Animal LoreMythology

Did the Ancient Egyptians Worship Cats?

There’s an old joke that says some variation of “In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; the cats have not forgotten this”. It may be a Terry Pratchett quote. I’m not sure. The internet seems to think so though. Most people assume it’s referencing Ancient Egypt. It’s cute, but how true is it? Did the ancient Egyptians worship cats? The truth is more complicated.

Incidentally, here’s the word ‘cat’ in hieroglyphics is you’re interested: 𓏇𓇋𓅱𓃠

Table of Contents

The Egyptian worldview

First we have to understand how our lens is going to be different from an ancient Egyptian lens. What they think of as worship and where they drew lines between the sacred and the profane is very different from the context most of us know. Because they really…didn’t.

The division which we instinctively make between people and animals was not so strongl felt and the category ‘animals’ did not, in fact, exist. To put it differently, ‘living beings’ included gods, people, and animals. A theological treatise recorded under Shabako (716-702 BC) but perhaps composed as early as the third millennium BC describes the heart and tongue of the greater-god Ptah being present in ‘all gods, all people, all cattle, all worms, all that lives’. Just like people, animals were made by the creator god, worshipped him (in their own way) and were looked after by him. In certain exceptional cases, their link with the god may have been more immediate than that of humans. (Malek, 76)

The idea basically is that all life is kinda…the same. Just different manifestations of the powers of Ptah.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of Egyptian religion is their attitude towards animals. Animals were not worshipped, per se, as was frequently claimed by pagan detractors and early Christian authors; rather it was thought that they, as well as other living beings, were imbued with the same spirit as their creator. (Engels, 25)

So the lines were a lot more blurred.  

Why cats became sacred

They didn’t start out that way. It’s almost a rags to riches kind of story

Unlike some other animals, the cat did not appear in the right place at the right time, and was not prominently associated with an important local deity at the beginning of Egyptian history. It never attained a truly ‘official’ elevated status which would have enabled it to become a full member of the divine community encountered on the walls of Egyptian temples. We would search there in vain for representations of a cat-headed goddess. In spite of all this, the cat’s popularity eventually surpassed that on any other animal and reached far beyond Egypt’s boundaries. (Malek, 73)

The basic fact is that cats were useful. Still are. Ask a modern farmer about their barn cats. The Egyptians would have probably agreed.

For the Egyptians, the cat’s ability to destroy harmful scorpions, rodents and snakes suggested it was the embodiment of a divine power that both protected the family from evil and misfortune, and also promoted its fertility (Engels, 23-24)

This interpretation is also supported by the knives. Some of or, perhaps the, earliest evidence we have of cats playing a role in ancient Egyptian religion is the so-called “magic knives” from around 1500BC. They had engravings of animals and mythical beings on them, but their purpose wasn’t ritual. They were made of ivory, so I don’t even think they could cut anything. They look more like rounded crescents than knives. Here’s an example of one used to protect a nursery. No cats on it, but it’s the same shape as some others that do have cats. I’m honestly not sure why we call them knives, but their purpose was apotropaic. Kinda like a good luck charm. Cats show up here because of their abilities in general pest control, particularly being able to deal with snakes (Engels, 26). Something like that is phenomenally useful in an early agrarian society.

Eventually, due to their perceived protective abilities they came to be associated with the goddess Bast (or Bastet. Names vary). 

By the 22nd Dynasty, (945-715 BC) the cat had become associated with another goddess, Bastet- identified by the Greeks with Artemis – who became one of the most revered divinities in the Egyptian pantheon in the first millennium BC. (Engels, 29)

Bastet was a protective goddess, especially of mothers, children and households. In this way, cats were seen as embodying her. This is the crucial bit. They weren’t gods themselves. 

It must be stressed that the temple cat and other temple animals were not worshipped on their own accord, but because it was believed that the divinities were incarnate in their persons. The god manifest in the animal was worshipped, not the animal itself (Engels, 26)

The Goddess Sekhmet was also linked to cats. She was the “ferocious protector of Egypt. Just as Sekhmet protected the nation, so Basted protected the household, especially its women and children.” (Engels, 30)

What being sacred meant

Okay here’s the dark part. Cats were often sacrifices. We have a lot of evidence for this. But this was considered part of how they were sacred.

Although cats, as well as other animals, were sacred, their sacrifice to the goddess was thought to honor the animal, and in no way detracted from its sacred character (Engels, 37)”

Conclusion

This author puts it quite simply:

the role of animals in Egyptian religion was quite different from, and had nothing to do with, zoolatry (animal worship), and to talk about ‘deification’ of cats misses the point (Malek, 76)

They were sacred, but more for being considered representations of deities. They themselves weren’t objects of worship themselves. You might draw some parallels between this and saints. Saints aren’t worshipped, but they are a sort of divine link similar to how cats came to be seen as the embodiment/representation of a goddess.

Bibliography

Engels, Donald W(2018). Classical Cats: The rise and fall of the sacred cat. Routledge

Malek, Jaromir (2019). The Cat in Ancient Egypt. University of Pennsylvania Press

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