The Rich Royal History of Cats in Ancient Egypt

Cats have played an important role in ancient Egyptian social and religious rituals for more than 3,000 years. Egyptians’ appreciation for cats’ snake-killing abilities, penchant for hunting rodents and their protection of the Pharaoh dates back to the First Dynasty, which is the earliest known instance of such glorification of cats. In ancient Egyptian art, the goddesses Mafdet, Bastet, and Sekhmet are all depicted with cat-like heads, representing justice, fertility, and might. Mut was also depicted as a cat, and he was frequently accompanied by other cats in artwork as well. 

An elaborately carved limestone sarcophagus from around 1350 BC contained the first evidence of cat mummification. It’s safe to assume this cat was Egyptian Prince Thutmose’s favorite pet. Cat skeletons were also found with funeral objects discovered from the 12th Dynasty. A protective role for cats is described in the Book of the Dead, where cats represent Ra and the sun’s benefits to life on Earth. Cat-shaped decorations found in the New Kingdom of Egypt are evidence that the cat religion became increasingly popular during this period. Bastet, the name of a widely revered goddess, was also a name frequently associated with cats. 

Cat cemeteries were used at the archeological sites of Speos Artemidos, Bubastis, and Saqqara for several centuries. Vast amounts of cat mummies and statues were discovered in the mummies’ tombs, and they can now be viewed in museums all over the world. The majority of the mummified cats discovered at Gizeh were African wildcats (Felis lybica), with jungle cats (Felis niger) being the second most-common (Felis chaus). With the discovery of so many Egyptian cat mummies, it’s safe to say that the cat cult played a significant role in Egypt’s economic development. After all, raising cats and maintaining a trading network to supply them with food, oils, and resins to embalm them were all lifestyle necessities that contributed to Egypt’s thriving economy.

Around mid-950 BC, during the 22nd Dynasty, the city of Bubastis became home to the goddess Bastet and her temple. Now, she is only depicted with the small head of a cat. In these times, domestic cats (Felis catus) were embalmed and entombed in cat cemeteries and laid to rest with great honor. In regards to Egyptian mythology, domestic cats were considered living embodiments of Bastet, who guarded their homes against rodents, and the lion-headed deity Sekhmet was worshipped as the pharaohs’ personal protector. Pharaoh Osorkon II added a festival hall to the Bastet temple during his reign in the 9th century BC. Cat statues and statuettes crafted from bronze, alabaster, and porcelain could be found in a wide range of sizes decorating the temple, and many of these artifacts have been re-discovered in recent years.

The practice of mummifying animals became increasingly popular in ancient Egypt during the Late Period, 664-632 BC. Cat mummies were votive offerings made to deities during most religious festivals or pilgrimages. Even in the 15th century, German explorer Arnold von Harff visited Egypt and saw mamluk warriors treating cats with honor and compassion. Now, the gentle treatment of cats is still considered Islamic tradition by many people today.