If you have ever seen paintings of the ancient Egyptians, then you may have noticed that cats feature strongly in the artwork. Similarly, those who have been to a museum with ancient Egyptian artifacts may have noticed that anything feline was of great interest to the Egyptians, as examples of cat-themed artifacts include statues and jewelry. There are examples of museums around the world that have whole exhibits devoted to the Egyptians’ obsession with anything feline. When uncovering parts of Egypt, archeologists have even discovered the earliest known example of pet cemeteries, which date back to 3800 BC.
Although it is unknown when cats were first domesticated by the Egyptians, this gives some indication that it was well before this time. Within this ancient burial ground, the scientists and historians discovered countless mummified cats that have been hidden away since the time that Pharaohs ruled the Nile, and many of these were wearing intricate beaded and iron collars. The discovery of cat burial grounds is just one example of how much the Egyptians valued their cats. Another example came from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, as he claimed that when a family cat died, the Egyptians would shave their eyebrows as a mark of respect. So, why were the ancient Egyptians so obsessed with cats?
The Beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians
According to Live Science, the ancient Egyptians love of cats was related to their beliefs. They thought their rulers and gods had many feline-like qualities, both physically and characteristically. The Egyptians also believed that cats possessed two sets of desirable qualities. On the one hand, cats are fierce, independent, and confrontational. However, on the other hand, they possess nurturing, loyal, and protective qualities. Due to these qualities, the ancient Egyptians considered cats special creatures.
Why Did They Create Statues with Feline Qualities?
Although this might explain why the ancient Egyptians built cat-like statues, It does not necessarily explain why they went to so much trouble to build the Sphinx of Giza, which is a 240-foot-long monument that boasts the head of a man on a lion’s body. Similarly, it is unknown why the Egyptians depicted many of their goddesses as having feline parts of their anatomy. One example is Sakhmet, a protective deity. Sakhmet is depicted as the reverse of the Sphinx of Giza, as she has a woman’s body with a lion’s head. Bastet, another Egyptian goddess, was often depicted as a lion or cat, as they believed that cats were sacred to this goddess.
Practical Uses of Cats in Ancient Egypt
The obsession with cats was not only about the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, as they also had practical uses for cats. Just like modern domesticated and feral cats, the cats in ancient Egypt were excellent hunters. Therefore, many people kept them for their hunting abilities. Cats were an excellent way of getting rid of creatures such as mice, snakes, and other small animals. Therefore, many families in ancient Egypt kept a cat in their homes. A study from the University College of London claims that many Egyptians were so fond of their cats that they would give their children cat-related nicknames to their children. For example, there is evidence that many little girls had the nickname ‘Mitti,’ which was the ancient Egyptian word for cat.
The Darker Side of the Feline Obsession
While the evidence so far suggests that the Egyptians had a great fondness for cats, there was also a darker side to their feline obsession. Research suggests a cat breeding industry specifically to breed millions of kittens that were then killed and mummified so people could have a cat buried alongside them. In 2020, Scientific Reports published a study that researched mummified animals using X-ray micro-CT scanning. One of the animals in the study was a cat. The scanning process allowed the researchers to learn more about the materials used for mummification and the skeletal structure of the animals. The findings when studying the mummified cat were surprising, as it was much smaller than they had originally thought. It appeared much larger due to all the layers of mummification. Approximately 50% of the mummified cat consisted of the materials used for wrapping, and this gave the impression of a much larger animal.
However, when they looked at the scans, the researchers discovered that the cat inside was no more than five months old and that its neck was deliberately broken. This supported previous research that showed kittens were reared and used as sacrifices. Richard Johnston was one of the authors of the study. He is a professor of materials research at Swansea University (https://www.swansea.ac.uk/) in Wales. Johnston claims that kittens were often reared specifically to become sacrifices to the gods. There were even cat farms, which indicates an industrial approach to cat breeding. Evidence suggests that this was common practice between 700 B.C. and A.D. 300. The Ancient Egyptians believed that sacrificing a cat was a way of seeking help from deities or appeasing them. They thought that offering a sacrifice would strengthen their spoken prayers when burying a loved one.
The Ancient Egyptians Obsession with Cats – The Final Verdict
It is clear from archeological evidence that the Ancient Egyptians held cats in high esteem. Their obsession with cats largely relates to the way they valued feline qualities and to their belief systems. Not only did the ancient Egyptians believe that their gods possessed feline-like qualities and physical characteristics, but they also believed that sacrificing cats when they lost a loved one would support their prayers. This led to cat farming to breed kittens specifically for sacrifice purposes. However, there was also a less dark side to the ancient Egyptians obsession with cats, as they also valued their qualities, kept them as pets, and used them as hunters.