Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Cat in Ancient Egypt

Table of Contents

The modern-day domestic cat, or Felis catus, has a long history of being associated with man.  Its origins can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians who are believed to have first domesticated the cat.  Through archaeological research, it has been discovered that there were two cat species that flourished in the areas of ancient Egypt; according to Salima Ikram they were wild cats known as Felis chaus and domestic cats known as Felis silvestris libyca.[1]  This classification of Felis silvestris libyca as a domestic cat is contradicted by Linda Case in The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition, & Health, where she states that Felis silvestris lybica[2] is the African wildcat, and therefore indicates that it is not domesticated.[3]  This discrepancy could be attributed to the difference in time-line terminology, as the Felis silvestris lybica and the Felis chaus are members of the same family, and have a common ancestor.  For the purposes of this essay, the Felis silvestris lybica will be recognised as the common cat found in ancient Egypt and as the common progenitor of the domestic cat, which is in keeping with the currently held academic viewpoint.[4]  Geographic distribution and behaviour coupled with the historical and archaeological evidence suggests that Felis silvestris lybica was first tamed and then domesticated, eventually becoming the species called Felis catus, or today’s domestic cat.[5]

The closest example of this tamed and domesticated cat that the ancient Egyptians enjoyed and eventually even regarded as sacred would be the Egyptian Mau.  Mau is the Egyptian word for cat, and there are Egyptian artefacts in the Louvre which give the depicted cats the name of ‘mau’, ‘mai’, and ‘maau’, all different spellings of the same word.[6]  The Egyptian Mau breed is reputed to have developed through natural selection as opposed to the more common human selective breeding for desired traits, near Cairo.[7]  The breed confirmation for the Mau is listed as a cat with a medium-long graceful body, muscular, and possessing hind legs that are longer than the front ones.  The coat is a medium length with a fine texture and silky appearance, with distinctive, contrasting spotted markings.  The forehead is barred and has a dark ‘M’ or ‘scarab-beetle’ like mark, the cheeks possessing two lines that are reminiscent of mascara on a woman, and the chest being ringed with bands like unto necklaces.  Colour is silver, bronze, smoke, or blue, with green eyes.[8]

2. Archaeological Evidence

There is no shortage of archaeological remains and evidence for the existence of the cat in ancient Egypt.  There have been many cat necropoleis found in Bubastis in Lower Egypt, Speos Artemidos in Middle Egypt, and at Memphis to name a few.[9]  These burial structures were used for several centuries and each one held thousands of cats and a vast number of specimens of cat mummies and related artefacts contained in museums and private collections around the world today originate from these locations, usually taken by tomb robbers.[10]  Archaeologically speaking, these necropoleis would be considered features, which are immobile human-built structures such as buildings, tombs, and the like. 

Examples of artefacts from ancient Egypt showcasing the existence of the cat are numerous.  One example would be the limestone sarcophagus of a cat that was dedicated during the Eighteenth Dynasty by Prince Djhutmose.[11]  There were certain animal cults, such as the one for cats, which had prominence and can be shown to perpetuate from the First Dynasty in Egypt.  These cults also had a resurgence of their importance in the Eighteenth Dynasty under the reign of Amenhotep III, which is shown by another of Prince Djhutmose’s works; the building of the Serapeum.[12] 

In North Saqqara there are many animal necropoleis which were carved and constructed specifically for the interment of animal mummies.  The cat necropolis is unique in that it reused the tombs from the New Kingdom that date to 500 BC.[13]  The tomb of Lady Maia, who was the wet-nurse for Tutankhamun, is very special and unique as shown by its Arabic name, Abwab al-Qutat or ‘The Doors of the Cats’.  It received this name due to the vast amount of mummified cats that were buried in the pits and tombs flanking that of Lady Maia and in the summit of the cliff.[14]

Further archaeological evidence of the existence of the cat in ancient Egypt is provided by way of the first X-Rays taken of mummified remains in 1896 and published by the German physicist Carl George Walter Koenig.[15]  These X-Rays included those of mummified cat remains.  Then, in the 1980s, Leonard Ginsburg examined a number of cat skeletons paying particular attention to the skulls.  This was in order to provide a base line in determining the criteria in distinguishing between wild and domesticated cats.  The measurements of the cat-mummy bones provided the necessary statistics for this baseline and a large amount of them came from the tombs around Aper-El.[16]

