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Cats

W103The statuette on the left (W103) is on display in the Egypt Centre. It is made from copper alloy. The gold gilt can still be seen in its eye. Such statues would have been given as offerings to feline goddesses. It was part of the Rustafjaell collection purchased by Wellcome in 1906. 

Wild cats were probably domesticated in Egypt by 2000 BC and they appear on tomb paintings as pets and as representatives of the gods. By the Late Period many thousands of domesticated cats were killed and mummified as offerings to the gods. Wild cat skins were used as ceremonial clothing throughout Pharaonic Egypt and domestic and wild cats appear in hunting scenes. 

It is difficult to know when cats were first domesticated. However by the Middle Kingdom a number of statues of them are known. From about 1450 B.C. they appear in Theban tombs on wall decoration. Occasionally, such cats are shown wearing earrings and a necklace. 

The Egyptain word for cat was miu, (like the sound a cat makes, mew). Although cats were used as pets, we know of very few personal names for them. An exception seems to be the cat in the tomb of Puimre at Thebes c.1450 BC who is called ‘The sweet one’ or ‘The pleasant one’. 

Cats were often paired with women on tomb walls of the New Kingdom, while men were depicted with dogs. Additionally, the motif of the cat frequently occurs on jewellery belonging to queens. The lion was generally associated with kingship.  

A number of gods and goddesses could take the form of a cat to indicate their protective qualities. This does not mean, however, that the Egyptians thought all cats were sacred. It is simply that a god could be made visible in the body of a cat. 

These include: 

Mafdet cat-like goddess described as having claws is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts. Her manifestation seems to have been a larger cat such as a leopard. 

Bastet, the chief goddess of the city of Bubastis (a Greek version of the ancient Egyptian Per-Bastet meaning ‘House of Bastet’) sometimes appears with the head of a lioness. By the 22nd Dynasty, however, she became commonly associated with the domestic cat. Fertility and nurturing instincts are perhaps the attributes common to both the goddess and the cat. By the Ptolemaic Period the festival of Bastet was one of the most popular in Egypt and involved consumption of large quantities of alcohol. 

Re, the sun god, could be manifest as a tomcat. Spell 335 of the Coffin Texts reads: ‘I am the Great Tomcat which split the ished-tree on its side in On the night of making war and warding off rebels, and on the day of destroying the foes of the Lord of All. Who is this Great Tomcat? He is the god Re himself. He was called ‘cat’ when Sia spoke of him because he was mewing during what he was doing, and that was how his name of ‘cat’ came into being’. Spell 17 of the Book of the Dead is also sometimes illustrated by a cat killing a snake with a knife. 

Mutis considered Amun’s female companion. She is sometimes depicted with the head of a cat. Her name bears a strong similarity to the Egyptian name for a female cat, miit. 

As well as Bastet there are also a number of goddesses associated with the lioness. Sekhmet for example and Pakhet. These goddesses are generally considered fearsome. Sometimes it is not possible to know if a cat or lioness is meant, as with this amulet. These goddesses seem to have been considered as manifestations of the more fierce side of goddesses such as Bastet. There is an Egyptian story that Sekhmet was sent out to punish humankind and the Nile ran red with blood. She had to be stopped. Beer was dyed red and Sekhmet, thinking it was blood, drank it up. She then becomes the pacified goddess Hathor. Hathor, Mut, Sekhmet and Isis are all daughters of Re and often interchangeable in Egyptian mythology. As the daughters of Re they are also associated with the Wadjet Eye. 

Cats and cat-headed deities appear on protective magic knives and on pictures of the underworld. In the Book of Amduat a cat-headed deity decapitates enemies. In the House of Death in the Egypt Centre there are faience amulets in the shape of a cat. We also have copper alloy statuettes of cats probably dedicated at temples of cat goddesses. We also have a mummified cat. Many cats were bred and then killed before they were fully mature to be given as offerings or as a cull of the temple catteries. The fact that an animal could be employed as a manifestation of a deity did not mean that that species could not be used by humans. Finally, the Egypt Centre has two bed legs in the shape of lions which are on display in the House of Life. The lion was a symbol for rebirth and thus lion bed legs would be appropriate to ensure re-awakening. Such legs also appear on mummification tables. 

 

Items associated with cats in the Egypt Centre

W529 Cartonnage from a cat mummy

  

Further Reading 

Malek, J., 1993. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. 

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

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