Cats in ancient Egypt were extremely respected, however, this did not guarantee them a peaceful life. They were sacrificed, and after hundreds of years their mummies became… a desirable soil fertilizer!
When we hear the word "mummy", we immediately think off the pharaoh, Tutankhamun, or possibly a pharaoh in the movie chasing Brendan Fraser. But did you know that the Egyptians mummified not only people, but also cats?
They did not do this to obtain medicine from animal mummies, but rather because of the extremely important position of cats in the Egyptian religion. A position personified by the goddesses Sekhmet and Bastet. Paradoxically, however, the cat cult led to the death of thousands of innocent animals.
The ancient Egyptians called cats miu/miut, which translates to "the one" that purrs. Animals were rarely given names, but there were exceptions. One of the cats belonging to prince Tuthmosis (19th century BC) brother of Pharaoh Akhenaten was called Little Friar, another was called Sweetie. Cats became popular during the New Kingdom (16th-11th centuries BC). They began to be presented on a funeral fresco next to images of their "human" families. These scenes mostly show a hunt, during which cats bring birds shot with a slingshot and caught fish to their masters - this task is assigned to dogs in European culture. The most beautiful, however, are the images of cats sitting under the throne of the lady or master of the house. They illustrate the attachment and love between the animal and the owner.
Each wild or domestic cat was treated as a sacred animal and was entitled to special privileges. Only the representative of the gods on earth could have a cat, i.e. the pharaoh. Only the ruler issued his subjects permits to possess these animals. According to the Greek historian Strabo (1st century BC / 1st century AD), killing a cat was punishable by death. It was also forbidden to export animals outside the country. Court files mention the practice of smuggling cats and taking them away by small troops of soldiers.
When the cat died, his family mourned deeply and shaved their eyebrows as a sign. The body of the animal was mummified and buried in a tomb with foods in the form of milk, mice and rats.
The oldest cat mummies come from the times of the 12th Dynasty, i.e. nearly four thousand years ago. Cats, like other sacred animals worshiped by the Egyptians, were considered powerful symbols of life. By embalming them and making them similar to the first sacred mummy, or Osiris, made them intermediaries between the worlds of men and gods.
It was also a gesture of respect towards these animals, because usually only rulers and dignitaries were mummified. Cats were to convey prayers in the same way that Christians attribute to the intercession of the saints.
The cats' magical attributes, however, were more of a curse than a blessing. Animals destined for communication between worlds were bred solely for that role and then sacrificed as blood sacrifices.
For many of the poorer pilgrims, keeping future cat mummies was the only option for sacrifice, because offering the precious bronze statues was simply not an option for their material status. However, the rich also sometimes commissioned the mummification of cats. Prince Tuthmosis of the eighteenth dynasty, also provided the mummy with a beautiful sarcophagus. When creating exquisite cat mummies, their faces were painted black, or special cat masks were created.
Initially, cats were drowned, explaining that killing an animal was not to end its life, but to wake it up and free it from death. As you can guess, however, the practice quickly became distorted. The priests, who earned a lot from the sacrifice of cats didn’t worry too much about the breeding process. The cats were not fed properly and were kept alive for only 12 to a maximum of 24 months. This is confirmed by studies of cat mummies as they are almost always the remains of young animals and even young kittens.
They were killed by breaking their spines. The "nail of the program" was the mummification itself - after removing the insides, sand or other material was poured in their place so that the cat would not sometimes look too haggard. It was put in the correct position and bandaged, then dried in the sun (embalming with chemicals was also considered too expensive). With time, even the worries about the proper cat remains in the cat's mummy ceased to exist, scientists discovered the bones of not only other animals, but even humans inside the cat.
Until the adoption of Christianity, the Egyptians managed to produce huge numbers of cat mummies, the largest clusters of which were in the cemeteries of Bubastis, Dendera, Abydos, Giza and Saqqara. Madeline Swan, author of A Curious History of Cats, reports that archaeologists found thousands of cat mummies. Many have survived to this day but in fact, the ancient Egyptians sacrificed millions of them.
Mummification was still done in Roman times, but for completely different reasons. Then it was part of modern agricultural technology. Cat remains were believed to fertilize the soil. The ancient historian Pliny the Elder (1st century BC) also wrote that the ashes of these animals could reliably drive the field mice away from the harvest.
The story of cat mummies was not finished there. As Madeline Swan explains, “The tradition of using cat mummies as fertilizer returned in a bizarre new form in 1888. An Egyptian landowner discovered 300,000 cat mummies on his land, 80,000 of which he sold to the British for £4 a ton and the ashes were used to fertilize the land around Liverpool.“ As a result, even today, British farmers have found ancient jewelry and animal remains that are thousands of years old, in their fields.
However, this is not the end of the horrors that happened to cats at the hands of our ancestors. To this day, cat mummies are also found in the foundations of many buildings, especially in Great Britain. Perhaps some of them were there by accident, but it is more likely that it was placed there as it was supposed to bring happiness to the household, scare away rodents, and even deceive evil powers (to take the cat instead of people).
Cats were extremely important in the history of ancient Egypt and they were believed to be magical creatures, bringing good luck to the people who housed them. Today, we sometimes joke about how cats feel entitled to worship. Anyone who’s ever owned a cat knows that they have never forgotten the days when they were worshiped and they show this by demanding their own way, always!