Ancient Egyptians and Cats: An Eternal Love Affair

Posted by Megan Swinney
Egyptian cats

Egyptians have had a long-standing love affair with furry felines. 

Ancient Egyptians are known for many things: pyramids, mummification, sacrifices, and their love for cats. But why did Egyptians worship cats? Much of their adoration for the felines goes back to mythology and the belief that gods and goddesses could transform themselves into different animals and walk among mortals, earning cats eternal adoration.

History of Egyptians And Cats

Many believe that cats and humans first became a part of each other's lives around 4000 BCE which is when they began to appear in Egyptian history. Historians believe they began to take part in Egyptian society since they began to appear in hieroglyphs and paintings in tombs. Still, the cats were not the cuddly domesticated cats that we have now. Instead, it was highly likely that the cats were wild cats like the Jungle Cat or the African Wild Cat, known generically as felines or "Miu" or "Miit."

The cats of ancient Egypt moved closer to domestication around 2000 BC. Cats had many purposes for Egyptian civilization. They were great at killing vermin like rats and mice and killed snakes, a massive problem in ancient Egypt. A house cat could be protective and could have many kittens. Because of this, the Egyptians thought them to be a symbol of home. In the New Kingdom tombs, paintings showed domestic cats as female companions and would be drawn underneath their chairs. Cats were so highly revered that it was an offense punishable by death if one was killed, even on accident.

When a family's cat would die, the cat owners would shave off their eyebrows to signal that they were in mourning. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that mourning would not end until their eyebrows had grown back.

Also, it wasn't just people the Egyptians mummified. Cat mummies were a common occurrence. Archeologists have found whole pet cemeteries full of mummified cats throughout ancient Egypt. In addition, Egyptians were known to have cat statuettes or figurines in their homes and their tombs. They would even wear amulets with cat heads on them for protection and good luck. But how did domestication lead to Egyptian cat worship?

Egyptian Cat Worship 

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Cats were not the only animals Egyptians worshipped. According to National Geographic, dogs were also very important. They were revered for their hunting and protecting skills. But as much as Egyptians appreciated dogs, they were not nearly as highly regarded as cats.

They thought that cats were magical and could bring their owner's good luck. Families who were wealthy put jewels all over their cats and fed them as if they were royals. Egyptians took spoiling their cats to a whole different level, and I thought my cat was spoiled.

Egyptians had a deep love for the sun god Ra. Since cats love to curl up in a sunny spot and soak in the rays, the Egyptians quickly formed an association between cats and the god. In line with Egyptian mythology, there was the cat goddess, Bastet. She was the only deity who could transform herself into a cat. The Egyptians adored her so much that they built a temple in her honor in the city of Per- Bast. However, she was not the first of the divine felines.

Mafdet was the first feline goddess. She was known to protect against scorpions and venomous snakes. She was personified as a woman with the head of a cat, though she was also known for becoming a cheetah or jaguar. Mafdet's successor was Sekhmet which meant strength and ferocity. She was a lion-headed goddess who was fierce but a great protector of the innocent.

Bastet was far less polarizing than the two prior goddesses. She drew Egyptians back to the original symbolism of cats and away from the fierce lionesses the others had become. She stood for home, fertility, and womanhood. She stood as a symbol for a long time, maintaining popularity through Egypt's Ptolemaic and Roman periods becoming the center of a worship cult called Bubastis. Though people outside the cult worshipped her too.

It seems like we owe ancient Egyptians for domesticating our furry feline friends, even though these days we don't worship them quite like the Egyptians did. Though, there are some pretty spoiled felines in the world! But, alas,  I don't think even their owners would shave their eyebrows. That right there is some serious devotion.

Would you shave your eyebrow for your cat? Tell us on our Wide Open Pets Facebook page. 

READ MORE: Birman Cats: This Sacred White Wonder Descends From Legend

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Ancient Egyptians and Cats: An Eternal Love Affair