It should be noted that there is difficulty in determining the actual species that these mummified cats belong to for two reasons.  The first reason for this difficulty is that there is a level of respect given to these mummies from an archaeological standpoint, and as such the mummies are not unwrapped.  Due to this, the actual bones of the mummy cannot be completely measured and studied.  The other reason is that it is very difficult to accurately identify the species of juvenile animals, which make up a portion of the cat mummies.[17]

3. Role In Daily Life

The cat was used as a utility animal by the Egyptians.  This can be attested to by paintings representing sporting scenes in the marshy valley of the Nile, where cats plunge into the water to retrieve and carry the game.  One of these paintings is on a tomb at Thebes and depicts a cat pointing like a dog to the hunted game, and another painting is in the British Museum depicting a cat seizing game and hunting and carrying water-fowl like a retriever.  The Egyptians were wonderfully skilful in training animals.  In ancient Egypt, it would not have been out of place to see a cat retrieve a wild duck which was hunted in a marsh and carry it back to its master, but if it were to happen today, it would be regarded as completely miraculous.[18] 

It can also be assumed logically that the cat was used by the Egyptians for its skill in controlling the rodent population of things such as mice, rats, and other vermin that would have carried disease and ate the food stores of the towns and cities. 

4. Representations In Art

The cat is represented in ancient Egypt in many mediums in both 2D and 3D depictions.  There are examples of carvings, paintings, statues, and mummies throughout Egypt of the cat.  The first example to be examined is that of a cats head done in stuccoed wood which is thought to be part of a coffin.[19]  The stucco has begun to flake off over most of the head, but the parts that remain show clear examples of decorative paint-work.  Also, the carving of the head is very detailed, proper eye sockets, the heart-shaped nose, the slight cleft-like separation in the upper lip just below the nose and running into the mouth-line, and the overall shape of the head are recreated quite accurately.

Another example is a fragment of a relief taken from the tomb-chapel of the mastaba of the vizier and chief justice Pehenuka at Saqqara that used to be part of a desert hunting scene.[20]  This figure shows two mating Bubal Hartbeasts prominently; however to the right on a separate ground line, a small to medium sized cat is depicted as well and is dated to be from the Fifth Dynasty.  This would have also been attached as part of the same composition as figure 33.

There are also many instances of a crouching cat being displayed in the centres of Egyptian images, in bronze, enamel, and earthenware, which have the eye emblem of the sun engraved on their collars.  Even King Hana’s cat from the eleventh dynasty wore golden earrings.[21]  The cat was a prominent feature on the medals of Bubastis, where the goddess Bast, (also referred to as Bastet and Bubastis) was revered.  The goddess’s most commonly depicted form was that of a woman with a cats head, and holding a sistrum, which was the symbol of creation and harmony.[22]  A good example of these sacred relics of Bastet can be found in the British museum in the form of a small bronze cat figurine.  The figurine shows the cat wearing a necklace, sitting proudly with an erect head, upright ears, rounded head and the tail curled around the front feet.[23]  These features are also extremely similar those of the domestic cat and the Mau described earlier in section 1.

The last example to be examined is also a bronze figure of a seated cat.  It comes from Saqqara in Egypt’s Late Period, and is known as the Gayer-Anderson Cat because of its donor to the British Museum.  The cat is depicted as wearing a necklace with the eye of Ra hanging from it, and also has pierced ears and nose, with rings in the piercings.  Further to the eye of Ra on the cat, it also has the falcon of Horus on the breast, and a scarab on the forehead.  This could potentially be a representation of the scarab-like markings that are found on the Egyptian Mau which would provide further support that the Mau is the ancient cat depicted in Egypt, or the scarab could be religious in nature.[24]

5. References In Texts

Even though the cat appears all over ancient Egyptian artefacts and in hieroglyphs on ancient buildings, references specifically to the Egyptian cat in ancient myths, stories, fables, and other texts are hard to come by.  One example recorded was by Horapollo, a Greek that visited Egypt.  His account was cited by Champfleury saying that the cat was worshipped in the temple of Heliopolis which was sacred to the sun because the size of the pupil of the animal’s eye is regulated by the height of the sun above the horizon.  Due to this, the Egyptians used the cat’s eye as a symbol of what they called the marvellous orb of day.[25]

Another example of the cat being recorded in text comes from the inscriptions on the walls of the tombs at Thebes.  These inscriptions are actually praises to the god Ra, separated into seventy-five different phrases.  The fifty-sixth phrase states “Praise be to thee, O Ra, exalted Sekhem; thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs (or assessors), and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed the bodies of the Great Cat”.[26]  Through this inscription it is shown that the cat was very highly regarded in Egypt, to the point of being thought of as a vessel for deities.  The cat held great significance in Egypt to be included in inscriptions on the tomb walls, and be included and given divine attributes towards Ra as well.

