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Throughout the entire world, there are approximately 220 million domesticated
cats ("Companion Animal/Other"). A 2014 study placed the number of domesticated cats
in Europe at 99,195,251 ("Facts & Figures 2014" 3). The United States boasts
85,800,000 alone (The Humane Society of the United States). A study by Euromonitor
shows that in the United States, Canada, French Guiana, Russia, the United Kingdom,
France, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Romania,
Bulgaria, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia domesticated cats outnumber
domesticated dogs, and in Switzerland, Austria, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia,
and New Zealand domesticated cats outnumber dogs by twice or more (qtd. In
Ferdman, and Ingraham).
One might wonder, What started this global cat obsession? They would need to
look no further for the origins than the ancient Egyptians. While cats were first
domesticated in Mesopotamia at what scientists estimate to be 12,000 BC (Wade A8),
long before they estimate the emergence of Egyptian civilization, cats didnt make a
considerable impact on a people until they achieved high status in Egypt. Felines
perceptibly held a massive sway over the Egyptian populace, as reflected in their laws,
religion, and art. It can be said that cats held a substantial influence over the culture of
the ancient Egyptian, especially in their religion, in their daily lives, and in their
professional lives.
There were two types of wild cats in the world of the ancient Egyptians, the
swamp or jungle cat, Felis chaus, and the African wild cat, Felis silvestris libyca. Malek
writes, Their [these cat species] presence is confirmed by many reports and
observations made in the past two hundred years, particularly since the French invasion

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under Napoleon in 1798 (23). Unfortunately, the Egyptians only had one word for cat,
and did not differentiate between domesticated and wild cats. There is no definitive
answer available as to which species the Egyptians kept as pets, but it was more than
likely one of those two, or some sort of hybrid. However, both types of cats found their
way into Egyptian culture and religion.
When trying to understand the religion of the ancient Egyptians, first one must
understand that the ancient Egyptians saw the differences between humans and
animals as being less pronounced than people of today. This is reflected through their
gods and goddesses, who are often depicted with human bodies with the head of an
animal (Meeks 60). There is a handful of Egyptian gods and goddesses that were
obviously influenced by cats. They are all depicted as being partially housecat, dessert
cat, or lion. Some gods even had completely separate cat forms that differentiated from
their regular forms of depiction.
Ra was seen as the creator, chief god, and father of many of the gods. Ra was
their sun god, responsible for driving the boat that carried the sun across the sky during
the day. It was believed that every night, Ra essentially died and traveled to the
underworld, where he would face the evil serpent god Apep. Ra was believed to take on
many different forms. Normally, Ra is depicted with the body of a man and the head of a
hawk, with the sun disk on his head. However, one of his other forms was Miuty, which,
through direct translation is The Great Cat (Budge Vol. 1 345). Also known as Miu or
Mau, this form of Ra was the form in which he was depicted killing Apep. This is one of
the key factors of why felines were so revered in ancient Egypt. In every cat, Egyptians
saw the divine nature of their creator.

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Another Egyptian cat-like deity was Bast. Bast is also known as Bastet, a change
that was added later to emphasize the pronunciation. Bast was the daughter of Ra and
was known as the Eye of Ra, because she was tasked as a protector as Ra traveled
the sky. She was depicted with the head of a desert cat or lion in early Egyptian history,
but she later became associated with the common housecat (Hill Ancient Egyptian
Gods: Bast). In some temples, mummified cats were sacrificed to Bast. Bast was more
commonly worshiped in Lower Egypt, and her center of worship was located in
Bubastis, where cat mummifications would take place (Quirke 94).
Closely associated with Bast is Sakhmet, but while Bast represented more of the
suns beneficial aspects, Sakhmet represented the unpleasant aspects (Barnett 85).
Sakhmet was a lion-headed deity who was sometimes depicted in a similar way to Ra,
with the sun disk on her head. Hill provides that this is because she was represented
by the searing heat of the mid-day sun and was a terrifying goddess. Sekhmets overall
purpose as a goddess was to serve as the protector of Maat, the universal order that
Egyptians believed had been established at the beginning of time. She was seen as an
extremely harsh goddess, but one that served a very necessary purpose. Sekhmet was
more widely worshiped in Upper Egypt.
Tefnut was also known as the Eyes of Ra. She was depicted as a lioness or a
woman with the head of a lioness, and she was almost never depicted without a solar
disk above her head. As both the left and right eyes of Ra, she represented both the sun
and the moon. She was essentially the goddess of moisture, representing moistness by
the moon, and dryness by the sun. It is said in the Pyramid Texts that Shu together with

