Part 1 of Cats and Humans: the Cat Goddess Bastet

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 Bastet was first worshiped in the mid-third millenium BC, she did appear as a big cat--a lion. As the Egyptian's love for the domestic cat grew, Bastet transitioned to having a lion's head on a woman's body. She next metamorphosed to having a cat's head on a woman's body, and finally to being all cat. The Greek traveler and historian, Herodotus, joined a pilgrimage to her holy city of Bubastis in the fifth century 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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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


Elephant's Child said...

Thank you.
I look forward to the next installment.
We have miniature Bastet statues here which himself picked up on one of his trips to Egypt.

angela said...

Oh yes. My cats remember well the good old days of ancient Egypt. They demand the same reverence from me now lol

ellen abbott said...

my daughter read an article recently (I saw it but didn't read it) that said cats domesticated themselves. same scenario of appearing with the advent of farming but they followed the prey...mice and snakes and endeared themselves to humans so they wouldn't be run off. cats are not verbal with each other beyond hissing and screeching when fighting other cats. they don't talk to each other like they talk to humans and they developed that habit as a way to endear themselves by sounding like babies. so says my daughter who read the article. I believe it. dogs are dependent, cats are independent.

Andrew said...

Interesting. 12,000 BC is hard to imagine. I like Ellen's last sentence.

Tom said...

Interesting history. I don't mean to offend anyone, but I like dogs, not cats. I guess that tells you all you need to know about my emotional and psychological make-up!

Marion said...

Fascinating read! I read a quote that said, “Cats were once worshipped in Egypt. They have never forgotten this.” Hilarious, but appears to be true. I have 2 cats now, down from 6 and a 1 year old Pit Bull. The 17 year old female cat totally ignores the big, loud dog and acts as if he’s invisible. She sits in her chair in the den and when the Pit Bull comes up to her and tries, meekly, to befriend her, she whops him with both arms, claws out. He runs away crying because she always hits her mark: his nose. It’s pathetic how this little cat bullies the big dog who sincerely seems to be trying to befriend her. He’s totally nonaggressive and loves to play. He loves the UPS and mailman and tries to get in their trucks when we’re in the front yard. I still prefer cats, but this Pit Bull (Scooby Doo) is hilarious, sweet and gentle. xo

Snowbrush said...

"We have miniature Bastet statues here which himself picked up on one of his trips to Egypt"

I bought one off Ebay, and I often check back to see if there's some other cat statue or cat medallion I might want. This week, there was a statue that was supposed to be bronze, and supposed to be ancient. I very much wanted it, and would have bought it if I wasn't morally opposed to buying ancient things with unknown provenances, but also opposed to buying things that are falsely represented as ancient.

"My cats remember well the good old days of ancient Egypt. They demand the same reverence from me now."

I love it that cats make their people enjoy spoiling them.

That aside, the ancient Egyptians were not uniformly good to their cats Some examples... They killed unwanted kittens, and their priests broke the necks of cats that were offered in mummified form to Bastet, although it's unknown whether the worshipers who paid for the mummified offerings knew how the cats died. Interestingly, the offered cats were all less than a year old (some being as young as two months), and had been extremely well fed, and most of the mummies really do contain cats (the buyer would have never known otherwise). When Rome ruled Egypt, and a Roman soldier accidentally killed a cat, the man was lynched despite pleas from the government that he be spared.

"my daughter read an article recently (I saw it but didn't read it) that said cats domesticated themselves."

So-called primitive people today (eg Australia's aborigines) often bring home baby animals for pets. When those animals grow-up, they leave, are chased away, or are eaten. In the case of dogs and cats in ancient times, people would have had reason to encourage them to stay, and the ones who chose to stay would have been the most tamable, a quality that was then passed along to their offspring. Perhaps, you know of Russian experiments with selectively breeding the Arctic Fox for tamability in which it was shown that, within a few generations, foxes could be bred so that they took on the behavior--and even the spotted coats--of pet dogs. There are three other species of the wildcats that was domesticated in the Middle East and northern Africa (one in Asia, one in Europe, and one in southern Africa). The others are less inclined to being domesticated, and one, the European wildcat is so adamantly opposed to domestication that they are described as displaying extreme hatred toward people no matter how well-treated they are, or how young they were captured.