Plutarch states in his work Isis and Osiris that the image of a female cat was placed at the top of the sistrum in the city of Bastet as an emblem of the moon.  According to Amyot, “this was on account of the variety of her fur, and because she is astir at night; and furthermore, because she bears firstly one kitten at birth, and at the second, two, at the third, three, and then four, and then five until the seventh time, so that she bears in all twenty-eight, as many as the moon has days.  Now this, perchance, is fabulous, but ‘tis most true that her eyes do enlarge and grow full at the full moon, and that, on the contrary, they contract and diminish at the decline of the same.”[27]

There were many sacred animals in Ancient Egyptian culture.  These animals enjoyed a status of reverence, protection, and worship both while alive and in death.  When examining these ancient sacred animals, there is evidence of many that were mummified and buried in vast quantities, especially during the last centuries of their history, and of these animals it appears that cats held a very special place with the Egyptians and also were given great respect.  Cats were held apart from their canine counterparts inasmuch as that cats were viewed with both love and fear at the same time.  This could be due to the view that cats were regarded as mysterious, special, and even divine.[28]

Examining the divinity associated with the cat it is found that the goddess that the cat represented was named Bastet (alternate forms were also Bast, Pasht, and Bassett, and Bubastis by the Greeks).  She was believed to be the daughter of Ra, and was the goddess of reproduction, fertility, and good health.[29]  Bastet was usually represented as a cat, or as a woman that was wearing a cloak but had the head of a cat, standing erect and carrying a basket.  This basket could have been a representation or symbol of the fertility that Bastet was goddess over as well.  Bastet was not always a cat however.  When she was initially represented, she was depicted as either a lioness or a woman with a lioness’s head.[30]

At the beginning of the worshiping of the cat, the Egyptians were making the animal sacred as an intermediary or representation of a deity, rather than assuming that the cat was in itself a deity.  The cat was not made sacred on any of its own attributes or merits, but on those of the goddess that it represented; a form of hypostasis for Bastet to make herself manifest if and when she chose to to the Egyptians.[31]  Eventually the entire species of cat was regarded with a high respect and honour.  The animals that were raised were either sacrificed, mummified and stored in underground vaults and tombs, offered as a votive gift to the temples, or sold as a type of protective icon.  As far as the mummified cats are concerned, there is evidence that a good portion of them had been strangled.  Unlike the case with Graeco-Roman sacrificial animals, these cats from Egypt were not just sacrificed and discarded, but were given places of honour and respect in the afterlife by being mummified.  This mummification was a way to preserve the cat forever and goes to further support the idea that they were regarded as being either divine themselves or being associated with the divine.  As Velde commented, “this practice is not killing life to destroy it, but to let it arise from death”.[32]

The cat has been shown to have been a very important and significant part of the ancient Egyptian culture, especially pertaining to the religious aspects.  From the myriad of cat mummies that have been discovered and analysed, to the archaeological specimens of jewellery, statues, tombs, and written records, it is clear that the cat enjoyed a very honoured position among the animals that were considered divine by the ancient Egyptians. 

Through examination of the scholarly evidence provided, it is the opinion of this essay that the current cat known as the Egyptian Mau is most likely the descendant of the cat worshipped as a vessel of Bastet anciently.  The markings, size, shape, attitude, and location found as discussed previously all match with what was recorded anciently as being the sacred Egyptian cat.   In the future if new technology and techniques are developed for viewing, measuring, and examining mummies without destroying them or unwrapping them, it will be easier to assess the exact species of the cats mummified and compare them to the Mau.  There most likely will be some differences as thousands of years naturally cause adaptation and evolutionary changes in all species, but again from the artefacts, ecofacts, features, and physical remains thus far discovered, it is most likely that the Mau will be found to be the sacred cat of ancient Egypt.

