Caturday Felid: A-Kat-Aten

June 18, 2011 • 6:30 am

by Greg Mayer

The ancient Egyptians would give anyone a run for their money when it comes to the care they lavished on their cats. Here’s a ca. 2000 year old cat mummy from the British Museum.

Egyptian cat mummy, ca. 50 BC, at the British Museum, by Mario Sanchez, Flickr.

Cats, miw or mau in Egyptian, were frequently mummified, along with other animals, and the cat Goddess was Bast. A traveling exhibit of mummies of all sorts, Mummies of the World, is touring the US; it is now in Philadelphia.

Update. Some readers wondered if the cats died natural deaths. From Reflections of Greatness, the catalogue of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Egyptian collection, by Diana Craig Patch:

These animals were attended by priests and lived out their lives in relative comfort.  After an animal’s death, the priests mummified it so that it too could have eternal existence alongside its protector. … At some point, the priests realized that they could increase a temple’s income by selling mummified sacred animals as votive offerings… Since large numbers of animals were required, priests did not allow them to die of old age; instead most were slaughtered when they reached adulthood.

36 thoughts on “Caturday Felid: A-Kat-Aten

  1. There’s a bunch of cat mummies at the Field Museum. I always wondered if they waited for them to die naturally, or or hastened the end, so as to be buried with their owner.

    1. I had two cats, one an Abyssinian called Subject and the other a Siamese/Burmese called Predicate.

      Naming cats is great fun. I also had a grey striped boy, Ducat and his sister, Guilder.

      But the best of the lot was my first Siamese/Burmese found in Sydney wandering around – named Sodium Silicate and forever referred to as Silly Cat.

      Haaaaaaaaaaa. There are many more – I have had cats all my life and adore their furry purriness.

  2. The cult of the cat apparently was not a steady part of Egyptian religious life, and may have started relatively late; at any rate, it was flourishing during the times that we have the most detailed records of Egypt, namely from the beginning of the period of Greek influence, around the fifth century BCE.

    The worship of Bast (which, according to an Egyptologist I happen to know, was pronounced more like “pssht”) was preceded by periods of greater devotion to the goddesses Mafdet and Sekhmet. It’s interesting to note that Bast is always depicted as a cat, while the other two are, in line with most other Egyptian depictions of deities, presented with human bodies and animal heads, in these cases a lion or other feline. It’s also notable that the feline deities were always godesses.

  3. ‘The trouble with cats is, they can never forget the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them, and they clearly still expect the same treatment’ – P G Wodehouse Mulliner Nights (from memory so only approximately right)

    1. A dog looks at its human and thinks, “He feeds me, he gives me a warm home and place to sleep, he takes me for walks; he must be a god.”

      A cat looks at its human and thinks, “He feeds me, he gives me a warm home and place to sleep, he cleans my litterbox; I must be a god.”

      1. Why do we anthropomorphise animals in this way? A dog gets what it wants, a cat gets what it wants. Dogs go on doing doggy things, cats go on doing cattish things. Either way, they don’t do human things. But somehow we seem to suppose that they do. Maybe we just can’t help it.

        1. It looks like I have to explain something to you (gee, I feel like Kirk having to explain things to Spock in Star Trek IV).

          A “joke” is a story with a humorous twist. It can be in many different forms, such as a question or short story. To achieve this end, jokes may employ irony, sarcasm, word play and other devices. Jokes may have a punchline that will end the sentence to make it humorous. Jokes are typically for the entertainment of friends and onlookers. The desired response is generally laughter; when this does not happen the joke is said to have “fallen flat” or “bombed”.

          Humor is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. People of all ages and cultures respond to humour. The majority of people are able to experience humour, i.e., to be amused, to laugh or smile at something funny, and thus they are considered to have a sense of humour. The hypothetical person lacking a sense of humour would likely find the behaviour induced by humour to be inexplicable, strange, or even irrational.

          It looks like my post has found one of those hypothetical people. I’d hate to have been a kid in your household on Saturday mornings, listening to endless lectures about how Bugs Bunny really isn’t a rabbit and how real leporidae don’t talk, walk upright, or seek exquisite revenge on their antagonists, or how Daffy’s behavior is not representative of anatidae.

          It’s not forbidden to be amused at what I said, but be careful – if you smile, your face might crack.