"cats are not verbal with each other beyond hissing and screeching"

And purring, but as for meowing, you're right, of course, in that they only do it around people. The reason for this is that they've learned that meowing works with people. I have a question that you might have some insight about. Some purebred cats--most notably the Siamese--are said to be non-stop "talkers," but what I don't know about them is whether their talking is confined to their time with people, or if they, perhaps, meow around one another too.

Snowbrush said...

"I believe it. dogs are dependent, cats are independent."

I think you simply mean to acknowledge that dogs are pack animals, and, in the wild, cats are solitary animals. I have five indoor-only cats, and they are obviously attached to Peggy, to me, and to one another. They sleep in cat puddles, and they often play together without, even once, blood being shed, yet if these cats were turned outdoors and given food but never ever petted, I wouldn't be the least surprised but what they would become feral. Our last dog was a blue heeler who hated other dogs and would attack them on sight. She would also bite people she didn't know. This was because, as she saw the world, Peggy, and I, and our few friends constituted her pack, and in her mind, anyone not in her pack was her enemy. Somehow it seems ironic that a solitary animal like the cat can be loving toward its kind while a pack animal like the dog can be a danger.

"I don't mean to offend anyone, but I like dogs, not cats."
Peggy used to say, "I can't stand cats," and she often had nightmares in which she was pursued by demonic cats. Yet when an ailing mother cat with tiny kittens desperately appealed to her for help one winter's day, Peggy helped that cat and her babies, and, based upon my belief that you are a good man, I think you would have done the same. For me, this is the dividing line between what I can tolerate in a person and what I can't, because while I can understand why a person might not like cats (or dogs for that matter), if someone tells me that they harbor such out-and-out hatred for cats that they would leave a mother cat and her kittens to die of hunger and exposure, I conclude there's something very wrong with that person's mind, and I would feel the same if he or she confessed hatred for any species, even mosquitoes. Yes, by all means kill mosquitoes by the bucketful, but remain rational enough to not turn personal hatred upon a creature that is simply what evolution designed it to do, without which it could not live.

"I read a quote that said, “Cats were once worshiped in Egypt. They have never forgotten this.'”

Did you read the part of my post about them NOT being worshiped in Egypt? I could quote multiple sources, but the best is a scholarly work called "The Cat in Ancient Egypt" by Jaromir Malek.

"It’s pathetic how this little cat bullies the big dog who sincerely seems to be trying to befriend her."

One reason that Peggy doesn't get a dog (something she would very much like to have) is that we have no idea that our grown cats would accept a dog. More to your point, in 1826, Sir Walter Scott had a cat named Hinse that bullied Scott's bloodhounds. One day, a young bloodhound name Nimrod took offense and killed the cat with a single bite.

Marion said...

Snow, I WILL NEVER BELIEVE THE EVIL LIE THAT CATS WERE NOT WORSHIPPED IN EGYPT! Dear, you cannot believe everything you read on the Internet. I read my information in the dusty, rare books room of the Cairo Library. >>>>> The visitor entrance to the Rare Books and Special Collections Library is located on the third floor of the Main Library building on AUC's New Cairo campus. Ahem! And WHO made Mr. Malek THE EXPERT on cats in Egypt?

Dear Lord, Snow, have you no sense of humor at all??? You must be Aries, which would explain everything. (I have 4 Aries in my immediate family and they have no sense of humor either.). Laugh more often. It’s good for what ails you. :-) xo

Snowbrush said...

"You must be Aries, which would explain everything."

