How the ancient Egyptians' incessant love for cats ultimately led to their downfall

Fareeha Arshad
Photo by Erin Agius on Unsplash

Egypt was perhaps the first civilization that took cats as pets. Over 10,000 years ago, the Egyptian civilization was among the first to domesticate wild cats. Back then, people would regularly spot cats that roamed in their agricultural fields. When the farmers would get bored, they would rub the back of these pretty little wild creatures and offer them scraps that lay around. Those were the first cats to be petted by humans.

However, the kind connection the ancient Egyptians had with their cats was not like the one you and I have with our cats. If anything, they revered their cats and took care of them as though they were divine creatures. Ancient Egyptians believed that their cats kept harm from befalling them and protected their properties. Yet, those people did not worship their cats directly. Instead, their belief extended only to the fact that a part of divinity was bestowed on them by Bastet or Bast, who was their goddesses of fertility and pleasure and had a cat head. For these reasons, cats became a sacred entity for the ancient Egyptians.

Importance of cats in Egyptian culture
Bastet, the ancient Egyptian feline goddessWikimedia Commons

During childbirth and the harvest seasons, chains and amulets with cats were worn by Egyptian men and women alike. They believed that these charms would bring good luck to them and the people around them. When this belief was dominant in the second century B.C., even accidental killing of a cat meant a death sentence for the ‘killer’. If their pet cat died because of natural causes, they would shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.

Interestingly, the sacrifice of cats was allowed so that they could be mummified and buried along with their owners. This way, they could accompany them in the afterlife. Even the destruction of these mummified cats was prohibited in ancient Egypt. Nobody wanted the wrath of Bastet to befall them. Instead, they were buried in limestone coffins in catacombs.

Several preserved cats in the form of mummies have been excavated from ancient Egyptian burial sites, especially in the old worship sites of Saqqara and Bubastis in Egypt. These places hold thousands, if not millions of mummified cats in their catacombs. In a ‘Temple of Bast’ in Bubastis, the priests would sell mummified cats to the worshipers during ancient times. The pilgrims would buy these cats in the hope of gaining some of the ‘divine’ energy from these cats.

The time when Egyptians lost a battle because of cats

In 525 B.C., Cambyses II of the Persian Empire used Egyptian’s love for cats against them. When he invaded Egypt, he and his soldiers painted an image of the Egyptian goddess Bastet on their shields and armours. The Persians also included cats as a part of their army against the Egyptians.

Seeing their goddess all over their enemies' bodies and shields, the Egyptians immediately refused to get into the battle and surrendered. The Egyptians were afraid of killing the cats and offending their beloved goddess. Despite the heavy loss they faced, the cat goddess remained popular among the ancient Egyptian civilization for a long time.

What are some of the other reasons you can think about the ancient Egyptians' obsessive love for cats? Do let us know in the comments section.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I write about current affairs, history, science, and lifestyle.

Texas State

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