Curious Cat Culture in Ancient Egypt: Did They Worship Cats?
Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Everyone knows cats are great at keeping pests out of the house, which was no different for ancient Egyptians.
They kept the grain stores free of mice and chased off snakes and scorpions too!
But was that enough to worship cats in the ancient world?
Let’s look closer…
How the love of cats evolved in Egypt
As time passed, Egyptians recognized cats beyond their companionship and useful predator function.
Ancient Egyptians understood that cats of all sizes were agile, clever, and powerful.
Felines eventually became associated with women and fertility as they were observed sitting with women.
Cats had many kittens in a litter which may have inspired the belief in the power of fertility.
Egyptian cat culture evolved from pest control to companionship, building an undeniably strong relationship between humans and their furry friends.
Why did ancient Egyptians mummify cats?
While killing a cat was a crime, mummification was the exception.
Breeding and mummifying cats was an entire economy unto itself.
Demand outweighed supply, and ancient Egypt responded by opening the first documented catteries in the ancient world.
Cat cult worshipping centers and temples of cat goddesses needed offerings for their gods, and people needed funerary goods for the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptians believed that their gods could assume different forms, and over the centuries, it became increasingly common for gods to take the form of animals, including cats.
When cats were mummified, they could then be used as funerary goods, which meant they would be placed in the tomb with their owners.
This allowed the deceased to take form in the body of their mummified cat in the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptians believed they could take all their worldly possessions with them into the afterlife for eternity, which meant fluffy the cat, was coming too!
Cats and the royals
It's safe to say local Egyptians took inspiration from the royals.
From fashion to food, and you guessed it - cats - the royals took their adoration of cats to a new level.
With their divine status as representations of the gods on Earth, cats were lavished with affection and much more.
Cats of the royal family wore collars encrusted with gold and semi-precious stones and ate from the pharaoh's plate!
Picture this: Your bejeweled house cat, or tiger, perhaps, sharing a fine plate of herbed tilapia with garlic, leeks, cucumbers, and lettuce!
Maybe even honey cakes for dessert!
Ahh, to be a feline of the pharaoh during ancient Egypt…a charmed life indeed.
Cats, the gods, and sphinxes
By this time, cats were considered divine representations of gods on Earth.
Bastet, the cat goddess, and daughter of Ra, was represented as a fierce lioness in her earliest forms.
Later, she took the less ferocious form of a domestic cat caring for her young and protecting the home.
In later periods, she was often represented as a regal-looking seated cat, sometimes wearing rings in her ears or nose.
Sekhmet was a warrior goddess of protection, as well as a goddess of healing.
Depicted as a lioness, she led the pharaoh into battle and provided continued protection after death in the underworld.
Also known as the daughter of Ra, Sekhmet is a solar deity.
We can’t discuss cats without the Great Sphinx coming to mind.
Thought to be the Pharaoh Khafre or possibly Khufu, the Great Sphinx is the world's most famous (and biggest) cat.
Sphinxes were considered spiritual guardians and were often included in temples and tombs.
Why would a king want to be represented as a cat?
Because cats symbolized power, authority, ferocity, agility, and cunning - all the qualities befitting a king.
The first Persian conquest of Egypt was decided by cats
The most memorable example of ancient Egyptians' devotion to felines stems from the war of Pelusium between Pharaoh Psametik lll and the Persian King Cambyses ll.
The Persian King used the love of cats against Egyptian soldiers by rounding up cats, driving them into the battlefield, and even carrying them with their weapons!
Perhaps the Egyptian soldiers didn't fight back for fear of killing a god, as any cat could be Bastet herself!
Instead of fighting, they surrendered at will…after all, death was the price you paid for killing a cat.
By 450 BCE and likely earlier, documentation shows that death was the official punishment for killing a cat in ancient Egypt.
Fascinating ancient Egypt cat-facts
Losing a cat from your family household was a tragedy observed in great sorrow. Families shaved off their eyebrows and mourned until they grew back.
An ancient Egyptian branch of government was formed to prevent the export of cats from Egypt.
Secret spies were sent to foreign regions to repatriate cats smuggled out of Egypt.
Yep, secret agent cat spy could have been your ancient career path!
Cats in ancient Egyptian tomb art
In everyday Egyptian society, tomb art gives us a glimpse of ancient cat life.
They're seen playing, lounging under chairs, and chasing birds - much like today.
Although difficult to see here, what stands out is the gold leaf shimmering in the cat's eye in the Tomb of Nebamun.
It's the only known example of gilded wall art in Theban tomb chapels and reminds us of the divine status of cats in ancient Egypt.
We know that Egyptians believed that the gods took the form of cats.
Perhaps Nebamum’s cat alludes to Sekhmet (warrior protector of the pharaoh) defending the enemies of the sun god Ra and keeping order in the kingdom.
Mortuary texts show cats as fearsome beasts and protectors of the gods!
Here, a Bastet holds a knife, ready to strike the snake deity Apep in defense of Ra, the sun god.
Ancient Egyptian art clearly shows the role of cats in daily life as well as the afterworld.
They were loved, respected, divine creatures through which the gods took form and animated at will.
The end of cat culture in ancient Egypt
Although the cat culture continued for centuries, pagan practices were forbidden when Egypt became part of the Roman empire (30AD).
So, in answer to the question, “Did ancient Egyptians worship cats?” well, yes and no.
Ancient Egyptians didn’t worship cats.
However, knowing the gods shapeshifted and took the form of cats, specific ones were worshipped if thought to be a god, like Bastet or Sekhmet.
Were cats considered divine?
If the gods thought they were good enough vessels to take form in, treating them as divine creatures made sense.
Their worthiness may have started out as practical but evolved to the highest station in life on the chance they may be a god in the form of a feline.
They were loved companions, protectors of the pharaoh, and possessed admirable qualities valued by all Egyptians.
Cats were a powerful, everyday reminder that the gods were near.
Ancient Egyptians took great care in covering the walls of their tombs with hopes and dreams for the afterlife, including taking their beloved companions with them for eternity.
*All photos by the author, except Bastet slaying Apep and the cat hunting scene.
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