On the off-chance that you would like to buy me something, I will "celebrate" my 71st birthday on March 1.

"I read my information in the dusty, rare books room of the Cairo Library."

It's hard to keep all that desert sand out, I suppose, but be that as it may, only academics with special research interests and verifiable credentials are allowed into the Cairo Library's Rare Book Room, and few of its materials are on the Internet). As for the credentials of Jaromir Malek, his doctorate is in Egyptology, and he has written extensively about the religion of ancient Egypt.

Marion said...

HA!! I knew you were Aries! I’m a gonna do a Tarot reading for your birthday. I’ll tell you things you wish you never knew. And you do NOT know what my education is. I have several PhDs, one in Bullshit. I also graduated from the School of Hard Knocks. You’re my favorite Internet friend from Mississippi!!! Love to you & all your kitties. xo

Strayer said...

I sure enjoyed reading this, Snow. I have to run, taking a stinky male up to the FCCO today.

ellen abbott said...

I lived with a guy for 4 ½ years. we had two cats...a siamese and a regular house cat. while the siamese was vocal it was always to us humans. I never saw her being vocal to the other cat.

Joe Todd said...

Hi Snow. Just stopped by to say Hi. I'm allergic to cats but have had dogs many years ago. Today wife collects Teddy Bears (100's) easy and cheap to take care of LOL. Haven't been blogging much been busy trying to correct some of my high school classmates misconceptions concerning our dear leader Trump. I get beat up a lot. Oh well keep on blogging and enjoy.

Marion said...

PS: Any time I begin to feel cheerful, I just come on over here to get a verbal beat-down. Hope the Flu & Beervirus is staying far away from y’all and that you have lotsa TP! xo

Andrea Charles said...

Wow!! The article is quite fascinating . Though I have seen Cat goddess images in ancient Egyptians scripts, never have I wondered these animals were treasured possessions. Thank you Snowbrush for giving insights about Bastet and the legends associated with it. It was a great read.

Snowbrush said...

"while the siamese was vocal it was always to us humans. I never saw her being vocal to the other cat"

The first-ever cat show was held in London in 1871, and Siamese weren't allowed to enter because the show's sponsor regarded them as "a nightmare of a cat." I think I would do well with a Siamese, but I would prefer than mine not have the chisel face that has been bred into today's Siamese.

"Dear Lord, Snow, have you no sense of humor at all???"

I do actually--Sasha Cohen, John Cleese, Patrician Routledge, and and Sarah Silverman's stand-up, being a few examples--but Marion, it appears that much of your humor consists of bullshitting me and then having a good laugh when I don't catch on. When I was much younger--and prided myself on being an effective liar--I often, as in everyday, did this very thing, but I tried to give people some clue that they were being bullshitted because they otherwise went away believing me, and, when they eventually found out that I had lied, it was too late for them to get the joke, and so they would hold it against me (I lost at least two friends this way). Cont.

Snowbrush said...

...My mother was a regular target of my humor, and being appallingly naive, she was NEVER able to catch on, so in defense, she stopped believing anything I said, instead asking Peggy if it was true. On the Internet, it is harder to clue someone in, and in the case of my fact-based posts, I will have put scores--if not hundreds--of hours into study, so if you tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about (that is unless you mean it and can provide me with sources), I won't think you're being funny, but will instead conclude that you're showing contempt for something that I've invested a lot of time and heart into. After all, there isn't a day of my life that I don't read something related to cats. Some days, I will study paintings, other days photographs, histories, physiology, or literature, but it's a rare day that I don't learn SOMETHING new about cats or about people who have loved cats. Another problem for me is that you really DO seem to believe many things that--in my mind--are on a par with claiming that you studied ancient documents in the Cairo Library. For example, you have consistently claimed to believe that Donald Trump is a great president, and maybe that too has been a joke, but how would I know? Affectionately...

