Why were cats so important in Ancient Egypt?

Modern-day moggies are beloved by millions, but in the land of the Pharaohs cats were worshipped, quite literally

Tomb of Siptah, Valley of the Kings (Photo by Pierre TETREL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

While the Ancient Egyptians depicted many gods and goddesses with the characteristics of different animals, they perhaps admired no creature more than the cat. So, if the internet is anything to go by, nothing much has changed.

Advertisement

But while we love moggies for their companionship, Egyptian society fell in love with them for their skills at keeping the snake, rat, mice and scorpion populations down. As a sign of how highly they regarded cat hunting skills, the cat-headed goddess Mafdet (who goes back to the fourth millennium BC) was thought to protect people and their homes against these dangerous or food-spoiling pests.

Mafdet would later be replaced by Bastet, and the city of Bubastis became a centre of worship for this goddess of cats. Hundreds of thousands descended on the temple there every year for the festival of Bast, which the visiting Greek historian Herodotus described as one of the most popular in all of Egypt.

Cats appeared in art, always in a position of respect, and were domesticated into loving members of a family – so much so that they would be mourned and mummified after they died. Killing one could be punishable by death.

According to legend, at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BC, the Persian soldiers carried cats in front of them, knowing that the Egyptian archers would not fire, in fear of harming the beloved felines.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the January 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine