Why did the ancient Egyptians consider cats sacred?

Cats, or “Mau” as they were known in Ancient Egypt, held a special place in the vast tapestry of Egyptian society, religion, and daily life. To understand why these graceful creatures were held in such high esteem, one needs to delve into various aspects of Egyptian culture.

In ancient Egypt, cats were revered. Adorned with jewels, they were mummified upon death. Owners shaved eyebrows in mourning, awaiting their regrowth. Art depicted various felines, and unintentionally killing one resulted in death. Image: Cat statue of the Egyptian goddess Bastet in the Louvre, Paris

  • Protectors and Hunters: Egyptian society was agricultural, relying heavily on grain storage. With storage came the inevitable pests, such as mice and rats. Cats, being natural hunters, kept these pests at bay, ensuring the safety of the food supply. They thus played a direct role in supporting the Egyptian economy and food security.
  • Symbolism in Egyptian Mythology: The lioness is a recurring figure in Egyptian mythology. Goddesses like Bastet and Sekhmet were depicted with lioness heads. Bastet, originally a lioness warrior goddess of the sun, evolved over time into the cat goddess associated with domesticity, fertility, and childbirth. Her protective nature was invoked to shield the home and the pharaoh. Sekhmet, on the other hand, was a goddess of war and healing, symbolizing the fierce heat of the sun.

Sekhmet and Bastet in Egyptian mythology

  • Cats and the Divine: Cats were often thought to have protective qualities, and their nocturnal nature led to associations with mystery and the divine. The way their eyes seemed to glow at night, reflecting even the faintest of lights, might have been likened to the sun and moon’s luminosity, further associating them with deities.
  • Physical and Aesthetic Appeal: The ancient Egyptians were a civilization deeply in tune with symmetry, beauty, and aesthetic harmony, evident in their art, architecture, and jewelry. The graceful, poised nature of cats, combined with their keen hunting skills, likely appealed to the Egyptians’ sense of balance and beauty.

Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose’s cat, displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts of Valenciennes, France

  • Cats in Daily Life: Cats were commonly found in Egyptian households, from palaces to peasant homes. Their presence transcended class. While they were admired for their beauty and grace, they also had a pragmatic role in protecting food stores from pests.

Egyptian deities that protected Ra during his journey through the underworld

  • Sacred Laws and Cats: The reverence the Egyptians had for cats was enshrined in their legal system. Killing a cat, even accidentally, could result in severe punishments. There were even instances when cats were mummified and buried with great ceremony, highlighting their religious and cultural significance.
  • Diplomatic Gifts: Cats became so revered and prized that they were often offered as cherished diplomatic gifts. They were also, for a time, forbidden to be taken out of Egypt, reflecting their immense value to the Egyptian economy and society.
  • Cats in Mourning: The bond between Egyptians and their cats was profound. When a cat died, it was common for the household to enter a period of mourning, often signified by the family members shaving their eyebrows.
  • Mummification of Cats: Cats were sometimes mummified, just as humans were. Archeologists have unearthed vast cemeteries, like the one at Bubastis, dedicated solely to mummified cats. Such discoveries emphasize the extensive religious and cultural role cats played.

The ancient Egyptians revered cats as mystical beings, attributing them with the power to bestow good fortune upon their keepers. This deep-rooted belief amplified the value and significance of cats in Egyptian society and culture. Image: Cat mummies exhibited in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the Louvre, Paris, France

  • Cats as Amulets: The protective nature of cats was often invoked in daily Egyptian life. Cat-shaped amulets and statues were commonly used as protective talismans. The idea was that the protective essence of the cat would shield the wearer or owner from harm.

  • Reflection of a Harmonious Universe: In the Egyptian worldview, the universe was an ordered and harmonious entity, where every element had its place. Cats, with their poised and balanced nature, could have been seen as embodiments of this cosmic harmony.

The sacred status of cats in ancient Egyptian culture was a blend of practical, aesthetic, and religious factors. Cats’ natural abilities as hunters made them invaluable to an agrarian society. At the same time, their graceful demeanor and associations with powerful deities like Bastet and Sekhmet elevated them to a sacred status. Image (Left to Right): Ancient Egyptian goddesses Sekhmet and Bastet

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