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The Sacred Cats of Egypt

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( Originally Published 1936 )



Modern people could hardly credit the prominence of the Cat Symbol in the religion of the ancient Egyptians were it not for the evidence that remains. But the statues of the goddess Bast, showing her with a cat head or with cats at her feet, statues brought from Thebes and Bubastis and now in Cairo, in the British Museum in London, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and in other museums throughout the world, tell a story that cannot be denied. So too do the many cat cemeteries that have been uncovered in Egypt, and the small feline mummies in their cases, some of which are rich with inlay work of gold and gems and wrought with carvings representing food that was to sustain the cat in its journeythrough eternity.

Like most of the ancient peoples the Egyptians used many beasts and birds as well as humans to symbolize their gods, but the cat preeminently expressed their conception of the fact that good and evil exist side by side, that light is born of darkness, and day follows night. Cats were not only the attendants of Bast, the beneficent and kindly, but of Sekhmet, goddess of war. I suppose that was because of the many-sided nature of the cat. We have often seen one of our own purring, affectionate pets transformed by the appearance of an alien tom into a shrieking warrior, and probably cats have not changed much since the days of the Pharaohs.

The cat can see in darkness, and Bast was the cat-moon, holding the sun in her eye at night. Perhaps the first Egyptian, looking into his cat's phosphorescent eyes at night, saw there a reflection of the sun, and a promise that the sun would surely return. But the worship of the cat began before the dawn of history, and of its beginnings we have no record.

On an island in the Nile, in Lower Egypt, north of Bilbeis, where the city of Bubastis lay, travelers may see the remains of the temple once dedicated to Bast, protector of cats. Herodotus left a description of it in its glory: a building of the finest red granite, five hundred feet long, standing in a spacious enclosure in which were tree-shaded canals and lakes. The vestibule was lined with statues six cubits high, and in the innermost shrine was the most sacred figure of Bast.

At Bubastis too was the necropolis where cats who died in that vicinity were interred. Herodotus says that some Egyptians who lived long distances from the temple would send their revered pets to be buried there, believing they would rest better in the abode of their patroness. But there were also cat cemeteries in other towns where Bast was worshiped. Only a half century ago one was discovered in the grottoes at Beni Hasan, with hundreds of thousands of cat mummies ranged on shelves.

Had the Egyptians known what the irreverent moderns would do with the small bodies so carefully placed there they would have buried them deeper. For they were shipped (barring a few that were sold to tourists) to Liverpool to be sold at auction for a fertilizer for English crops.

The mummy cases preserved in modern museums are of extraordinary variety and strange beauty. Some are made of linen, with palm-leaf ears and disks to represent eyes; some of wood or bronze or clay, either shaped as a coffin or made in a cat's form, with eyes of crystal, gold, and black obsidian. In these collections are also cat amulets that the Egyptians wore, and in the British Museum is one quaint wooden cat with a movable jaw, doubtless a toy that some little brown child played with on the banks of the Nile.

Those ancient Egyptians, believing that death was a temporary suspension of life, which might be renewed if the body was preserved, spared no trouble to give their cats a chance of resurrection. And when, centuries later, they conceived the idea of a paradise, a sort of glorified Egypt where cats and men might live and hunt in sunlit fields forever, they made provision for the safe conduct thither of the little cat souls by assigning a goddess to guide and protect them on the journey.

Above this heaven was a higher one where dwelt the Pharaohs with their favorite cats. For cats, like men, were graded in rank, indignities, and in honors. Even in paradise the Egyptians had some just playing in fields while others sat eternally with their royal masters in a blaze of glory; but I wonder if the latter did not sometimes look wistfully over the parapet into the lower heaven, envying the cat commoners their freedom there.

One of the qualities for which cats were revered in those far days was fecundity. The sistrum, an Egyptian musical instrument used much in religious ceremonies, which was fashioned to represent the principle of life, always had the figure of a cat on its apex as the emblem of eternal fruitfulness. Cats also typified might in the war on evil and darkness. When the god Ra, who personified the life-giving sun, gave battle to the malevolent serpent Rerek, he assumed the form of a cat. In the frightful combats that were supposed to rage in the skies during solar eclipses it was the celestial cat who leaped on the serpent and slew him.

The origin of Egypt's sacred cats is rather in doubt, but it is thought by those who have studied the matter that they may have been tamed caffre cats, a species of feline native to parts of Asia and Africa. It is frequently called the Egyptian cat, and the mummified cats are said to resemble, as far as can be determined from a mummy, the wild caffre cats. There is also a resemblance to our own domestic short-haired cats.

I do not suppose there is any race in the world, or ever was, that has passed through such strange vicissitudes as has the cat. As H. C. Brooke, English cat-lover and editor for years of the magazine Cat Gossip, writes in his "Tempora Mutantur," a poem dedicated to an Abyssinian cat:

When Nile was young....

'Fore thee a priesthood, wise in ancient lore,

Spread offerings rich and rare. . . .

And when thy time upon this earth was o'er

Then, jewel-decked, thou shareds't the Pharaoh's tomb. . . .

O Bast, look downward through the centuries

And see thy children. Timorous through the streets

Some crouch, the sport of every ruffian lad:

Cold-blooded torturers wrench their tender limbs In name of science. . . .

Yet scarce a soul lifts a protesting voice.

We are not pagans, as those sons of Nile!