Cats in Ancient Egypt – not what you think it was like
Introduction – the relationship between Ancient Egyptians and domestic and wildcats was not as rosy as you think
Cats in ancient Egypt were used for the benefit of people despite being worshipped, and despite the idea that they were treated extremely well, I would argue. I quite like cat history and trying to learn about the cat (or the human) through it. In looking again at the famous cats of ancient Egypt, I decided to look for extracts from publications that are in the public domain and which therefore can be published verbatim (for accuracy) and from a time nearer the actual events. The best of these are the writings of Herodotus who has an excellent reputation for writing about history. He lived not long after the end of the deification of the cat in about 300 AD.
Accordingly, the account is likely to be more accurate. I think that what he says is quite enlightening and not quite in line with the classic account.
In essence the cat was, I feel, used by the Egyptians either as a means to find solace and assistance in worshiping it as a god or in killing it and mummifying it as a commercial enterprise to sell to pilgrims who wished to worship Bastet. And of course, the cat (and civet or mongoose) was used as a utility animal to kill snakes and rodents, which were abundant around the Nile. Overall, this is not the conventional view but it can be gleaned from old text. And the Egyptians it seems worshiped almost anything that moved! Although rarely mentioned there was a lot of reverence towards the dog too.
There are other more recent texts and notes on the text by the authors and commentators of the books from which these extracts are taken. I have broken these extracts down for that reason. The text is old fashioned, so a bit heavy but the information is there. They are in italics.
In a deliberately provocative article, I claim that the ancient Egyptians were no better at cat caregiving then humans are today and probably a lot worse. There was plenty of cat abuse. There was mass slaughter of kittens deliberately bred by priests for commercial purposes to offer up to the gods. This does not signify a cat loving culture. You can read that article if you wish by clicking on this link. And here: Animal abuse and religious scams in Ancient Egypt.Eighty thousand wildcats buried on banks of Nile. It appears that in Ancient Egypt they also slaughtered 80,000 wildcats in order to offer them as gifts to the gods to appease them. Another example of animal abuse as far as I’m concerned. This is not in line with the well-publicised image of Ancient Egyptians being very kind to cats.
Incidentally, my assessment is that all domestic cats in Ancient Egypt were tabby cats. Specifically, they were mackerel/spotted tabby cats because they were domesticated wildcats and all wildcats are essentially spotted tabby cats. There had not been sufficient time for today’s wide range of codes to have evolved.
- Herodotus – his description of cats (and dogs) in ancient Egypt
- Notes on Herodotus by contemporary authors
- My note on Herodotus
- Associated articles:
- The Egyptian Mongoose was domesticated and worshiped too
- Notes (by me, Michael)
- The cat was almost worshiped in the United Kingdom before it was united…
- My notes on the price of domestic cats in Wales 938 AD
Herodotus – his description of cats in ancient Egypt (and dogs)
Herodotus was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC (c. 484BC – c. 425 BC). He is regarded as the “Father of History” in Western culture. He was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. The following extracts come from his translated work and the notes made by the author Rev. William Beloe.
This is his account of the cats of ancient Egypt:
The number of domestic cats in Egypt is very great and would be greater if the increase of cats were not frustrated. The female cats when delivered of their young carefully avoid the company of the males who to obtain a second commerce with them contrive and execute this stratagem they steal the young from the mother which they destroy but do not eat.
This animal which is very fond of its young from its desire to have more again covets the company of the male. In every accident of fire the cats seem to be actuated by some supernatural impulse for the Egyptians surrounding the place which is burning appear to be occupied with no thought but that of preserving their cats.
These, however, by stealing between the legs of the spectators, or by leaping over their heads, endeavour to dart into the flames. This circumstance whenever it happens diffuses universal sorrow. In whatever family a cat by accident happens to die every individual cuts off his eye brows but on the death of a dog they shave their heads and every part of bodies.
The cats when dead are carried to sacred buildings and after being salted, buried in the city Bubastis. Of the canine species, the females are buried in consecrated chests, wherever they may happen to die ceremony is also observed with respect to ichneumons.
The shrew-mice and hawks are always removed to Butos; the ibis to Hermo-polis; the bears an animal rarely seen Egypt and the wolves which are not bigger than foxes are buried in whatever place they die1.
Notes on Herodotus by contemporary authors
There occurs, I own, a difficulty in the Egyptian system of theology. It evident from their method of propagation that a couple of cats in fifty years would stock a whole kingdom. If religious veneration were paid them, it would in twenty more not only be easier in Egypt to find a god than man (which Petronius says was the case in some of Italy) but the gods must at last entirely starve men and leave themselves neither priests nor remaining.
It is probable therefore that this wise nation, the most celebrated in antiquity for prudence and policy, foreseeing such dangerous consequences, reserved all their worship for the full grown divinities and used the freedom to drown the holy spawn or little sucking gods without any scruple or remorse. And thus the practice of warping the tenets of religion in order to serve temporal interests is not by any means to be regarded as an invention of these later ages. Note by a person called “Hume”. This is a reference to drowning kittens.
The cat was also held in the extremest veneration by the ancient Egyptians; and Diodorus Siculus relates that a Roman having by accident killed a cat, the common people instantly surrounded his house with every demonstration of fury. The king’s guards were instantly dispatched to rescue him from their rage, but in vain; hisauthority and Roman name were equally ineffectual. In the most extreme necessities of famine they rather chose to feed human flesh than on these animals.
My note on Herodotus
The ichneumons are referred to below – a type of civet or mongoose, I am not sure which.
