Human beings’ fascination with cats goes back to several thousand years. They have been prized as deities, pets and work animals since ancient times. While for many they are cuddly pets and part of the family, they also aid us in getting rid of homes and farms of pesky rodents.
In many cultures, religions and mythologies, these feline creatures were worshipped and regarded as a deity. Texts and artwork from ancient times serve as proof of the power and persistence that cats had in the psyche of people. To put it simply, we have loved cats for centuries.
Cat worship in ancient times
Let’s trace the bond between humans and cats, starting with ancient times. A number of Egyptian deities were sculpted and depicted with heads that bore resemblances to cats. Examples include Sekhmet, Mafdet and Bastet, representing power, justice and fertility, respectively. Mut (also known as Mout or Maut), was a mother goddess of ancient Egypt. She was often represented as a cat or in the company of a cat.
Since the First Dynasty of Egypt, cats have been held in high esteem for slaying venomous snakes in the Pharaoh’s chambers, thus protecting the Pharaoh. The Book of the Dead (an ancient Egyptian funerary text generally written on papyrus and used from the beginning of the New Kingdom to around 50 BCE) indicates the protective function of the cat. The book details how the ancient Egyptian god, Ra, was represented by a cat and how the sun was beneficial for life on earth.
Decorations in the shape of cats that were used in the New Kingdom have been unearthed. These indicate the rising popularity of the cat cult in daily life. Archaeological sites at Speos Artemidos, Saqqara and Bubastis had cam cemeteries that were in use for many centuries. These cemeteries contained a large number of mummified cats and cat statues that are now housed in museum collections all over the world.
Among the many mummified animals discovered, the African wildcat and the jungle cat were the most common ones. Owing to the large number of mummified felines discovered in Egypt, it was obvious that the cat cult was also vital for the economy of the country. The breeding and maintenance of the cats required a huge trading network for their food, oils and resins (for the mummification process).
The nurturing and terrifying characteristics of feline goddesses in Egyptian mythology are mostly represented by Bastet and Sekhmet, along with other daughters of the Sun. For example, Hathor-Tefnut, the goddess of dew, moisture and rain, is described as the one who is friendly like Bastet but rages like Sekhmet. Such goddesses were seen as fierce, warrior-like figures who had the power of the sun to burn, destroy and scratch anybody who dares to defy them, but also be a motherly, nurturing divinity when pacified.
As mentioned before, cats were one of the animals that the Egyptians mummified the most. Each of the animals that were mummified was connected to a specific deity. They were offered to that god hoping for blessings or favours.
The first known deity to be depicted as a cat in ancient Egypt was Mafdet. Worshipped throughout the First Dynasty (c. 3100 BC to c. 2900 BC), her prominence rose particularly during the rule of the pharaoh Den. She was believed to be the guardian of the pharaoh’s chambers against scorpions, snakes and other evils. Mafdet was often represented with the head of a leopard and wearing the skin of a cheetah.
In the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, Mafdet is mentioned to be protecting Ra from poisonous snakes. The deification of legal justice, she hunts by night (hence labelled as the Piercer of Darkness) and ensures the coming dawn. Royal tombs have depictions that associate Mafdet’s and Anubis’s symbols together, which suggests that the goddess accompanied the other gods as an executioner or hunter.
Bastet, the goddess of pleasure, protection and the bringer of good health, was depicted with the head of a cat (or lion) and a female body. Daughter of Ra, wife of Ptah, sister of Sekhmet and the mother of Mihos, Bastet has been worshipped as a deity since the Second Dynasty (c. 2890 BC to c. 2686 BC).
Most of the time, the mummified cats were dedicated to Bastet, who could be both dangerous and nurturing. Bubastis, the ancient Egyptian Delta city, was where the masses of cat mummies originated. This isn’t surprising since Bubastis was the centre of worship of Bastet. Most of the mummies were placed in cat-shaped or rectangular shaped coffins. Others were simply wrapped in linen and then painted to look like a cat.
In the tombs of the pharaohs Nyuserre Ini and Khafre, stone vessels and seals with Bastet’s name have been found. This indicates that Bastet continued to be held in high esteem throughout the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. A wall painting at one of Saqqara’s burial grounds (from the Fifth Dynasty) depicts a small cat with a collar. This suggests that African wildcats were tamed and kept in the pharaoh’s chambers.
There have been countless representations of Bastet as a seated cat, a cat with kittens or a cat-headed goddess. By making such offerings, the Egyptians prayed for life, children, health and protection.
Sekhmet is the daughter of Ra and sister to Bastet. She is a solar deity depicted as a lioness. The goddess of heaing, Sekhmet led the pharaohs to war and protected them, and continued to do so in the afterlife too. Owing to this, it is Sekhmet who is depicted on royal biers, which symbolizes her role as a protector.
At the beginning of every year, the Egyptians hold an annual festival of intoxication. They dance and play music to pacify Sekhmet and her wildness. Large quantities of wine are consumed ritually to mimic the extreme drunkenness that prevented Sekhmet from destroying humanity. It may also be connected to averting disastrous floods during the inundation at the start of every year.
Domestic cats became increasingly worshipped and regarded as sacred. Amulets with cat heads became fashionable during the 11th Dynasty. Murals in the tomb of Baqet III show cats in a hunting scene, chasing rat-like rodents.
During the rule of the pharaoh Osorkon II in the 9th century BC, a festive hall was added to the temple of Bastet. Statuettes and statues of cats from this period were discovered in varying sizes and materials, including alabaster, solid and hollow-cast bronze and faïence.
