Cats in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were without a doubt the most cat friendly society. The cat was central to their religion and was considered to be sacred. Many animals in Egypt were linked to gods and goddesses, but only the cat was considered to be semi-divine in its own right.

As a demi-god, a cat could not be owned by a mere human. Only the semi-divine pharaoh had that honour. As a result, all cats were in theory under the protection of the pharaoh and hurting a cat was treasonous. For much of ancient Egyptian history it was illegal to sell a cat or to give a cat to a foreigner.

Some visitors from foreign lands (in particular the Greeks and Phoenicians) occasionally stole cats from Egypt to take home with them, causing the pharaoh to order all of his troops to be on the lookout for cats when campaigning abroad so that they could be brought back to Egypt.

The goddess Bast was closely associated with cats and was often depicted as a cat or a woman with the head of a cat (although in early periods she is more often a sand cat, which is a kind of wildcat). Her temple in Bubastis housed a huge colony of cats as attested by the massive cemetery dedicated to the semi-divine temple cats. Bast was a goddess of sexuality, home life, and childbirth but also acted as a guardian of the pharaoh. Her central position in the Egyptian pantheon echoed the central position of cats in Egyptian society. The sun god Ra could also be depicted as a cat.

At certain points in history, killing a cat was punishable by death in ancient Egypt. If anyone discovered a dead cat, it was said that they would have to mourn the cat vociferously to ensure that they were not blamed for its death. According to Diodorus, a Roman soldier was killed by a mob of Egyptians for accidentally killing a cat. However, there is evidence that cats were killed in Bubastis before being mummified and offered to Bast. It seems that this was partly about controlling the number of cats in the temple and was only allowed in this specific ritual situation.

Mau Aa, the great cat was thought to fight the serpent Apep (Aphopis) to protect the sun god. An inscription in the Valley of the Kings reads; “You are the Great Cat, the avenger of the gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; you are indeed the Great Cat.”

Cats weren’t just prized for their skill as hunters, they were also beloved pets. Crown Prince Thuthmosis (the son of Amenhotep II and the elder brother of Amenhotep IV who went on to become the pharaoh Akhenaten) had an image of his beloved cat inscribed on his sarcophagus.

If the household cat died, the whole family would go into mourning and shave off their eyebrows. The cat would often be mummified, wrapped in fine linen, and buried along with jewellery and other grave goods which were normally only the preserve of wealthy people. Huge cemeteries of feline mummies have been discovered at a number of locations across Egypt.

During the war with Persia in 500 B.C. the Persians exploited the Egyptian love of cats quite cynically. Over a few nights, the Persian troops captured a large number of cats from the area around Pelusium and then marched on the city (in which the Egyptian Army was waiting). When the Persians were close enough, the Egyptians general ordered the attack, but the Persians used the cats as a feline shield. The Egyptians would not attack for fear of hurting the cats and were distraught to see them so frightened. The Persians took advantage of their confusion and won the battle without suffering a single casualty.

Eventually, domesticated cats did find their way out of Egypt thanks to the Greeks who stole the animals to control their own rodent problem, and to use as powerful bargaining chips in international trade. This didn’t go over so well with the Egyptians. In fact, one pharaoh sent out his army to various lands in a futile effort to recapture the kidnapped felines and return them home to Egypt.