Associated articles – cat in ancient Egypt:
Article of 1839 on cats in ancient Egypt
Cats in ancient Egypt were held in high veneration by the ancient Egyptians. When a cat died in a house the owner of the house shaved his eye brows. They carried the cats when dead into consecrated houses to be embalmed and interred them at Bubastis a considerable city of Lower Egypt. If any killed a cat though by accident he could not escape death. Even in the present day they are treated with the utmost care in that country on account of their destroying the rats and mice. They are trained in some of the Grecian islands to attack and destroy serpents with which those islands abound.
(MB Comment: the cat that is the modern-day equivalent of the cats in ancient Egypt, the feral Egyptian Mau is generally ill treated. See Egyptian Mau Rescue. This is reported from Egypt2
The Egyptian Mongoose was domesticated and worshiped too
The civet cat Viverra civetta was not unknown to the ancient Egyptians but the chief object of their regard was the Viverra ichneumon which was almost venerated with a species of worship This quadruped Herpestes Pharaonis is one of the most celebrated of the Egyptian animals. It possesses a strong instinct of destruction and in searching for its prey exterminates the young of many noxious reptiles.
The eggs of crocodiles form its favourite food and this portion of its history being mingled in early times with the fanciful notion of its being able to encounter and overcome that gigantic creature in the adult state.
Divine honours were awarded to it by the ancient Egyptians and it became and continued for ages an object of superstitious reverence to a people prone to this symbolical worship of the powers of nature.
Ichneumons are still domesticated in Egypt where they rid the houses of the smaller animals and perform the office of our domestic cats Like the latter they are said to become strongly attached to their accustomed dwellings from whence they seldom wander.
They recognise the persons and the voices of their masters and the chief remnant of their unsubdued or instinctive nature is perceptible during meal time when they retire with their food to some quiet and accustomed corner and manifest by an angry growling their jealous dislike to interruption.
The sense of smell is very acute in this animal. It dwells by the sides of rivers and in addition to its favorite repast of crocodiles eggs it eagerly sucks the blood of every creature which it is able to overcome.
Its body is about a foot and a half in length and its tail is of nearly equal dimensions. Its general colour is a grayish brown but when closely inspected each hair is found an nulated with a paler and a darker hue3.
Notes (by me, Michael)
I believe that Viverra ichneumon is intended to be an Egyptian mongoose4or a type of civet. These are animals of a similar size to the domestic cat and not that different in many respects. The scientific name now is Herpestes ichneumon. Called the Pharoah’s rat5.
The cat was almost worhiped in the United Kingdom
Such was the scarcity of the domestic or sem-feral cat that the then Prince of Wales Howel Dha put a price on cats:
In the time of Howel Dha (Dha stands for the word “good” in the Welsh of that time) Howel the Good Prince of Wales, who died in the year 948, laws were made both to preserve and fix theprices of different animals among which the cat was included as being at that early period of great importance on account of its scarcity and utility. At that time the wild cat roamed Britain as did some large wild animals. This must have been some of the earliest moments of domestication of the wildcat in the UK.
The price of a kitten before it could see was fixed at one penny; till proof could be given of its having caught a mouse, two pence; after which it was rated at four pence. A great sum in those days when the value of specie was extremely high.
It was likewise required that the animal should be perfect in its senses of hearing and seeing should be a good mouser have its claws whole and if a female be a careful nurse. If it failed in any of these qualifications the seller was to forfeit to the buyer the third part of its value. If any one should steal or kill the cat that guarded the prince’s granary the offender was to forfeit either a milch ewe her fleece and lamb or as much wheat as when poured on the cat suspended by its tail (its head touching the floor) would form a heap high enough to cover the tip of the tail.
From these circumstances, says Pennant, we may conclude that cats were not originally natives of these islands and from the great care taken to improve and preserve the breed of this prolific creature we may with propriety suppose that they were but little known at that period6.
My notes on the price of domestic cats in Wales 938 AD
The rather odd mix of praise for the cat’s skills and ill treatment when measuring compensation for breach of contract, I think, mirrors how the cat was treated in ancient Egypt. The cat was mummified as were people in Egypt at that time, yes, but the cat was also slaughtered for commercial reasons so that pilgrims who wanted to worship the god Bastet had something to offer the god toappease her and thereby be more likely to grant a wish. It is not all about being held in high esteem.
We seem to think that ancient Egypt was a utopian time for the domestic cat. Firstly, I am not sure it was as rosy as we imagine and secondly, in Wales (UK), in the year 948 (some 1000 years after the time when the cat was worshipped by Egyptians), the cat was equally treasured as a mouser (the reason why, originally, the cat was so appreciated in Egypt).
Wales is now part of the United Kingdom (UK).
From Cats in Ancient Egypt to Cat History
2 The Mirror of Literature Amusement and InstructionArticle written 1829.
3 extracted from View of ancient and modern Egypt: an outline of its natural history By Michael Russell – 1831.
6 extracted from View of ancient and modern Egypt: an outline of its natural history By Michael Russell – 1831.
Very, very interesting, interesting. I do hope that they didn’t actually suspend the cats by the tail and simply took a piece of rope or something to measure and do it that way. It does all have a ring of truth to it and is more than I’d learned up to now about the cats’ history then. I do still wonder how they interacted with them, like if they saw that they had feelings and treated them as pets. I’d also read that punishment for killing a cat in Egypt was a death penalty offense, but this articles’ account seems more plausible.