Cats in Ancient Egypt

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When one imagines Ancient Egypt, the images of sand, mummies, and pyramids usually come to mind. Modern times portray cats as a lovable, furry household animal. Did the thought of the two intertwining ever occur? By examining the goddess Bast, tombs where cat mummies reside, and the process of mummifying cats, one can better understand the true significance of the gentle creature in the days of the Ancient Egyptian.

Ancient Egyptians worshipped gods and goddesses frequently. They seemed to posses one for any concept or thing imaginable. People think of Bast as one of the most popular goddesses of her time and generally remember her as a cat goddess. She wore the head of a lion or wildcat in the beginning and possessed the predatory personality as of that of a lioness. Over time people began to generally associate her with a domesticated cat because of her characteristics. They referred to her as Bast when in the form of a beautiful girl with the head of a cat, as opposed to Bastet when she came out in the full form of a cat. Bast incarnated feline traits such as grace, playfulness, cunning, and affection. She held many ties to other gods and goddesses both sexually and by blood, showing people liked her. People worshipped Bast as the goddess of pregnant women, fertility, home, the moon, and fire. Herodotus talked about a peculiarity occurring when a fire started around cats, mentioning the cats bounding over men headfirst into the roaring flames, which left the men in deep mourning. The goddess Bast represented a protective goddess because of a cat’s ability to kill vermin that spread disease and watch out for their crops. Herodotus also recounted a story about a just kittened mother. The female cat no longer desired the companionship of the male cat, so the he would steal the kittens and kill them, driving the females back into his paws for more kittens. A litter of kittens usually accompanied the goddess. The motherly instinct of cats perhaps spurred the idea that the cat goddess, Bast, would bring children to infertile wannabe mothers. The domestication of housecats most likely provided an apparent connection between home and Bast.

The Ancient Egyptians built temples to honor Bast. Burying cat mummies in a colossal feline cemetery near the temple proved a common form of worship and the Egyptians did not take the death of a cat lightly. The goddess considered cats sacred and to harm one proved both unlucky and a crime against her. Priests in her temples regarded felines as incarnations of the Bast herself. The people mummified the cats and submitted them as offerings to the goddess once they died. Upon the death of a housecat, family members would mourn by shaving off their eyebrows.

According to Siculus, whether a man killed a cat unintentionally or intentionally, death would immediately follow. He told the story of a Roman soldier who accidentally murdered a cat. The townspeople refused to spare his life even through the pleading from King Ptolemy or threats coming from Rome. Siculus also said that when people saw dead cats, they would promptly remove themselves from the scene and protest that they did not kill it in fear of getting blamed and lynched. He also said that Egyptians would promise Bast that in return of healing their sick children, they would cut all of their hair off and weigh it against gold and silver. The people would donate all of the money to pay for milk and fish for cats.

Over time, Egyptians began raising cats on behalf of specifically giving them as an offering to Bast. From the Ancient Egyptians a cat cult spurred. Cat killing created an industry and people started buying mummified cats to fulfill the demands of the goddess. People killed massive amounts of cats during this time. Historians believe the Egyptian people raised hundreds of thousands of cats for slaughter. Jobs for embalmers, priests, and animal keepers opened up and people needed them in full demand. Pharaohs...
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