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Tefnut, (who) created the gods, begat the gods, established the gods (Mercer 142).
She played an important role as the mother of many Egyptian deities.
Menhet was another lioness-headed goddess. Her name translates to the One
who Sacrifices, but she was also known as the Slaughterer. She was also depicted
with a solar disk over her head. She was a war goddess, who the pharaohs armies
believed accompanied them into battle (Hill Ancient Egyptian Gods: Menhet).
Maahes is a lion-headed god who was considered by some to be Sekhmets son,
and by others to be Basts son. Maahes was also given the title of Eye of Ra. Maahes,
however, was rarely referred to by his name, but was called by one of his many titles,
such as:
-The Lord of the Massacre
-Wielder of the Knife
-The Scarlet Lord (as in the blood of his enemies)
-or, Lord of Slaughter
Nevertheless, he was not seen as an evil force, but rather a vengeful force against
violators of Maat (Hill Ancient Egyptian Gods: Maahes). Because of his work for justice,
he was also given the names Avenger of Wrongs and Helper of the Wise Ones.
Along with the occupation of protecting universal order, Maahes was also tasked with
helping protect Ra on his journey. Maahes was also a god of war.
As made evident of by this small sample of Egyptian deities, the Egyptians
obviously felt that cats, big or small, played a large role in the world they inhabited. They
saw the essence of their creator when they encountered a cat. Lions would have

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reminded them of the war deities that protected them when they went off into battle. An
aggravated feline would remind them to keep Maat, or they would risk the wrath of
Maahes. Almost any action by a cat could function as a reminder of the gods they
served.
Because of the divine nature of cats in Egypt, cats often affected the average
Egyptians daily life. Being seen as a divine creature, legislation was in place that
prohibited the killing of cats. However, cats were allowed to be kept as pets, and they
were often quite beloved. The historian Herodotus records this in his account of Egypt
and the Egyptians:
Moreover when a fire occurs, the cats seem to be divinely possessed; for
while the Egyptians stand at intervals and look after the cats, not taking
any care to extinguish the fire, the cats slipping through or leaping over the
men, jump into the fire; and when this happens, great mourning comes
upon the Egyptians. And in whatever houses a cat has died by a natural
death, all those who dwell in this house shave their eyebrowsThe cats
when they are dead are carried away to sacred buildings in the city of
Bubastis, where after being embalmed they are buried.
Cats were obviously much beloved and revered creatures if they warranted
embalming and grieving after they died. Diodorus added to what we know about cat
mummification when he wrote about how the cat was wrapped in linens and taken to the
embalmer. He wrote, after it has been treated with cedar oil and such spices as
have the quality of imparting a pleasant odour and of preserving the body for a long
time, they lay it away in a consecrated tomb (Diodorus, I, 83).
The Greek historian Diodorus also records in his Bibliotheca Historica his travels
to Egypt, and in his records shows that the life of a cat was not something to be taken
lightly:

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Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed


this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate
Roman, who accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King
Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.
As one can see, Egyptians took the divine aspect of cats and the value of their
lives very seriously.
On the other hand, not everything involving cats was so weighty. Very rarely were
cats given specific names, and little distinction was made between wild and
domesticated cats. Almost always, cats were simply called miu which means he/she
who mews, and is also the Egyptian word for cat (Quirke 21). However, scientists have
found exceptions. A cat was found with the name Nedjem, which means sweetie. An
additional cat, who belonged to prince Thutmose, was christened Tai Miuwette, which
means the little mewer. To further show the Egyptians keenness for cats, it should be
noted that Egyptians sometimes called or named their daughters Miut, which means
female cat.
Cats even influenced common expressions. One such expression was recorded
on pottery shards by Ankhsheshonq, son of Tjainufi, to teach his son through his writing
while in prison. When a man smells of myrrh his wife is a cat before him. When a man
is suffering his wife is a lioness before him (Lichtheim 171). In this, he also warns him:
Do not laugh at a cat (Lichtheim 172).
Generally, cats were important and allowed in Egypt because they were very
helpful animals. Egypt was primarily an agriculturally based society. Their large stores of
grains and other crops would have been a catalyst for a high vermin population. Cats
helped to curb the rodents by killing them, thus preventing them from getting out of