When the domestic cats died, they were embalmed, coffined and then buried in cemeteries dedicated exclusively for cats. Domestic cats were considered as the living incarnation of Bastet and the protector of the household from granivorous animals.
The popularity of animal mummification grew exponentially during the Late Period of ancient Egypt. The mummies were used as offerings to their associated god, mostly during festive seasons by pilgrims. In Bubastis, Saqqara and Beni Hasan necropolis, catacombs from the New Kingdom were converted into cat cemeteries as an offering to Bastet. The annual festival at the Bubastis temple has been claimed as the largest festival in the country, with thousands of pilgrims in attendance.
Inscriptions at the Temple of Edfu from the Hellenistic period show the goddess Isis associated with Bastet and cats. The inscriptions claim Isis to be the soul of Bastet. During this period, cats were bred to be killed, mummified and offered as sacrifices to the gods.
But the act of killing cats was not looked upon kindly. In fact, killing cats was considered a heinous and serious crime. The years between 60 and 56 BC saw outraged people lynching a Roman for killing a cat.
The fervour of cat worship began to disintegrate in 30 BC when Egypt became a Roman province. Roman Emperors of the 4th and 5th centuries AD issued a series of edicts and decrees that curbed paganism and associated rituals in Egypt. By 380 AD, pagan temples were seized and any sort of sacrifices or rituals were prohibited.
Three decrees announced between 391 and 392 put an end to burial ceremonies and pagan rituals at all cult sites. Three years later, the death penalty was introduced for anyone going against the decree. By 415, all the properties that were previously dedicated to pagan worship were taken over by the Christian Church. And then, in 423, the pagans were exiled. In 435, following a decree, pagan symbols were replaced by crosses.
Since then, Egypt has seen a decline in the once high-as-a-kite reverence for cats. But general respect was still given to the feline creatures.
Expeditions and discoveries
The first sign of mummification of cats was discovered in a limestone sarcophagus from about 1350 BC, ornately carved. The cat is assumed to have been the beloved pet of Prince Thutmose.
At Umm El Qa’ab (the necropolis of the Early Dynastic Period kings in Egypt), a tomb was found containing seventeen cat skeletons. Next to the skeletons were small pots, believed to be containers of milk for the cats. A number of tombs in the Theban Necropolis depict cats in domestic scenes. These tombs belonged to high ranking officials and nobles of the 18th Dynasty.
In the late 1880s, the Egypt Exploration Society funded excavations into the cemeteries of cats in Bubastis. At the time, many shops in Cairo were already selling cat statues. At the cemeteries, several large pits were emptied and found with cat bones. Embalming material, bronze and porcelain objects, ornaments and beads and statues of Bastet were found.
Around the same period, over 200,000 mummified animals, out of which a majority were cats, were discovered in the Beni Hasan cemetery in central Egypt.
During the early 1980s in the Bubasteum area at Saqqara, excavations yielded around 200 mummified cats in the Vizier Aperel tomb. Another 184 more were discovered in another part of the tomb in the 1990s. Radiographic examination showed that a majority of the cats to be young, killed to be offered to the gods.
Other cultures that worshipped cats
Greek worship of cats
The ancient Greeks believed that Hecate (the goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon and ghosts) transformed into a cat when she tried to escape from Typhon. After her escape from Typhon, Hecate always maintained a special favour for cats. The Greeks worshipped them as such.
Norse cat worship
According to Norse beliefs, Freyja (the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, war and gold) rode on a chariot drawn by two beautiful grey cats. The cats were gifted to her by Thor. Norse farmers have kept up the tradition of leaving food as offerings for cats, to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Chinese cat worship
In ancient culture, the Chinese revered cats. Li Shou was the Chinese cat god. The ancient Chinese Book of Rites makes several references to the god. Li Shou was believed to be the guardian of Chinese families and the protector of the crops that sustained the people. He kept away the rats and mice and prevented them from eating up the crops. Farmers were especially grateful for this. Thousands of statues depicting Li Shou as guardian lions can be found throughout China. The statues are a representation of ancient cultural beliefs.
Polish cat worship
Ancient Polish culture believed in Ovinnik, who looked like a huge black cat with fiery eyes but had a fierce bark like a dog). He was the protector of the people and the protective spirit of the barn. Russian and Slavic beliefs hold Ovinnik to be a demon that brought destruction whenever he visited earth. On the other hand, the Polish people believed that Ovinnik protected their farms by watching over their cattle and warding off any danger.
Polish farmers always left offerings and gifts for the god. They believed that if they didn’t, he might burn their barns to the ground. Farmers believed that if Ovinnik was displeased with a family, he would burn the crops too. Depending on one’s favours, Ovinnik could either be good or bad.
Conclusion: Cat worship today
Cat lovers all over the world unite on various platforms to pamper their beloved pets. In Japan, there are temples throughout the country that are dedicated to a cat god. Fishermen, in particular, visit these temples in hopes of bountiful fishing.
There are state, national and international cat shows. Many organizations are dedicated to preserving the knowledge and history of cat worship and legends. Many others devotedly celebrate their domestication.
Aboard ships, cats are beloved travel companions. Cats are a sure way of keeping away the mice, thus making sure that goods aren’t nibbled or polluted by such vermin.
Cats have definitely made their mark on humans. Despite not serving us in any practical way, they are lovable, heart-warming and adorable companions.