Some days we feel like we’re waiting on our cats hand and foot like they’re some sort of holy entity within our homes. And some days our cats know this. But fortunately (or unfortunately?) there’s some actual merit behind this strange worship. You might be aware that long ago in Egypt, cats were in fact considered deities and thought to be sacred, but did you know to what extent? Here’s the history of the deity cats of Ancient Egypt.
Cats did not always start out as holy, sacred creatures. Rather, that process would take quite a long time, beginning with their domestication roughly 10,000 years ago. Since then, their usefulness became apparent as they chased away vermin and kept food safe from being eaten or stolen. They were also adept at killing snakes, which is important considering how many venomous snakes in Egypt.
From here things get really interesting. Egypt was not always a unified nation. Early on, it was a collection of tribes and nomes that battled frequently for dominance over one another, and each typically had their own totem based on an animal of some sort. Rather than being a god they worshiped, the animal totems represented a certain sort of intelligence that could be represented within the human body. By 3100 B.C, the empire of Menes was formed and the four animal totems that came out on top were eagles, beetles, ibises, and cats.
However, around this time is when cats did actually gain deity status, being found on crystal cups as the lion-headed goddess Mafdet, though it was Bast (or Bastet), another lion-headed goddess, that would eventually have her image softened to that of a domestic cat. It’s with this decision to transform Bast into an everyday cat that actual everyday cats were given utmost respect and reverence, including the process of mummification after death. As peculiar as it may sound, during a fire, guards would be set up specifically to stop cats from running into the flames. If a family lost a cat, they would mourn as if they had lost a human family member and even shave off their eyebrows to represent their loss. Naturally, if you were found to kill a cat, even on accident, you received swift death.
Later, with the arrival of the New Kingdom, a location called Bubastis was formed east of the Nile Delta. Bubastis would be the ultimate center of worship for Bast and the cat, which at this same time had come to represent fertility, motherhood, and protection. As to be expected, Bubastis was a popular pilgrimage location and eventually became synonymous with Bast.
Within Bubastis, the temple was built to be a beautiful shrine with a central island and a ridiculously large cat population. The only way the temple priests were able to take care of all the sacred cats was through donations from pilgrims, as well as ritualistic kitten culling. These kittens were then mummified and sold as relics. It’s…not exactly what you’d hope to hear from a cult devoted to cat worship, but respect was there…somewhere.
It’s a common misconception that all cats were given this mummification ceremony though. Many times, people from all over Egypt would bring their deceased kitties to Bubastis for mummification and a the ability to have them buried in the great cemetery, but quite a bit of evidence suggests that many more were just cremated, which is odd seeing as how the belief was that an intact body was required for rebirth in the afterlife.
Everything seemed to be going so well for Eqypt and their cat fixation until around 525 B.C. when the Persians, lead by Cambyses, decided it was time to bring Egypt under Persian rule. It wouldn’t have been so easy except for the little detail of the Persians having cats on their shields. Many Egyptian soldiers started hesitating in striking said cat shields and as you may guess, hesitation on the battlefield usually results in defeat.
The official end of the cult of Bast happened in 390 A.D. as a result of an imperial decree, and while the popularity of the cat has declined sharply since their glory days, they’re still treated well, partly because the Muslim faith also holds cats in high regards.
It’s pretty apparent that cats had a great thing going back in Ancient Egypt, and while they may not still have the same sacred weight that they used to, they certainly act like it now and then. Next time your kitty turns its nose up at its dinner, just remind yourself that at least you don’t have to worship it anymore. Not outright anyway.
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