The ancient Egyptians' special love for cats is well known. In fact, cat lovers today have them to thank for introducing African wildcat DNA into domestication; this would eventually become the beloved tabby. But why did were Egyptians so enamored by these early felines?
Wild cats appear to have become close to humans in Neolithic times in the Near East. As man gathered food, rodents followed. Cats, in turn, may have followed the rodents, living close to human communities. Scholars have analyzed the DNA of ancient cats and believe that around 1500 BCE African wildcat DNA merged with the cats of ancient Mesopotamia.
Unlike the dog, cats were not bred to perform tasks such as herding. Evolutionary geneticist Eva-Maria Geigl, who studied the DNA, half-joked to National Geographic, “I think that there was no need to subject cats to such a selection process since it was not necessary to change them… They were perfect as they were.”
Cats in Egyptian Culture
Lions and African wildcats appear in the earliest Egyptian art. As of the mid-third millennium BCE, cats in collars were depicted in tombs. These paintings suggested pharaohs kept wildcats as pets. Pharaohs and nobles would long continue to be associated with these noble beasts. By the 20th century BCE, a breed of domestic cat was found depicted in tombs. Around 1350 BCE, Prince Thutmose of the royal house mummified his beloved pet cat and buried it in an engraved stone coffin. While this luxurious burial is an early example of cat mummification, the tradition would continue until late Roman Egypt.
Contrary to popular belief, the ancient Egyptians did not worship cats. Rather, they revered them as sacred to deities. Cats were respected for being fierce hunters and protectors of their homes and young. They could be sweet at times, warrior-like at others. While there is clear evidence that many Egyptians adored their family pets, these pets likely were useful, too, as mousers and snake-hunters. These household cats often wore collars as pets do today.
Bastet, the Feline Goddess
The Goddess Bastet with a Cat Head
“Bastet,” Late/Ptolemaic Period, 664–30 BCE (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public domain)
Cats were sacred due to their association with the gods, particularly with the goddess Bastet. Goddess of motherhood, fertility, and the home, the divine being initially sported a lioness head. However, as cats were domesticated and became associated with the home, Bastet developed the head of a house cat. Egyptians could wear cat amulets to invoke her protection and blessings. They also created countless sculptures of cats as votive offerings to the goddess. Cat cemeteries devoted to the goddess grew into an industry, with cats specifically bred as offerings.