          1. Thank you, E A Blair. I am so glad to have been enlightened by you on the subject of humour, and at such length. It shows a true spirit of devotion to a worthy cause, and I am suitably chastened. I swear by the Almighty Ceiling Cat that I will never misunderstand a joke again. Cub’s honour. Or do I mean Kitteh’s honour? Oh dear, this is so confusing…

            1. When I was about six or seven, I was playing “space cops” with some friends in the back yard. We were using ordinary toy guns, but since this was space cops, they became “disintegrator ray guns”. When my father heard what we were doing, he grabbed me by the arm, took me in the house, and opened up a dictionary to the definition of “disintegrate”, then asked me if that’s what I wanted to do to the other kids. My father had no imagination whatsoever.

              Mr. Willis’ first reply brought that memory back.

              1. I am not your father, E.A. Blair, and your joke is one that we all make from time to time, especially on this blog. What’s wrong with turning it around and looking at it for once? Go and sort out your problems with him.

              2. “I am not your father, E.A. Blair…”

                Something for which I am profoundly grateful.

          2. People without a sense of humour are not hypothetical. I know one, I’d call him high-functioning Aspergers (but his name is S….). If I tried to explain a joke to him, he wouldn’t accept that explanation by try to analyse it further and fail to find any humour. He does smile and laugh, just not at the particular structured utterrences and narratives we call jokes.

            1. Absolutely Shuggy.

              High-functioning Aspergers, at least it is a common trait amongst them, seem unable to pick up on verbal or visual clues and cannot appreciate jokes in good or bad taste.

        2. But domesticated cats and dogs have evolved behaviours that please humans, just different behaviours. Cats exploit our love of sensuousness, rubbing against our legs when they want something. Dogs behave as if they worship us….

          1. Yes, but the interesting thing is how we ourselves read their behaviour. The joke is really on us.

            1. Only if you assume that we’re not aware of what we’re doing.

              I hope you don’t bother reading the Kitteh Contest threads…

              1. Dear oh dear.

                Only if you assume that we’re not aware of what we’re doing.

                Well, we are and we aren’t, I think, and we often deceive ourselves, too, and sometimes we are more aware than at others. The joke points both ways, and among my acquaintance is different according to who makes it. I have been thinking about this in the context of Eric MacDonald’s posts about the recent statement of the US Catholic Bishops. And it was EAB who gave us the little disquisition on some aspects of Eqyptian religion.

                Re your other point: it has been known, though I confess I’m not a fan of animal competitions. On the other hand, I have been a cat-owner for a good part of my life, though after the last one died my daughter insisted on rats (all of whom died of cancer, thanks apparently, so our vet said, to the enthusiasm of the Animal Liberation Front), and since then I have had no more pets.

              2. Have to agree with E. A. Blair that you’re way overanalyzing a good joke.

                Now you admit that some “of us” are more self-deceiving than others…so your sweeping statements are now less sweeping, and easier to agree with.

                I venture to say self-deception with respect to pets is far from the most harmful self-deception humans engage in. And since dogs, cats, and humans have been co-evolving for millennia, the former being artificially selected precisely for certain copacetic traits by the latter, I’m not sure some associated anthropomorphism is always mistaken…

                As far as “not a fan of animal competitions”–really? I’ve always thought the Kitteh Contest was more a writing and photography competition than a cat-vs.-cat battle to victory. Not to mention a wonderful opportunity for some of us to share a common enthusiasm.

                Rodent cancer due to the ALF, eh? I’d have thought, if anything, the propensity for cancer deaths amongst rats might be one thing that could more aptly be laid at the feet of science, though not in an on-purpose way; simply as a result of generations of coddled upbringing, possible genetic bottlenecks, or the like. Sadly, we lost a couple of rats and some mice that way, too.

                I can’t imagine a life without pets.

              3. Shoot, have no idea why the comment doubled itself. Perhaps has to do with the recent phenomenon of finding a previously-posted comment in the (presumably new) window when I want to make a new one? I’ve had other weird comment moments with WEIT of late–lots of “this website is running a script that is making your internet run slow” warnings; some “compatibility error” messages–anyone who can tell me what’s wrong? Am I the only one? Sorry for the hijack!!

  4. My recollection from wandering through a museum exhibit a few years ago is that most of the cats which were mummified were about the same age — two years or so — implying that they were bred specifically to be killed and mummified, for religious purposes. A lot of other cult animals were mummified — including oxen! There was a huge “demand” for animal mummies, and a fair number of them turn out to have been faked (just sticks and rags underneath the wrappings).

    Does anyone know about the rest of the “Mummies of the World” tour? The linked website only concerns the Philadelphia installation.

    1. The link is for the exhibit in general; only the “See it now” section is for Philadelphia only. However, on a quick look, I couldn’t find where it’s going next. (It’s already been in Milwaukee.)


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