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Why Did Egyptians Worship Cats?

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has taught high school history in several states with a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, you'll learn how and why cats were worshiped in ancient Egypt. We'll explore why these felines were useful to have around and connect them with the religion of the time.

Not Your Average Tom Cat

You probably think of cats as household pets - maybe chasing a ball of yarn, napping in the sun or cuddling with you on the sofa. Although many people love their feline friends, they are not often viewed as anything more than beloved pets. To the ancient Egyptians, however, cats were treated with a different level of love and respect because of their household usefullness and connection to gods and godesses. Let's talk about why Egyptians worshiped cats and how cats were treated because of this.

Cats and Religion

Egyptians respected and cared for all animals and had many gods connected to different types of animals. However, there was no animal treated with as much veneration and care as cats were. The first feline god was Mafdet, who was worshiped for protection from poisonous bites from things like snakes and scorpions (varmints that cats eat). In lower Egypt, the more famous goddess Bastet replaced Mafdet. Bastet was a personification of the sun and had the head of a cat and body of a female. Legend has it that both Mafdet and Bastet originated from Mau (also known as Mauit), a jungle cat who protected sacred trees from a serpent by capturing it and cutting of its head.

Later, another god, Sekhmet, was introduced as a cat much more fierce than Bastet. Sekhmet had the head of a lioness. Although Sekhmet and Bastet were originally regarded as the same, eventually Bastet was seen as the guardian of domesticated cats and Sekhmet was seen as the goddess of lionesses.

Use and Treatment of Cats

A statue of a cat from ancient Egypt. If you look closely, you can see that the cat has been depicted wearing earrings and a necklace.

Within Egypt, cats were originally the perfect solution to the overgrowth of rats and snakes in Egypt. Because cats were so useful in keeping these animals under control, great care was taken to protect cats and they were valuable to have on property. Cats became domesticated in Egypt when people set out food for them to keep them around their homes. Cats contributed to the home by killing varmints and benefited from the relationship themselves because they were protection from larger, predatory animals. Can you see the connection to the role of the feline gods we talked about earlier?

Although not all historians can agree on exactly how, they can agree that cats were strongly tied to religion in ancient Egypt. Cats were seen either as demigods or as representatives of gods. They were given great protection because of this. Any attempt to harm or kill a cat was seen attempting to harm a god. The punishment for killing a cat in ancient Egypt was death.To show respect and love for these animals, families put jewelry on cats that lived near there homes. Because cats were related to the divine, they could not be owned by people. Only pharaohs, Egyptian rulers who were the representation of gods on Earth, could own cats.

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