Residents of Ancient Egypt believed that the universe was created by a pantheon of gods – all-powerful and uncompromisingly violent to any disobedience. Animals and plants were believed to be multiple incarnations of higher powers, their flesh and even parts of their bodies. Animals that were considered sacred were “tuned” to a specific channel through which they could communicate with the gods, and the gods, in turn, could look through their eyes on the humanity. Egyptian god Ra and goddess Bastet looked at the world through the cat eyes, and people could make their prayers heard via cats.
Cat wasn’t the only sacred animal in Egypt. Besides these graceful hunters, Egyptians also considered sacred black bulls, falcons, crocodiles, jackals, ibises, sheep and some other animals and birds. However, cats were lucky to be close to Bastet and Ra; that is why these animals were treated specially. And how could it be any other way? Ra – was the supreme god for ancient Egyptians, and Bastet was the goddess of fertility and protector of the family.
In the 17th chapter of the Book of the Dead it is said: "I am Atum, I’m universal and existing. I am the god of the sun Ra in his first sunrise. I am the great god who created himself…” Atum was once the supreme deity, and created the great nine deities ruling the worlds out of his body. Among the nine chapters of the pantheon there was Egyptian god Ra, who superseded his “parent” from the heaven throne. Ra became the supreme deity, and people included many of the events associated with Atum into myths describing Ra. All that happened in the times of the Old Kingdom (3200-2060 BC). For example, the sun god Ra, just like Atum, created from his own body nine supreme gods.
Cats in the history of ancient Egypt were often identified with Ra. Probably such an honor cats ancient were awarded due to their eye structure. According to the Book of the Dead, the eyes of Ra changed depending on the time of day (the eye of Ra can be the sun or the moon). Cats, as we know, can do this “trick” too – in bright light their pupils constrict, becoming almost invisible slits. It was believed that during the day the cat eyes absorb the sunlight, and at night, they were giving it back – obviously the cat eyes night flicker was meant. Cats in ancient Egypt were considered messengers of Ra also because these animals hate snakes, destroying any settled in their territory. According to mythology, every night Ra descends into the underworld, where he kills his nemesis – snake Apophis, and then returns to the water of heavenly Nile (i.e., the morning comes.) Sacred animal associated with Ra is the scarab beetle, which is read on the chest or forehead of a shorthair tabby cat (namely, striped and spotted cats lived in ancient Egypt and inherited this color from the wild ancestors). Sometimes god Ra in Egypt, killing Apophis acts in the form of a huge red cat (an animal hating snakes is a cat, and red is the color of the sun).
About 2060 years BC (New Kingdom) Pharaoh Mentuhotep ruling the Upper Egypt was seeking for reunification of the country subjugating the Lower Egypt. As a result a single religion was formed, and in the merger of two cultures Amon Ra, the sun god of the Egyptians, appears. It combines the two gods – god Ra mentioned above and god Amon, who was the supreme god of the Upper Realm. In order to unite people priests have given new supreme deity common features of both Amon and Ra. At the initial stage sun god Amon Ra was still depicted in the image of a cat and was the patron of these animals, but eventually Amon “prevailed”: Amon-Ra started being portrayed as a man with a golden crown or a man with a ram's head.
Cult of Bast
Bast or Bastet is the most famous cat-goddess in Egypt. Prior to the domestication of these animals she was depicted in the image of a lioness or a woman with a lion's head. Having domesticated cats, ancient Egyptians have changed the image of Bast – the goddess became a cat or a beautiful woman with a cat's head turning into a bloodthirsty lioness if humanity makes her angry. Bast is the symbol of life, fun, home, fertility, women and land. And what does a cat mean in Egypt? However, the same it means for a modern man: a gentle and graceful predator would gladly join the game, is fertile and quickly turns into a beast, fierce and fearless. Even today historians find surprising similarities in characteristics of the goddess and a cat, because this fluffy fabulous create came to houses of Egyptians much later than in a place for Bast appeared in their souls. Many archaeological finds, like figurines of cats, their images on plates and ornaments – represent precisely Bast. The largest burial cat mummy was found in Bubastis.
One of the exhibits of the British Museum is a bronze statue of the Egyptian cat (VII century BC). The image shows the goddess Bastet in the cat’s image – her usual nose ring, earring, and a scarab beetle on her forehead. Amazing how perfect the work of old masters is!
Adoration of the four-legged gods embodiment
Cunning cat lived in Egypt very happily and freely: the walked and slept where they wanted, they were honored by residents of these places, and over time they’ve lost their fear of man. Only temple animals had some restrictions in the territory of walk. But for these cats such conditions were created that there was no sense running away: they had regular grooming and even personal physicians. Temple cats in ancient Egypt were fed with delicate fish without scales, which was bred specifically for this purpose. There was even an honorary position transmitted by inheritance. Among the duties of this caretaker there was not only care for the sacred animals, but also creating for them a pleasant atmosphere – the organization of space, background music, entertainment, etc. Priests observed the behavior of cats trying to figure out that the gods are going to tell the humanity.
Domestic cats in Egypt were considered guardians of family welfare. The cat was in every house whose owners could afford keeping such a VIP. When the pet died the family withstood seven-day mourning: family members shaved their eyebrows, read prayers every day and ate only a modest meal. Cats were mummified and buried in coffins, decorated according to the income of the owner. Coffins were made of wood, different metals, gold and silver, decorated with drawings, carvings and precious stones. Inside, in addition to the cat mummy, the mummies of rodents as well as toys and dried fish were put.
Poor people contented with figures and images of cats – a thing symbolizing a cat decorated the rooms of the most humble abode in Egypt. The owner guarded their cat from all troubles, watching its health and state of mind. If the event of fire, cats were among the first rescued, and only then people tried to save their simple belongings. When a cat got sick, the head of the family went to the temple to make a sacrifice to the gods – the lion's share of the income or some cattle. Priests took away the gift, and read a prayer asking God to heal the sacred animal. Killing a cat in ancient Egypt was punishable by death or a huge fine. The punishment was defined on the basis of the cat owner’s status – the richer is the owner, the more severe is the punishment. In his chronicles Diodorus Siculus describes the case of lynching a Roman who accidentally ran over a cat. Diplomatically minded Pharaoh Ptolemy VII forbade his subjects to administer punishment, but people disobeyed him. Angry crowd couldn’t be stopped even by soldiers sent by Ptolemy to protect the unfortunate Roman.
It is easy to imagine what happened in Egypt, in case a cat decided to lie in the middle of the road. Herodotus described the case when endless procession, moving to the sanctuary for retribution honors tried to come around a whiskered dormouse, resting on the approach to the temple. A cat living nowadays would instantly run away, barely noticing so many people moving on it! But a sacred cat, used to such obsequious respect, didn’t even change the posture.