Cats in Egyptian Mythology
As evidenced by the art, jewelry and writings of ancient Egypt, cats were clearly an important part of their world. This is true not only of the domesticated house cat, but also of their larger cousins such as the lynx and lion.
It is believed that the Egyptians had domesticated cats as pets as early as 2,000 BC, although the relationship probably started as a practical one. Not only would cats kill snakes, scorpions and other venomous creatures, but they also got rid of mice and rats that would eat stored grain.
Cats as Divine Creatures
The Egyptians undoubtedly also enjoyed the cleanliness, beauty and grace exhibited by their feline friends. During some periods in Egypt's history, cats were even seen as divine creatures. Exporting them out of the country was illegal, and killing one was a crime punishable by death.
Egyptian Cat Deities
Unlike the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece or Rome, who looked human for the most part, Egyptian deities were often depicted as having the form of an animal. Egyptian civilization existed for millenia, and beliefs would vary by era and region, but many Egyptian gods often appeared in cat form.
The major Egyptian cat deities are discussed below.
Mafdet, one of the oldest of ancient Egypt's deities, was possibly the first Egyptian cat-goddess. She often appeared as a large feline (usually a lynx, leopard, cheetah, or lioness) or as a woman with a feline head, although she was sometimes depicted as a feline with the head of a woman.
She was a goddess of protection, watching over the king's chambers and other sacred locations, and offering protection against snakes and other poisonous creatures. She also stood for legal justice and the punishment of wrong doers. In some versions of her story, Mafdet is said to have ripped the hearts out of those who had done wrong.
Over time, Mafdet was eventually replaced by the goddess Bast (or Bastet).
Bast (also known as Bastet) was the daughter of Ra, the sun god. Originally depicted as a lioness, she would later appear as a woman with the head of a domesticated cat.
As a lioness, she was the fierce protector of Lower Egypt, and of the pharaoh himself. She also protected her father Ra (the sun) from the snake Apep, who was believed to be the cause of dark stormy days, as well as eclipses.
Over time, the goddess Sekhmet took over the lioness role, and Bast became known as the cat goddess. In this form she was gentle and motherly, but still seen as a protector of cats, pregnant women, and small children. She was also the goddess of fertility. Bast was a very popular goddess, and many statues, amulets and other depictions of her have been discovered.
Bubastis was a city located in Lower Egypt, where the cult that worshiped Bast was centered. The city contained a temple in her honor, where a great festival was held each year to honor the goddess. Bubastis is also the site where a large cat graveyard, containing 30,000 mummified cats, was discovered.
One of Egypt's most powerful deities, Sekhmet was depicted as a lioness or as a woman dressed in red (representing blood) with the head of a lioness.
The goddess of war, Sekhmet was a fierce and violent deity who, it was believed, would punish enemies of the pharaoh and of the other gods. Sekhmet was associated with the onset of plague and famine, although she could also protect her friends from these things. She was also associated with the sun, which, as the Egyptians knew, could both give life and take it away.
Sekhmet was originally created to destroy mankind. Although the sun god Ra was able to change her mind, priests would still perform ceremonies in front of several of her statues every day, believing she might otherwise still bring about mankind's destruction. Because of these ceremonies, many statues of her have been found.
Other Cat Deities
A number of other deities were depicted in feline form by the ancient Egyptians. Among them are:
- Maahes (or Mihos): the son of either Bast or Sekhmet, depending on the time and region of Egypt, Maahes was a male lion-god (or a man with a lion's head), and fulfilled many of the same roles as his mother.
- Aker: depicted as either a double-headed lion or as two lions facing in opposite directions, Aker guarded the gates through which the sun passed at sunrise and sunset. Aker was also guardian of the entry to the underworld.
- Bes: a lion or cat-god, Bes was seen as a protector of households.
- Tefnut: the goddess of rain and moisture, Tefnut was portrayed as a lioness or as a woman with the head of a lioness.
According to legend, Persia once won a war against Egypt without a single casualty by using cats as shields. Fear of harming the sacred creatures kept Egyptian warriors from fighting. I find this particularly fascinating in light of another idea that originated in ancient Egypt — the belief that cats had nine lives!