The Veneration and Worship of Felines in Ancient Egypt

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What must be understood in light of the humans intense affection for cats is that the animals were not considered divine themselves.  There are records that they might have been akin to demi-gods, but they were primarily thought of as bodily representations of the feline gods.  Because of this, cats were protected for reasons beyond just their vermin-killing capabilities.  To harm a cat was to attempt harm to a god, and that was entirely out of the question in ancient Egypt.  Killing a cat was punishable by death a certain period of Egyptian history, whether intentional or not.  Diodorus, one of the most well-read historians from the ancient world, records an incident in which a Roman accidentally slaughtered a cat, and he suffered the same punishment as the people of Egypt would.

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It should be noted that there were other gods associated with cats, such as Neith and Mut, but Bastet and Sekhmet were the two foremost deities.

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By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings.

Cats have been on the human scene for 9,000 years. We came out of the caves, and they were there with us. Ever since, cats have been immortalized in art. They have been painted in fresco, sculpted in…

Herodotus.Histories Volume 1(Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013.)

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Ancient Egyptian relief in Edfu Temple (Wikimedia Commons)

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At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

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Featured image: The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886. A priestess offers gifts of food and milk to the spirit of a cat. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ra in the form of a feline slaying the snake Apophis, Tomb of Inherkha, 1160 BC, Thebes.

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Siculus, Diodorus.Library of History, Volume I, Books 1-2.34(Loeb Classical Library: Harvard, 1933.)

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Spence, Lewis.Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends(Barnes and Noble Books: New York, 2005.)

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What predates the veneration of Cat is the veneration of the woman Lioness, a symbol of the Ancient Bulgarian Godess of Will Sakhmet. Sakhmet is an ancient Bulgarian word meaning exactly this: The Mother Godess of Will. Ancient Bulgarian priestesses were women of magical power who dominated over the lions and the other animals. They were often depicted as riding lions or as women with Lions head. That is also the origin of the Sphinx of Giza – a depiction of Sakhmet becoming Bastet later on.

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Bas-relief representing the goddess Sekhmet on a column of the Temple of Kom Ombo in Kom Ombo – Egypt . (Wikimedia Commons)

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Cats remain one of the most prominent symbols of ancient Egyptian culture.  They are recognized as emblems of Egyptian society and the face of their ancient world, even if nothing else of their cult is remembered today.  The Sphinx is an overwhelming example of this.  Just as the ancient cats themselves were mummified to maintain their status and integrity after death, their worship was equally well preserved.

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The so called Gayer Anderson cat. A late period bronze cat in the form of the goddess Bastet. Jewelry is ancient but not necessarily original to this piece. British Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

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The first primary feline god was Mafdet, a female deity who traces back as far as the First Dynasty of Egypt between 3,400BC and 3000BC.  As a feline goddess, she was associated with protecting against venomous bites especially those of snakes and scorpions (probably due to the fact that cats are killers of snakes and scorpions).  The more well-known goddess Bastet took Mafdets place as a guardian of Lower Egypt, the pharaoh, and the sun god Ra.  A similar female deity with the body of a woman and the head of a cat, Bastet was considered a personification of the sun herself, with her chief shrine at the site of Bubastis in Egypt.

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These cats, however, were not as cats appear todayat least not at first.  In ancient Egypt, there were two different primary breeds: one the fierce jungle cats, the other the more peaceful African wildcats.  As time went on and the two species merged, as well as both cats became accustomed to softer, human food, the species grew to become sleeker, less muscled, and much more tolerant.  In a way, the Egyptians attempts to gain protection of their foods and resources resulted in the taming of their protectors.

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In the mortal realm, humans and cats lived and worked in harmony.  Cats were a perfect solution to the overwhelming rat and snake problems of ancient Egypt, and in exchange, humans would protect those same cats from other predators who might deign to feast on a feline for dinner (especially now that rats were no longer an option).  It was in this way that cats began to become domesticatedthe humans would coax them to their homes to fetter out the vermin by offering the cats food.  From there, it was a short step to invite the creatures to move in for safe keeping and constant pest purging.

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The ancient Egyptians revered and worshipped many animals, just as the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse did, but none were worshipped as reverently as the cat.  It was not until the Pre-dynastic Period that they were domesticatedinterestingly, much later than dogsyet their prominence in Egyptian culture remains highly identifiable even today.

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Matthews, John and Caitlin.Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: the ultimate a-z of fantastic beings from myth and magic(HarperElement: New York, 2005.)

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The sarcophagus of the cat of the Crown Prince Thutmose, the eldest son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Bastet and Mafdet both possibly originate from the legend of a divine jungle cat named Mau/Muit who defended one of the sacred Persea trees in Annu from the serpent Apophis.  The cat caught the snake in the act of attempting to strangle the tree, and cut off its head for its crimes.  Bastet and Mafdet are often interchanged as the jungle cat .  Bastet, however, was eventually similarly displaced.

about 2,000-Year-Old Ancient Egyptian Cemetery Containing Dozens of Pets Unearthed in Berenike

Riley Winters is a recent graduate from Christopher Newport University with a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor.  She will be attending the University of Glasgow in 2015 for Celtic and Viking Archaeology,…Read More

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The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

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Toward the beginning of the 3rdmillennium, Bastet was associated with all cats and each feline was considered a physical representation of her spirit.  Over time, however, the gods once again shifted and altered, often a result royal personal preference.  By the time Lower and Upper Egypt unified around 3000 BC, Bastet was replaced by another goddess called Sekhmet.  Sekhmets form was much fiercer than Bastets; though similar, the former had the head of a lioness, not a mere cat.  With this change in the Egyptians mythos, Bastet was regulated as the guardian of domesticated cats while Sekhmet became the goddess of the lionesses.

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As a revered animal, some cats also received the same mummification after death as humans. Cats were sometimes mummified as beloved pets, perhaps in the hope that they could join their owners in the next life. However, the majority were mummified for religious reasons unconnected with human burial, and were made as offerings in the hope of receiving the favor of the god or goddess they represented. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer uncovered a large tomb containing more than eighty thousand mummified cats and kittens outside the town of Beni Hasan. Since then, many more cat cemeteries have been found. However, the majority of them were plundered before archaeologists could work on them: in the 19thcentury, a shipment of as many as 180,000 mummified cats was taken to Britain to be processed into fertilizer.

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