Evolution of Egyptian Cats

The Egyptians were the first people to “domesticate” cats. Perhaps taking their cue from their pets, they very early venerated cats as divine. Cats were, however, working animals that controlled vermin and poisonous creatures that violated the principle of stability that the Egyptians so valued. From the earliest records of the Old Kingdom we find the goddess Mafdet portrayed as a cat. Her name translates to “swift runner” and she was protector of Pharaoh, and thus of all Egypt. She was also associated with justice, a role reprised by Puss-in-Boots in Shrek 2. The hearts of evildoers were ripped out by Mafdet and brought, like a dead bird or mouse, to the Pharaoh.

Mafdet? (Don't give your kitty knives!)

Mafdet? (Don't give your kitty knives!)

Mafdet’s fame declined with the rise of Bast, or Bastet. Bast (“devourer”) was also an early goddess, associated with the sun, and like Mafdet, she was a fierce protector. Her cult was centered in Bubastis, a city named for her. The guardian of Lower Egypt, she kept the kingdom safe from cobras, scorpions, and presumably hair-balls. Unlike the gentle kitties of today, she was also represented as a lion, a goddess of war.

Bast, all grown up

Bast, all grown up

Bast’s fortunes faded with the rise of Sekhmet, the warrior goddess of Upper Egypt. With a name translating to “powerful,” Sekhmet was yet a third feline protector. She was also a lion-shaped goddess whose breath created the desert. (I have worked for human beings who could justifiably make that same claim.) Like Bast, she wore the sun on her head and became Egypt’s version of the violent goddess. Ancient peoples all feared the raging goddess, no matter what name or shape she took. Perhaps they always expected bad behavior from men, so when female deities got in on the act it was all the more powerful.

Sekmet with the breath that sank a thousand ships

Sekmet with the breath that sank a thousand ships

Where does evolution go from there? Is it merely coincidence that the Ashera Cat is part African Serval (as was perhaps the original Mafdet) and that it is being billed as the royal cat? I think not! Cats have a long pedigree with the divine, and from what I’ve been reading, Ceiling Cat has a very wide following. Evolution of the Egyptian cat, it seems, takes us from the Old Kingdom right up to Lolcats.

6 thoughts on “Evolution of Egyptian Cats

  1. Actually, biological research shows that cats were domesticated much earlier – about 10,000 years ago, and not necessarily in Egypt. Do a search on “cats” in my blog and you’ll see a couple of references to recent articles.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, Rebecca.

      Research into the Neolithic period is demonstrating that many of our concepts are “outdated” by just how advanced people were before “civilization” began! I appreciate the comment and I’ll check out the references.

      Like

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