Cats (Felis catus) are among the most popular pets in the world, although their domestication is not yet as well known as the domestication of dogs.
In 1888, an Egyptian farmer stumbled upon a large tomb with thousands of mummified cats and kittens. This discovery by Beni Hasan contained about 80,000 cat bodies, dating to the period 1000-2000 BC.
Worship of cats is a specific phenomenon in ancient Egyptian civilization, but the importance of the cat also occurs in other cultures.
Muslim tradition tells of a case when the Prophet Muhammad found a cat sleeping on his clothes: instead of waking her up, he cut a hole around it, according to some the entire sleeve of his cloak. This story indicates care and mercy for cats, but also for the whole animal world.
In ancient epic texts of India, Ramayani and Mahabharati, the cat appears as early as around 500 BC. Kr. Hinduism respects all life forms, and is especially fond of cats. It was expected that “every good Hindu takes care of at least one cat during his life.” Buddhist priests often kept cats in their temples, primarily as protection from rodents, but they also believed that cats bring good luck. There are many legends about the cats of Buddhist priests, and today it is believed that some modern breed cats are descended from temple cats.
In ancient China, as in many other parts of Asia, the cat was valued primarily for its important role in protecting the food and sensitive silk industry from rodents.
Cats in the daily life of the ancient Egyptians
Ancient Egypt was inhabited by two main species of cats: the tropical cat (Felis chaus), and the African wild cat (Felis silvestis lybica). It is the latter that is domesticated, thanks to its temperament. Both of these species are thought to be precursors to the development of the modern Egyptian Mau species.
The change in temperament in domestication stems from the two most important factors, heredity and learned tolerance towards people. Changes in domestication are reflected in hair color, which no longer requires camouflage in nature, then in smaller brain size due to elimination of unnecessary survival instincts, as well as reduced body volume in line with changes in living environment and diet.
As the ancient Egyptians bred cats, their population developed and increased. The cat’s connection with the goddess Bast also contributed to her closeness to man. Egyptian priests often kept cats in the temple as representatives of the goddess. It was also domesticated by taking cubs from the wild, as well as from menageries. The richest knew how to have entire menageries in which they domesticated wild animals and their offspring – for example, baboons, lions, gazelles, and even wild cats.
Cats in ancient Egyptian mythology
Before unification, Egypt was an area with several regional tribal communities. What they had in common was the totemic religion, in which the center of the cult was a certain animal as a spiritual symbol. Animals were chosen according to attributes and admirable characteristics, from their skills to, for example, the fear they instilled in people. In wars, a victorious tribe would impose its totem while strengthening their cult. After the unification of the state (around 3100 BC), a system was established that included several totem beliefs, so animals such as ibis, eagles and scarabs were worshiped along with the cat. The Egyptians perceived the gods as “higher intelligence” that could materialize in the body. The earliest known connection between a predatory cat and a deity was discovered on the decoration of a crystal vessel with the image of Mafdet, a goddess with a lion’s head, from 3100 BC. The goddess Bast was originally portrayed as a lioness, a terrifying protector, but over time she “softened” in her growing association with domesticated cats.
The respect with which the Egyptians mummified and buried cats is a reflection of the respect they showed them during their daily lives. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that at every opportunity to light a fire, people must be especially careful that the flames do not accidentally catch a cat. He also noted that in the event of a cat’s death, the household mourns as if it were a family member, and often shaves their eyebrows in mourning. Even the accidental killing of a cat was severely punished, as witnessed by another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus. In the year 60 BC. a Roman soldier inadvertently ran over an Egyptian cat with a cart, for which Pharaoh Ptolemy XII had him executed.