One does not own a cat; one simply inhabits the same space as a cat. Even the most cuddly of cats will take any opportunity to exhibit their independence and will. Cats have a long and varied history commingling with humans before obtaining their “domesticated” distinction. But even now, some argue that can’t still aren’t domesticated animals. The Smithsonian states that cats are really only domesticated when they want to be.
There is little that differentiates domesticated cats from their wild counterparts. It’s this close proximity that makes scientists like Wes Warren, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Genetics at The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. estimate that house cats are only “semi-domesticated.” So why is it that cats are only partially domesticated after all this time and how did these felines earn a place of honor at our sides and in our homes? Well; it all started over 8,000 years ago.
The History of Cats in Egypt
The cats within the feline family can trace their genealogy all the way back to ancient Cyprus and Egypt. A common consensus is that the popularity of cats came along with the cultivation of crops. Once civilization reached a point where humans evolved enough to plant and store our own food, the challenge of keeping vermin away from stored grain became one of the early human’s chief concerns. It wasn’t long before it was noticed the cats naturally hunted the rats and mice that were trying to steal grain.
Farmers originally tempted cats to stay around by leaving offers of milk-soaked bread, fish-heads, and other scraps of food behind. Cats were really the first freelance workers. They didn’t belong to anyone per say, but they were paid for their services nonetheless. And they excelled at those services.
Cats became so highly valued that laws were enacted to protect them. The punishment for harming a cat was often harsh, sometimes even as extreme as death. But in a world without silos or warehouses, protecting the life-giving resource that was grain was a necessity for society’s continued survival.
Once cats became protected by law, religious orders soon followed. The goddess Bastet rose in popularity during the second dynasty between c. 2890 – c. 2670 BCE. Bastet is closely linked with Mafdet who was the goddess of justice and the first feline deity in Egyptian history, but some who argue that Bastet remained the more popular of the two gods. Bastet is typically depicted as either a cat or a woman with a cat’s head. Bastet was actually originally depicted with lioness features, but she took on a more housecat-like appearance with age.
With cat’s performing such an important task and the goddess Bastet playing such a large role in Egyptian culture, cats were quickly escalated to revered status. Remember how we said that there were laws to protect cats? During the reign of the Pharaohs, these laws became much more real. Seeing as how Bastet appears in the Pyramid Texts (c. 2400-2300 BCE) as the king of Egypt’s nursemaid in his youth and protector as he grew, to harm a cat was a capital offense while the great Pharaohs of old walked the earth. It was a capital crime to kill or injure a cat, even if the cat died through an unfortunate accident. For example, if your house caught fire, it was expected that cats would get out first, and then the humans. If a cat died, an entire household would go into elaborate mourning. After its death, the cat’s body would be delivered to priests so that they could determine if it had died of natural causes.
While you probably know that Pharaohs were embalmed and entombed, did you know that cats shared the same fate after death? Once dead, a cat’s body would be embalmed, mummified, decorated, and either buried in special cemeteries or entombed in temples. To this day, thousands of cats lay preserved in the temples of Bubastis and beyond. Additionally, worshipers would mummify mice so that the cats would have sufficient food in the afterlife. It’s estimated that cat mummies outnumber human mummies by a staggering factor. In the 1800s, a Beni-Hassan was excavated, and over 300,000 cat mummies were found.
What Happened to the Cats?
Back in ancient Egypt, it was illegal to export cats. But if you’ve ever tried to keep a cat out of a certain area you know how impossible that task is. Suffice to say that cats eventually made their way onto ships and sailed to countries bordering the Mediterranean like Greece and Italy. Thanks to caravans, cats found themselves in destinations like India, China, and Japan where they lost most of their godly status, but were still respected as highly prized pets and pest control experts.
While cats may still be highly revered by some, with time, their god-like glow faded until they became our loving companions. While humans may not worship cats as frequently today as they did back in ancient Egypt, they are still celebrated as wonderful family members by many.
Egyptians weren’t the only ones to have cats play central roles in their mythology. The Norwegian Forest Cat held impressive titles in Norse Mythology, the Siamese played vital roles in Thailand temples similar to that or their Egyptian cousins, Burma is brimming with stories of the Birman cat, and the list goes on and on. But that’s a story for another day.
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Thank you for coming along with us as we explored the history of cats in ancient Egypt. It’s always fascinating to look back and see what role our pets played in history. For more fun stories like this, make sure you check out our just for fun articles. Until next time!