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control. Egypt is also a region that harbors a large snake population. Cats occasionally
killed snakes, helping keep the Egyptians safer while also alluding to Ras killing of
Apep.
Cats also accompanied their owners while they hunted. Egyptian hunters would
stand near the marshes and knock down water fowl with a club or stick. Then, their cats
would leap into the water and retrieve the prey. Scientists and historians know this
happened because a tomb in Thebes was discovered with a painting of a cat retrieving
one such bird. Wilkinson writes about the painting:
A favourite cat sometimes accompanied the Egyptian sportsmen on these
occasions, and the artist intends to show us, by the exactness with which
he represents the animal seizing the game, that cats were trained to hunt
and carry the water-fowl. (qtd. In Simpson 22)
Cats are highly prominent in ancient Egyptian artwork. There are many
depictions of cats on painted on temple walls, pottery, and statues. Some owners even
drew features on the faces of their mummified pet before they laid them to rest. The
Sphinx has the body of a lion and the face of a human. The Egyptians cat obsession
was so strong, it bled into the art and monuments that they left for future generations to
find.
Not only did cats affect Egyptians in their day-to-day lives, but cats also
influenced aspects of their professional lives. There were jobs created and continually
centered around cats. The same could be said about certain branches of their
government. There were even some battles that the Egyptians faced whose outcomes
were determined by cats.

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At least three vocations in Egyptian society were cat-centric. Priests in the temple
of Bast dealt with sacred temple cats that lived in the temple. When cats died, they were
mummified, and the mummified cats were offered as sacrifices to Bast by the priests.
Sometimes, the priests killed the cats themselves, the religious exception on the
Egyptian mandates regarding the killing of cats.
The ancient Egyptians developed catteries, or cat-breeding programs
(Kurushima, and others 2). These were used to provide cats to the priests of Bast.
Egyptians were actually employed taking care of the cats. Keeping up the cat population
was important for religious purposes, and thus they developed catteries.
The third job clearly related to cats was involved with the government. The
Egyptian government had strict rules prohibiting the export of their beloved cats. In fact,
they were so firm on this that an entire division of the government was created to deal
with this problem (Mark). These federal officers were tasked with entering other
countries to track down and return cats that had been trafficked.
While not every Egyptian worked directly with cats in their professions, quite a
few of them did. This goes to show how dedicated the Egyptians were to their feline
friends, and how much they sincerely believed in their divine nature.
At least once in Egyptian history, cats played a major role in determining the
outcome of a battle. Cambyses II, king of Persia, decided to attack Pelusium, an
Egyptian city that essentially served as the gateway to Egypt. The account of it is
recorded in Polyaenuss Stratagems. He writes:

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When Cambyses attacked Pelusium, which guarded the entrance into


Egypt, the Egyptians defended it with great resolution. They advanced
formidable engines against the besiegers, and hurled missiles, stones, and
fire at them from their catapults. To counter this destructive barrage,
Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and
whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The Egyptians
immediately stopped their operations, out of fear of hurting the animals,
which they hold in great veneration. Cambyses captured Pelusium, and
thereby opened up for himself the route into Egypt.
If it werent for the Egyptians great reverence for those animals, including cats,
they would not have been defeated at the battle of Pelusium.
Given all this evidence, it cannot be said that cats did not affect Egyptian culture.
Cats obviously held an influential place in Egyptian religion, as clearly evidenced by the
sheer number of gods that were represented with the aspect of a cat or lion. Their
reverence for the animals, as reflected in their laws condemning killing the animals,
showed that they were held to have some sort of divine properties or connections.
As previously mentioned, Herodotus records that when a fire would break out in
Egypt, the Egyptians first priority was not extinguishing the flames, or saving their
possessions, but rather saving the cats from the fire. This fact clearly shows that the
Egyptians fanatically cared for cats. It takes true passion to run into a burning building,
and it is clearly recorded that the Egyptians had such a passion for cats.
Normally, when a government dedicates its time and resources to something, it is
important to the populace or the government. Because the Egyptian government had a
branch devoted to rectifying the illegal export of cats from their country, it can be
inferred that the people felt it was a very serious and important matter. Even the fact
that they had such strict rules regulating the export of cats shows that they were an
extremely valued part of Egyptian society.

