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Cats in ancient Egypt

The Egyptian Museum
Cats (Felis sylvestris catus), known in Ancient Egypt as the mau, played a role in ancient Egyptian society. Beginning as a wild, untamed species, cats were useful for limiting vermin in Egyptian crops and harvests; through exposure, cats became domesticated and learned to coexist with humans. The people in what would later be Upper and Lower Egypt had a religion centering around the worship of animals, including cats.
Praised for controlling vermin and its ability to kill snakes such as cobras, the domesticated cat became a symbol of grace and poise. The goddess Mafdet, the deification of justice and execution, was a lion-headed goddess. The cat goddess Bast (also known as Bastet) eventually replaced the cult of Mafdet, and Bast's image softened over time and she became the deity representing protection, fertility, and motherhood.
As a revered animal and one important to Egyptian society and religion, some cats got the same mummification after death as humans. Mummified cats were given in offering to Bast. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer uncovered a large tomb with mummified cats and kittens. This discovery outside the town of Beni Hasan had eighty thousand cat mummies, dating to 1000-2000 BCE.

Cats in everyday life in Ancient Egypt

Feral cats ("wild cats") naturally preyed upon the rats and other vermin that ate from the royal granaries.[citation needed] They earned their place in towns and cities by killing mice, poisonous snakes, and other pests.[citation needed] They were worshiped by the Egyptians and given jewelry in hieroglyphics.
The two native Egyptian cat species were the Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) and the African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). The wildcat was largely domesticated; the jungle cat was not as docile, and was probably not especially helpful in the initial phases of domestication. The two species eventually fused to create a new breed of cat.[which?]
The change in temperament is attributed to heredity and tolerance of humans. Changes due to domestication follow a pattern similar to other domesticated animals including dogs (domesticated from wolves) and cattle.

A bronze statue of a domesticated cat and her kitten
In Cats: The Rise of the Cat, Roger Tabor suggests that the domestication process was due to two possible reasons. Breeding within itself, a large population of cats could develop, and would continue doing so at an exponential rate. Familiarity with human society was aided by the association of cats with the goddess Bast - Egyptian temple priests would often keep cats at their temple as a representative of the goddess.
As cats were sacred to Bast, the practice of mummification was extended to them, and the respect that cats received after death mirrored the respect they were treated with in everyday life. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that in the event of a fire, men would guard the fire to make certain that no cats ran into the flame. Herodotus also wrote that when a cat died, the household would go into mourning as if for a human relative, and would often shave their eyebrows to signify their loss. Another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, describes an interesting example of swift justice imposed upon the killer of a cat: about 60BC, he witnessed the chariot of a Roman soldier accidentally run over an Egyptian cat. An outraged mob gathered and, despite pleas from pharaoh Ptolemy XII, killed the soldier.

Bubastis and the Cult of the Cat

Although the cat cult was a religious movement by the birth of the New Kingdom it gained importance when Shoshenq I developed Bubastis, chief centre of worship for the goddess Bast, located east of the Nile Delta, into an important city. At the same time, Bast developed into an immensely popular and important deity representing fertility, motherhood, protection, and the benevolent aspects of the sun - along with Sekhmet, she was known as the Eye of Ra. The cult of the cat garnered a huge following and thousands of pilgrims journeyed each year to Bubastis to celebrate. Bubastis also became another name by which the goddess was known.
Close to the centre of the city lay a large temple to Bast. This temple was in a depression which sited it at a lower elevation to the rest of the city, which had been raised to minimize flood damage from the nearby Nile. Of this Herodotus, who visited the city in 450BC, wrote that although the size of the shrine to Bast was perhaps 'not as large as those of other cities, and probably not as costly, no temple in all of Egypt gave more pleasure to the eye'.
Herodotus wrote that the annual festival of Bast held in the city was the one of the most popular of all, with attendees from all over Egypt, who would raft down the Nile celebrating and In her book The Cult of the Cat, Patricia Dale-Green states that, "The cat's body was placed in a linen sheet and carried amidst bitter lamentations by the bereaved to a sacred house where it was treated with drugs and spices by an embalmer"

Cats in other religions

Feline reverence is not limited to Ancient Egyptian civilization. Muslim theology maintains that the prophet Muhammad once found his cat sleeping on his robe; instead of waking it, he went on without it so as not to disturb the animal.[citation needed] If held true by scholars, the story teaches caring and mercifulness to all animals, not only cats (the same tale is also told about Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti). This reverence is in ancient Indian texts, where records of cats involved with human society can be found in two ancient Indian great epics, the Ramayana and Mahābhārata, circa 500BC. In Hindu epic Ramayana, when Rama was leaving to forest to spend his 14 years of exile the cats yelled due to grief caused by his separation. As the Hindu and Parsee religions respected all forms of life and were especially sympathetic towards cats, Hindus were expected to take care of at least one cat during their lives. By contrast, the Islamic culture generally regards dogs as ritually impure (unhygienic) animals.
Tour around the Egyptian Museum


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