|Felis silvestris lybica, Ancestor of the Domestic Cat|
Between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, human hunters bred domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) from a now extinct species of wolf, but the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) didn't appear on the scene until after 12,000 BC. The reason it arrived when it did was that the advent of farming in Iraq's Fertile Crescent brought on a rodent invasion that dogs couldn't address, so humans enlisted the aid of a nine-pound wildcat known as Felis silvestris lybica. Ferrets and mongooses also served in the rodent wars, but the wildcat became our closet ally because it was: easily domesticated; self-cleaning; made its toilet outdoors; bred prolifically; and, like ferrets and mongooses, killed the snakes that accompanied the rodents.
The oldest known remains of a domesticated cat were found in a 7,500 BC grave on the Island of Cyprus, but no people ever loved cats like the early Egyptians whose association dates from at least 4,000 BC, and who gave the cat goddess, Bastet, a major place in their pantheon. By 1,500 BC bejeweled cats were depicted as eating beneath the chairs of Egyptian women and accompanying the man of the house on bird hunts.
“The name of the god who guards you is Cat.”
Egyptian Book of the Dead, 1250 BC
Egyptians shaved their eyebrows when the family cat died; fed cats during times of famine; and killed people who killed cats. They also kept pet dogs, birds, baboons, and the aforementioned mongooses and ferrets (among others), but only cats were mummified in the hundreds of thousands. Sadly, few exist today because Victorian England imported countless tons of them for fertilizer (one company alone imported nineteen tons).
“Oh peaceful one, who returns to peace, you cause me to see the darkness of your making. Lighten me that I can perceive your beauty, turn towards me, O beautiful one when at peace, the peaceful one when at peace, the peaceful one who knows a return to peace.”
Inscription to Bastet on stele, 1200 BC
Contrary to common belief, the ancient Egyptians didn't worship animals, but neither did they regard them as inferior. Because they didn't feel the need to demarcate between our species and all others, they didn't even have a word for animal. The fact that they portrayed many of their deities as all or part animal, was simply due to their belief that gods assume the outward appearance of such creatures as reflect their inner natures. True to her cat nature, Bastet's hieroglyph means Devouring Lady, but because cats are also loving, loyal, polite, playful, and gentle, Egyptians added a perfume jar to distinguish Bastet from the frightening and unpredictable deities that clothed themselves in the form of the big cats.
|Bastet, circa 664-322 BC|
“When the people are on their way to Busbastis, they go by river, a great number in every boat, men and women together. Some of the women make a noise with rattles, others play flutes all the way, while the rest of the women, and the men, sing and clap their hands.  As they travel by river to Bubastis, whenever they come near any other town they bring their boat near the bank; then some of the women do as I have said, while some shout mockery of the women of the town; others dance, and others stand up and lift their skirts. They do this whenever they come alongside any riverside town.  But when they have reached Busbastis, they make a festival with great sacrifices, and more wine is drunk at this feast than in the whole year besides. It is customary for men and women (but not children) to assemble there to the number of seven hundred thousand, as the people of the place say.”*
“Her temple is of this description: except for the entrance, it stands on an island; for two channels approach it from the Nile without mixing with one another, running as far as the entryway of the temple, the one and the other flowing around it, each a hundred feet wide and shaded by trees.  The outer court is sixty feet high, adorned with notable figures ten feet high. The whole circumference of the city commands a view down into the temple in its midst; for the city's level has been raised, but that of the temple has been left as it was from the first, so that it can be seen into from above.  A stone wall, cut with figures, runs around it; within is a grove of very tall trees growing around a great shrine where the image of the goddess is; the temple is a square, each side measuring an eighth of a mile.  A road, paved with stone, about three eighths of a mile long leads to the entrance...this road is about four hundred feet wide, and bordered by trees reaching to heaven.”*
“O cat of lapis lazuli, great of forms...grant the beautiful West in peace...”
funerary papyrus, 900 BC
Bastet devoted herself to avenging wrongs and protecting the defenseless. She reigned over cats, romance, women, perfume, purity, fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, children, music, the arts, festivity, and warfare. Her heavenly symbol was the moon as reflected in cats' eyes, and she was a combination of motherly gentleness and tireless ferocity. It was she who made each day possible by her nightly slaying of the snake god Apep, whose kingdom was built upon darkness and deceit, and who sought to plunge the world into everlasting darkness by killing Bastet's father, Ra, as he rode his sun barge through the twelve caverns of the underworld from west to east, and hence toward new day. Each night, Bastet's battle with Apep would be renewed; each night, she would behead him; and each night, she would do it again in her endless war against evil.
|Bastet Slays Apep, papyrus, circa 1280 BC|