Cats in the good (and bad) old days.

Posted by Theresa Blood on

A history of pedestals and persecution.

Once cats had decided it might be worth their while to move a little closer to humans, they quickly made an impression on our imaginations – but cat history should probably come with a warning. The way cats have been treated over centuries can be distressing to anyone who cares about animal welfare. No civilization has ever been as enchanted with cats as the ancient Egyptians (they even turned them into Gods), but even this devotion led to suffering for millions of animals. Cats have been worshipped and abused, loved and harmed by various cultures, which have had confused and contradictory attitudes towards them. At most points in history some cats have been cherished, while at the very same time others were being feared, persecuted or just ignored.

A civilizing influence.

No museum exhibition on ancient Egyptian civilization is complete without at least one feline relic. A small cat statue, perhaps, or a cat sketched onto a scrap of papyrus. Better still, a cat mummy. This preoccupation with cats in the world of Egyptology is a reflection of how extraordinarily significant they were to ancient Egyptians themselves. Although there are few significant finds from the earliest days of the Pharaohs, the Egyptians went cat crazy about the time of the New Kingdom (around 1500 BC) and left behind millions of cat-related artifacts for us to sift through.

Many of the animals depicted in Egyptian art are highly stylized and symbolic and you can’t always count on artistic representation to reflect reality. Nevertheless, the cat pops up often enough in scenes of ordinary family life for us to conclude that real, flesh-and-blood domestic cats were valued, as well as the more spiritual, other-worldly felines of myth. Cats are commonly shown sitting under a woman’s chair (a dog sometimes takes up position near the man). This is probably partly symbolic (Egyptians were very impressed by feline fertility, which is why the cat is most closely associated with women), but the cats in these pictures are also just pet cats, naturalistically portrayed.

The physical likeness is certainly there, and there’s no doubt that your average Egyptian would have run into cats every single day and very probably had one living in or around the home. Egyptians fed cats on bread dipped in milk and scraps of raw fish. In return, these fairly newly domesticated felines would have made themselves very useful. Not only did they protect food supplies from mice and rats, but they also took on scorpions and snakes (even cobras). No doubt this goes some way to explaining why cats had such a high status in Egyptian society, a fact not missed by a number of visiting Greek historians, including Herodotus, who noted that when a cat died the household would go into mourning.

 Snakes in the frame.

Fatal snake bites were a real and present danger to Egyptians. No wonder, then, that they were much impressed by a predator that could catch and kill a serpent. A cat killing a serpent is a common motif in Egyptian art. Often (and this is where the artist departs somewhat from realism) the cat is wielding a knife and usually resembles a wild cat, possibly a cheetah.

The Cat Goddess.

One of the most familiar icons of ancient Egypt is the cat Goddess Bastet. She seems to have replaced or merged with an earlier goddess with the head of a lion, called Sekhmet. Whereas Sekhmet was a warrior, Bastet was a nurturer – embodying the virtues of real-life cats with their strong maternal instincts (not to mention their capacity to become pregnant over and over again). Initially represented in the form of a human female with a cat’s head, she became more commonly depicted as a domestic cat from around 1000 BC. She was particularly associated with fertility, childbirth and motherhood. Her form was made into amulets for pregnant women (or those who wanted to become pregnant) to carry around.

The cult of Bastet centered around the temple at Bubastis, a town to the north of Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims went to visit the temple, particularly during the annual Bastet festival, which was apparently a riotous, drunken affair. Pilgrims made offerings of little bronze cat statues, as well as mummified cats (hundreds of thousands of cat mummies were excavated at the site). As well as these sacrificial cats, large numbers of cats would have lived in the grounds of the temple, looked after by priests with the help of donations from pilgrims.

Five Feline Vocalization Types:
  • “Hiss” – An open-mouthed, forceful expulsion of air to deter an approaching threat, or when caught unawares.
  • “Spit” – An abrupt “pop” of expelled air and saliva, often coupled with an equally intimidatory ground-slapping paw.
  • “Growl” – A sustained, menacing, and throaty low-pitched grumbling, indicating increasing discontent.
  • “Snarl” – An ominous “toothy” growl, with a more open mouth and slightly raised lip, flashing their weapons.
  • “Shriek” – A sudden loud, harsh outcry or screech during extreme conflict or pain, such as females during mating, or a stepped-on tail: “meowch!”



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