Do you know that cats are held in very high esteem in Ancient Egypt, and Bast (also known as Bastet), the Egyptian Goddess who has a cat head, is one of the most respected ones?
The people of Ancient Egypt believed that animals were the pets of the Gods and Goddesses they worship, and can even manifest as an animal, hence they have a very strong culture of animal worship. Cats were one of the animals who had the rights of mummification after death and doing harm to cats would result in severe punishment both by the community and the law. Households who had domesticated cats would also mourn for their deaths as they would for any other human family member – by shaving off their eyebrows.
The First Feline Goddess
The first feline goddess is Mafdet, who has a lion head, which can be traced as far as 3,400 BC or so. She was known as the goddess of justice and execution, with one of the ancient legends telling how a divine jungle cat managed to cut off the head of Apep, a serpent god who brought about chaos, when he was trying to strangle a sacred Persea tree. This was probably also due to the fact that cats killed mice, snakes, scorpions and other pests which were posing troubles (such as poisoning or breaking into granaries) to the Egyptians.
After the unification of the Upper and Lower Egypt, Mafdet was replaced by Sekhmet, who also had a lion head, but the focus shifted from representing justice and execution to the power of royalty.
Bast, who appeared slightly after Mafdet, was originally represented as a form of a lioness and the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt. However, her image was softened over time to represent domesticated cats instead of a warrior lioness ever since the unification of the Upper and Lower Egypt due to the existence of Mafdet/Sekhmet. She is now more commonly known to be associated with protection, fertility, and motherhood.
The Domestication of Cats
The domestication of cats came naturally to the ancient Egyptians due to the rats and snakes problems that they were facing due to their geographical locations. Cats were the answer to those problems. The ancient Egyptians would place food in their homes to attract the cats and protect the cats from other natural predators. In exchange, the cats would cleanse the house of the rats, snakes and other pests and vermin (which is in accordance to their nature). Over time, the cats gradually settled down among the ancient Egyptians.
The cats which existed in ancient Egypt, however, were not how cats are like today. There were two main groups of cats – jungle cats, which were much fiercer and aloof to humans, and the wildcats, which are gentler in comparison, but still a far way from domesticated cats. As they lived together in the human community and bred with each other, with their kittens being brought up under the care of humans, there were several changes:
- They became smaller. This may be due to a preferential selection by the human community to selectively breed the smaller-sized cats for easier housekeeping.
- They have less and weaker muscles than the jungle cats and wildcats. This is most probably a result from the lack of need to escape for predators or catch their own prey when they live in the human community, where protection and food is offered in exchange for their services.
- They have increased tolerance to humans. Even today, a domesticated cat in your friend’s/neighbor’s house will react very differently to you as compared to a stray cat living on the streets. Increased tolerance (and to a certain extent, reduced aggressiveness) towards humans is a must if cats were to become part of the human community.
This domestication process and the softening image of Bast occurred simultaneously. After some time, Bast completed her transformation from a lioness to a cat, and a temple with a shrine is erected specially for Bast in the city of Bubastis. There was even research done saying that the cats that we see so commonly around us could trace their ancestry back to the land of Ancient Egypt!
The City of Bubastis
The temple dedicated to Bast was laid in the center of the city, and the terrain it was constructed on gave people the impression that it was constructed on a man-made island. The interior of the temple had a statue of Bast, and cats who lived here were loved, cared for, and respected by the priests.
It was recorded that the cat population in Bubastis were so large that the priests had no choice but to introduce a practice of sacrificial culling, the killing and mummification of kittens on a periodic basis which were then sold to pilgrims and travelers as unique relics of the city.
As Bast’s influence grew in Bubastis, there were changes to the marketplace. Artisans created sculptures and trinkets of cats in various postures and sizes, and were very well-received by both the local population and the rest of Egypt, which had their merchandise through the traveling merchants.
One of the most popular and common works was an amulet of a cat with kittens. With the association of fertility, women believed that Bast would grant them as many children as the number of kittens on the amulet.
A major festival in Bubastis was the annual festival of honoring Bast. Ancient Egyptians would travel all the way from where they are (usually following the Nile) to Bubastis, where they feasted with the locals and made offerings and sacrifices to Bast, hoping to earn her favor. These offerings and sacrifices were often mummified cats (after their deaths) or cat sculptures (when they did not have a mummified cat). This was because they believed that the offering of mummified cats to Bast will allow the soul of the cat to be reunited with Bast and continue to watch over them.
Cats in Today’s Society
Even though cats today are more of a companion pet instead of a pet of service, they still bring about several major benefits to their owners. They might not be held in the same regards as they were in Ancient Egypt, but many cat owners do treasure their cats like any other human family member.
My own story: The first cat we owned was a black and white cat which we took in from the streets to nurse due to an injury. This wasn’t the first cat our house nursed back to health, but it was the first cat that we did not send to the rescue center, simply because we grew too attached to her, and also because she refused to leave us when we attempted to hand her over to the rescuers. She clawed, meowed, struggled, and displayed very strong signs of aggression towards the rescuers, a side that we had never seen in her prior to the hand-over. That was how we came to keep her, and we’ve never regretted it.
If you have any questions that you want to ask, anything you wish to clarify, or simply want to express your thoughts and feelings, feel free to leave a comment!