Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Cult of the Cat

Those of  you who are cat fanatics (like me) will already know that, in ancient Egypt, cats were worshipped. Not that they have ever allowed us to forget it. So, today, I thought I'd explore this whole cult of the cat in a little more depth.

It all seems to have started during the Egyptian New Kingdom (1540-1070 BC) when their status was elevated from that of useful, and rather charming, hunter's assistant, to a religious cult. This was, however, only the start.

The great cat goddess Bast (aka Bastis or Pasht) had, by the time of Shoshenq I (945-924 BC approx.) officially achieved mainstream religious status and it was this Pharaoh who established the town of Bubastis (near Cairo) as a centre of worship for followers of this rather charming deity.

An enormous red granite temple complex attracted pilgrims in their thousands who feasted, wined and danced in her honour. What a cat!
Ruins of Bubastis
The domestic cat in Egypt didn't fare too badly either. They were treated with as much reverence and consideration as any member of the family. If they could afford it, people would adorn their cats with golden and jewelled collars, and when one died, they were mummified and buried with due ceremony and a supply of dead mice to feed them on their journey into the afterlife. Their owners would shave their own eyebrows as a mark of respect and enter a period of mourning. A massive cat  graveyard existed at Bubastis (some 720 cu. feet) but excavations are still revealing evidence of more in other parts of Egypt.

Cat worship continued long after the Pharaohs and as late as 200BC, there is still evidence that Bast was being worshipped.

So why did Egyptians elevate the cat to such ranks of devotion? The foundations of their road to divinity were laid many centuries before they took their lofty, elevated place.
They were seen as good mothers and their prowess as hunters, ability to keep mice away from crops and even their willingness to attack snakes secured them their positions as helpmates. Without their intervention and good housekeeping, rodents could easily have destroyed the crops and left the people to starve, so they were seen as protectors of the household. From there, it was just one step up to full religious status, initially as companion to Isis, wife of the great god Osiris (lord of the underworld). Bast, as daughter of the sun god Ra, protected homes, pregrnant women and families but the fun loving, hedonistic side of the cat's nature also secured her a place as goddess of pleasure, music, dance and plenty.

In the many centuries since those heady days, cats have enjoyed mixed fortunes, until we reach the pet and companion status of today. 

But next time you bend down to stroke your purring tabby, just remember the old saying:

Cats look down on you,
Dogs look up to you,
Pigs is equal

And to this day, female cats are still known as Queens.

6 comments:

  1. Oh dear. I hadn't heard the last line of that saying before.

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    1. It's the one time in my life I actually enjoy bad grammar!

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  2. Cat's writing about cats! I adore cats and would love to have one - even worship it, I'm sure - but I live in a flat so that would be cruel. It's true, cats do look down on you (not sure about the pigs bit though!)

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  3. It's a very old saying. Pigs are rather nice creatures though. Highly intelligent as well, so I'm told.

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