Thursday, September 16, 2010

Significance of Cats in Ancient Egypt

        Cats known in Ancient Egypt as the maw, played a role in ancient Egyptian society. In Egypt the cat was first domesticated 4,000 years ago and where they were held in the most admiration and respect. The first domesticated Egyptian cats in Egypt were more than likely used for warding off the common asp and other snakes, and the typical chasers of rodents. Slowly though, the cat became more to the Egyptians than just a normal animal, the cat became a god. 

The Lion headed Goddess Mafdet, the deification of justice and execution was eventually replaced by the cat goddess Bast. Bast's image softened over time and she became the deity representing protection, fertility, and motherhood. 

This goddess was called Bastet when in full cat form, and Bast when only having the head of one and the body of a beautiful woman. Bastet's counterpart was the goddess Sekhmet who represented the cat goddess' destructive force. Together, Bastet and Sekhmet represented the balance of the forces of nature in Egypt. 

The Bubastis (Temple of Bast), or Tell Basta, contained a massive statue of Bast - and a great number of sacred cats, cared for by the temple priests with donations from pilgrims. The temple's cat population, while respected, was extremely large and needed to be moderated by the periodic sacrificial culling of kittens, which were then mummified and sold to pilgrims as relics. 

Artisans came forth here with thousands of bronze sculptures and amulets depicting cats to worshippers of Bast. These amulets commonly featured an image of a cat and its kittens and were often used by women trying to have children, praying to Bast that they be granted the same number of children as kittens depicted on the amulet.

During the New Kingdom (1540 to 1069 BC), there were many tomb scenes that started showing cats as part of everyday life. The ancient Egyptians took their cats on hunting excursions instead of dogs. Statues of cats were placed outside the house to protect the inhabitants and to ward off evil spirits. When a cat died their former owners and occupants of the house would go into deep mourning and shave their eyebrows as a sign of grief.

As cats were sacred to Bast, the practice of mummification was extended to them. Mummified cats were given in offering to Bast. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer uncovered a large tomb with mummified cats and kittens. This discovery outside the town of Bani Hasan had eighty thousand cat mummies, dating to 1000-2000 BCE

Cats were not only protected by almost every occupant of Egypt, but also by the law. So extreme infact was the devoutness of the Egyptian culture to the cat, that if a human killed a feline, either intentionally or unintentionally, that human was sentenced to death. Herodotus stated a story once about the significance of the cat to Egypt. Herodotus begins with the Egyptians in war with Persia. The Persian general had decided to collect as many cats that his men could find or steal, knowing the great importance of the cat to Egypt. The soldiers then returned to the town of Pelusium and set the cats free on the battlefield. Horrified, the Egyptians surrendered the city to the Persians rather than harm the cats.

Though the cult of Bast was officially banned by imperial decree in 390AD, the cat still held a powerful spot in the history of Egypt.

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  1. Thank you so much, I cannot tell you how much this means to me as my beloved friend and companion died yesterday. He was a cat. He was hit by a car, he was my dear friend and I understand the egyptians relationship to them as I feel my relationship to cats is very sacred and spiritual. Thank you again.

  2. Dear friend, I am so sorry for your pet friend. I know he meant a lot to you and I am going to miss him, too....

    thanks for sharing such a tragic experience.

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