Furthermore, the ancient Egyptians appeared to be quite masterful in their ability to represent in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art the form of the cat accurately.  These depictions ranged from the simple drawing of a cat on tomb walls to the sculptured statues in bronze complete with a range of religious jewellery.  These artefacts were both decorative as well as religious in nature, and this had an impact on the culture of the Egyptians by allowing their religious icons to have a presence in their own homes and not just the sacred temples.  Further to just impacting on their own culture, the Egyptians’ love and respect of the cat influenced foreign writers and travellers as well, as has been shown previously with examples of ancient references in text as well as by the fact that Bastet was translated into Greek as Bubastis. 

The fact that the cat represented Bastet, the goddess of fertility, reproduction, and good health, could explain the sheer volume of religious icons and cat mummies that were found.  These three attributes would have most likely been among the most important for an ancient culture, and as such, the most forefront in people’s minds and in turn the most worshipped.  This could account for why there was an entire city dedicated to Bastet as well.  Given this line of reasoning, it would appear safe to say that the cat, sacred symbol of the goddess Bastet, daughter of Ra, was a significant part of ancient Egyptian culture, and had a profound influence on both the ancient Egyptians and their neighbours. 

Beckett, R., and Conloque, G.  (2009).  Paleoimaging: Field Applications for Cultural Remains and Artefacts.  CRC Press, Boca Raton. 

Budge, E. A.  (2003).  The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. 1 (1904).  Kessinger Publishing Co., Kila.

Case, L.  (2003).  The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition and Health.  Iowa State Press, Ames.

Champfleury, M.  (2005).  The Cat Past and Present.  (Trans. Hoey, C.).  The Echo Library, Cirencester.

Gilhus, I.  (2006).  “The Religious Value of Animals”, Animals, Gods, and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas.  Routledge, London.  Pp. 93-113.

Houlihan, P.  (1996).  “The Thrill of the Hunt”, Animal World of the Pharaohs.  Thames and Hudson.  Pp. 40-73. 

Ikram, S.  (2005).  Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt.  The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo.

Kalof, L.  (2011).  A Cultural History of Animals in Antiquity.  Berg, Oxford. 

Klingender, F.  (1971).  “Animal Art in the Ancient Near East”, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages.  Routledge, London.  Pp. 28-59. 

Siegal, M.  (1997).  The Cornell Book of Cats: The Comprehensive and Authoritative Medical Reference for Every Cat and Kitten.  Cornell University. 

[1] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 118
[2] It would appear that both the ‘lybica’ and ‘libyca’ spellings are recognised as correct, and which one is used depends on the individual scholar that is writing at the time.
[3] Case, L., The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition and Health, (Ames, 2003), pp 5-6
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Champfleury, M., The Cat Past and Present  (Trans. Hoey, C.).  (Cirencester, 2005), p 10
[7] Case, L., The Cat: Behavior, (Ames, 2003), p 27
[8] Siegal, M., The Cornell Book of Cats: The Comprehensive and Authoritative Medical Reference for Every Cat and Kitten. (Cornell University. 1997),  p 29
[9] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 106
[10] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 107
[11] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), plate 1.4
[12] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 7
[13] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), pp 110-111
[14] Ibid
[15] Beckett, R., & Conloque, G., Paleoimaging: Field Applications for Cultural Remains and Artefacts, (Boca Raton, 2009), p 22
[16] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 112
[17] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 118
[18] Champfleury, M., The Cat Past and Present , (Cirencester, 2005), p 4
[19] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), plate 5.1
[20] Houlihan, P., “The Thrill of the Hunt”, Animal World of the Pharaohs, (1996),  p 57, figure 39
[21] Champfleury, M., The Cat Past and Present , (Cirencester, 2005), pp 5-6
[22] Ibid
[23] Klingender, F., “Animal Art in the Ancient Near East”, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, (London, 1971),  p 33, figure 24
[24] Kalof, L., A Cultural History of Animals in Antiquity, (Oxford, 2011), p 83
[25] Champfleury, M., The Cat Past and Present , (Cirencester, 2005), p 7
[26] Budge, E. A., The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. 1 (1904), (Kila, 2003), p 345
[27] Champfleury, M., The Cat Past and Present , (Cirencester, 2005), pp 7-8
[28] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 106
[29] Case, L., The Cat: Behavior, (Ames, 2003), p 8
[30] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 110
[31] Ikram, S., Divine Creatures, (Cairo, 2005), p 106
[32] Gilhus, I., “The Religious Value of Animals”, Animals, Gods, and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas, (London, 2006),  pp 96-97

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