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Theres no doubting that cats played a large role in Egyptian history. There is still
a question that remains to be answered: Was the influence cats had over the Egyptians
for the better, or for worse? It is said that mice at the time only became timid creatures
after the Egyptians began using cats to curb their numbers. Looking at another time,
there is a theory that the killing of cats led to the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1300s
Europe. In his book Catlore, Desmond Morris writes:
Because the cat was seen as evil, all kinds of frightening powers
were attributed to it by the writers of the day. Its teeth were said to be
venomous, its flesh poisonous, its hair lethal (causing suffocation if a few
were accidentally swallowed), and its breath infectious, destroying human
lungs and causing consumption As late as 1658 Edward Topsel, in his
serious work on natural history, [wrote] `the familiars of Witches do most
ordinarily appear in the shape of Cats, which is an argument that this beast
is dangerous to soul and body (158).
In a 1232 papal bull, attributed to Pope Gregory IX, describing and forbidding a
satanic sect, it describes the initiation rights of the cult. It speaks of a statue of a black
cat that becomes a living cat that the cultists then use in their ritual. It was widely
believed that cats were witches familiars, and this was made worse when the Christian
church associated cats with evil as personified in the Devil (Mark). While there are no
surviving accounts of mass cat extermination, there are many who believe that, at a
highly superstitious period in history, cats were persecuted. With the death of so many
cats, the rat and mouse population would have skyrocketed. Many have argued that the
Bubonic Plague outbreak of 1348 was caused partially because of the killing of cats. By

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keeping such a high population of cats in ancient Egypt, it could be argued that the
Egyptians unwittingly prevented an ancient plague outbreak.
On the other hand, the Egyptians love for cats was clearly disadvantageous in
other matters. If it wasnt for their love of their feline companions, many Egyptians would
have been safer when a fire broke out, and would not have risked their lives for their
pets. The laws requiring the death of anyone who killed a cat was also unfair to those
who accidently killed the animals, or who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong
time. When the Egyptian mob killed the Roman delegate, they risked enticing Romes
wrath against them. Lastly, the Egyptians devotion to the animals was unmistakably
unfortunate in the battle of Pelusium. If they didnt have their love of those animals,
including cats, as a weakness, it couldnt have been exploited against them, giving them
a much better chance against the Persians.
Overall, the beneficial effects and the detrimental effects of cats on Egyptian
culture balance out to form a more neutral force. This is not to say that cats didnt
impact the ancient Egyptians. Cats and lions played a large role in their religion and
beliefs, as evident in their god and goddess, as well as their religious artwork and
writings. Cats also impacted most Egyptians in their day-to-day lives. Expressions
evolved in Egypt that included cats, showing that cats impacted their language. Cats
even impacted the jobs available to the average Egyptian, adding positions as priests,
cat breeders, or government cat-tracking agents. It can definitely be said that without
cats, the Egypt we look back on today would be an extremely different place.

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Visual Resources
Image 1:

This is an image from the Tomb of Inherkha. It depicts Ra as Miuty, the Great
Tomcat, killing the serpent god Apep. This was chosen because it shows how Egyptians
viewed cats through the lens of religion. Because of this view of their creator god, they
would have seen cats as divine in nature
Image 2:

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This is a photograph of a Statue of a Seated Cat, currently found in the Walters


Museum. They provide this description of the artifact on their website:
Cats were popular in Egypt and were associated with the goddess Bastet.
This seated cat with its tail curled forward has golden earrings, a golden
scarab inlaid on the forehead, and a necklace with a pendant in low relief.
The pendant displays a standing goddess with the double-crown nursing
the young Harpokrates.
This was chosen because it shows how the Egyptians regally depicted the cat in their
artwork, denoting their high respect for the animals.
Image 3:

This is a photograph of a burial mask, from a mummified cat. It was chosen


because it shows the love the Egyptians had for their pets, going to this level of
devotion to preserve and honor their cats memory.

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Works Cited
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Budge, E. A. Wallis, trans. The Gods of the Egyptians or Studies in Egyptian Mythology.
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Hill, J. "Ancient Egyptian Gods: Menhet." Ancient Egypt Online. 2010. Web. 30 Mar.
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