"Hope the Flu & Beervirus is staying far away from y’all and that you have lotsa TP! xo"

I heard (on NPR) yesterday that, according to some poll, roughly 70% of Democrats are greatly worried about the virus, but that only half as many Republicans are worried (I can't imagine why the numbers aren't over 90%). In the case of Republicans, I suspect that they aren't taking it seriously because Trump hasn't been taking it seriously. In this largely Democratic city, people appear to be very worried indeed, as evidenced by the fact that not only toilet paper but also paper towels, rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, and rolled oats are hard to find, and even when a store gets some in, they're gone within the hour by people who are buying all their carts can hold (when the shelves start being emptied of all food, I'll take it to mean that panic has taken over.) Since you live in a heavily Republican area, such items shouldn't be scarce where you are, that is if the poll was right, so tell me, how are things in rural Louisiana? Schools are also out here, and nearly all public gatherings--including many church services--have been cancelled, so again, is this not happening much where you are? Peggy and I are supposed to have our taxes done today (due to the virus, the senior center where we have out taxes done will close after today--which is Sunday). We also volunteer to show cats to people at a PetSmart today, and I hate like hell to even get out to do that, but I would also hate to let homeless cats down. On the other hand, what will happen to our cats if Peggy and I get the virus and die--death being a distinct possibility given our ages and medical conditions.

The Tusk said...

Happy Birthday, and Happy St. Patrick's Day. I may post again soon, but until I do dont go looking, I'll come and get you. I read your cat part one and two. I read the comments. It's been 5 or more years, we have nothing to catch up on, we will just pick up where we left off. A good friendship. What strikes me funny is I just returned from Belgium, liege.

rhymeswithplague said...

I don't have anything of substance to say about cats because I have had only one cat in my entire life and that was 70 years ago, a male tiger-striped tabby named Kitty (we couldn't settle on a name).

I'm just chiming in here because Marion called you an Aries when you are a Pisces if your birthday is March 1st. I'm Pisces too, not that I believe any of that stuff. But Pisces IS a water sign and my favorite color is blue, and Ellis is a sun sign (Leo) and her favorite color is yellow. Purely coincidence, I'm sure.

Snowbrush said...

"I'm just chiming in here because Marion called you an Aries when you are a Pisces if your birthday is March 1st. I'm Pisces too, not that I believe any of that stuff."

Since she had just suggested that I have no sense of humor, I assumed that if I said anything it would serve as further proof that I am humorless, i.e. I interpreted her Aires statement as another example of her doubtful humor. Did you ever "believe any of that stuff"? My mother was a Virgo who attributed the fact that she and I didn't get along to our sun signs. She used to buy me the little Dell horoscope books, and since the description of Pisceans did seem to fit me, I liked to believe it was all true, but, as you know, I was struggling to hang-on to Christianity, so astrology wasn't really on my horizon of things to struggle with. Now, of course, I feel as you do. I think that if Peggy should die at my age now, I probably wouldn't remarry, but back when I felt otherwise, I used to wonder what qualities I would look for in a new wife. If I were to do that now, I would say that if a woman believed in astrology or homeopathy, it would be a deal killer, simply because such a belief would suggest an irrationality that would likely extend to a great many other things, such as spirits, homeopathy, psychic healing, craniosacral therapy, and so on. But what if she were a Christian? If she were a liberal Christian (rather than a literalistic Christian who believed that Jesus actually died in atonement for her sins) who was comfortable with being partnered with an atheist, it might work.

Snowbrush said...

"I have had only one cat in my entire life and that was 70 years ago, a male tiger-striped tabby named Kitty (we couldn't settle on a name)."

I had rather thought you had had more cats than that based upon your statements regarding cats. I named my dogs Tippy and Wolf, and my cats Tiger, and since they got out in the road and were killed while they were puppies or young adults, I tended to go through a lot of Tippys, Wolfs, and Tigers. When I was in my teens, I bought a Siamese at a pet shop as I drove through Lake Charles, