earlier in ancient Mesopotamia. There are also theories that cats domesticated themselves, choosing to be around humans because it was beneficial to the cat population. This trait is echoed even today with the popular sentiment that cats choose their owners and not the other way around. In fact, cats have a special meow for communicating with humans that resembles a baby’s cry, which taps into human parental instincts and prompts the human in question to care for the cat. While domesticated cats can be traced back to Mesopotamia, it was ancient Egypt where cats were truly revered. The Egyptian Mau, hailing from Egypt, is still thought to be one of the oldest domesticated cat species. In fact, “mau” or “miu” are the original words for “cat” among Egyptians.

Ancient Egyptian Society

In order to truly understand the importance of cats in ancient Egypt, it is important to understand the world of an ancient Egyptian. Located near the Nile River, the ancient Egyptian civilization depended mostly on farming for their food source. While trade did exist and became more prominent later in Egyptian history, most Egyptians relied on what they could grow or what their animals could produce. A poor harvest or grain spoiled by rodents would lead to starvation while diseases that may be considered curable today would wipe out entire families.

The ancient Egyptians worshiped many gods and goddesses, each with their own set of associations and temples. It is also important to note that the Egyptians placed a lot of importance on the afterlife. They believed that after death, each person must undergo several arduous tests in the Underworld. If the person passed these tests, they would be rewarded with eternal life. Failing, however, meant being devoured by a monster or demon. The ancient Egyptians were so concerned with passing the tests of the hereafter that every Egyptian spent a significant amount of time during his or her life preparing for death. The famous Book of the Dead is actually an instruction manual for navigating the Egyptian Underworld. The mummification process was likewise specific for helping prepare the physical body for death and to provide the souls of the dead help in reaching everlasting life.

Cat Law

The ancient Egyptians had an entire branch within their government dedicated to the protection of their cats. It was forbidden to export cats out of Egypt. A law from 450 BCE states that killing a cat either accidentally or on purpose was punishable by death. This type of punishment is even more noteworthy because few crimes in ancient Egypt resulted in capital punishment.

Feline Mummies

Anyone who’s had a beloved cat cross the rainbow bridge knows the pain of losing a beloved feline. When a cat died in ancient Egypt, they were mummified, much like the humans who were prepared to enter the afterlife. It isn’t clear whether a cat would simply enter the afterlife or if there were any cat-specific trials in the Underworld. However, the fact that the cats were mummified proves just how important they were to ancient Egyptians.

It was also customary to grieve a cat’s death by shaving one’s eyebrows as part of the mourning process. The customs of mourning a feline were similar to mourning the death of a human.

Divine Felines

While cats were not the only animals to be worshiped by ancient Egyptians, felines definitely had a special place in the Egyptian pantheon.

  • Mafdet
Traced all the way back to the First Dynasty, Mafdet is among the oldest feline deities of Ancient Egypt. Mafdet was thought to be the guardian of the Sun God, Ra, and the defender against evil. She was also thought to punish evildoers in the underworld and protect humans from snakes and scorpions. While Mafdet is also depicted as a mongoose or cheetah, she is most often depicted as a cat. There were several ancient spells and prayers dedicated to Mafdet, including a spell that was meant to aid ancient Egyptians during their journey through the Underworld.
  • Sekhmet

Besides Mafdet, the Egyptians also worshiped another feline deity called Sekhmet. Sekhmet is depicted with the body of a woman and the head of a lion. Sekhmet is associated with destiny and fate. According to some legends, Sekhmet was sent by the Egyptian sun god, Ra to punish humanity for displeasing the gods. Sekhmet was so fierce, however, that Ra and the other gods took pity on humans. They gave Sekhmet red beer instead of human blood, and once Sekhmet was sated, she fell into a deep sleep. Some versions of the legend say that Sekhmet actually woke up after her satisfied slumber as a kinder, more amiable goddess known as Bastet. Still, any cat owner who has seen their cat race around the house in the middle of the night has to wonder whether modern cats have a little bit of Sekhmet’s volatile nature.

  • Mau

The Mau, or the divine cat, was an aspect of the Sun God, Ra. The Mau was thought to defend the innocent and punish evildoers. It was said that Ra took the form of the Mau to defeat Apep, a serpent god associated with evil.

  • Bastet

Perhaps the most well-known today is the Egyptian goddess Bastet, or Bast. Also known as Pasch or Ubasti, Bastet is depicted as a cat or a woman with a cat’s head. Bastet is associated with the home, fertility, and the moon. She is also known as the protector of cats, women, and children. She was often called upon to protect the home and for help in childbirth.

Bastet was so popular that she had centers of worship both in Bubastis and Leontopolis. Bastet’s popularity can be traced throughout ancient Egyptian history to the Second Dynasty. She is associated with Mau, Mafdet, and Sekhmet and is thought to have been both venerated and feared. As with Ra, who took the form of Mau, Bast could have been considered a more docile version of Sekhmet. If angering Bast meant disturbing her more volatile other half, it was no wonder that the ancient Egyptians were so devoted to their household kitties.

  • Mihos

The lion-headed god was thought to be a protector deity. The son of Bastet and Ra, Mihos was worshiped in Leontopolis like his mother and was thought to be a defender of truth and justice.

  • Pakhet

At first a local deity, Pakhet gained popularity throughout Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. Pakhet was depicted with the body of a woman and the head of a lion. Pakhet was the defender of Egypt and associated with hunting, desert storms, and fishing. She was also considered a protector against evil. Egyptians would wear amulets and say prayers to Pakhet if they were faced with a sandstorm. Some Egyptians would also inscribe prayers to Pakhet into their coffins to protect themselves during their journey through the Underworld.

Cat Superstitions

While modern superstition tells us that cats (especially black cats) can be a sign of bad luck, ancient Egyptians always considered cats to be bringers of good fortune. It was considered lucky to have a house cat because a cat would attract luck and provide protection from evil. Dreaming of a feline was also considered a good omen.

Cats: The Great Protectors

While there is a large variety of cat deities, almost all of them are somehow associated with protection. This is because cats were valued for their ability to hunt rodents and even catch fish. While some of us may not love rats today, rodents were a serious problem for the ancient Egyptians. A rat infestation could ruin harvest, and though the ancient Egyptians may not have been aware of it at the time, rats could also spread disease. Given that Egyptian cats hunted rodents and were formidable opponents to snakes, scorpions, and other pests, it is no wonder that felines were venerated.

A Lasting Impression

It’s been centuries since cats have been worshiped in Egypt, but cats have not forgotten this. Some can argue that modern cats have the same expectations as their ancient counterparts. Many cats want attention on their own terms, and some pet cats seem to expect godlike treatment from their humans. If you’ve ever owned a cat, you have probably woken up at odd hours because your feline was hungry, dissatisfied with the amount of food on their plate, or simply bored.

Modern cats are still great hunters, and some will occasionally grace their human with the gift of a dead bird, rodent, or insect.  And while most of us don’t directly equate cats to an ancient god or goddess, we do still give them plenty of attention both at home and online. In fact, cats have become so popular on the internet that some people claim that they’ve simply taken over.

Whether or not your cat thinks that they are an ancient deity, they are still part of the family.

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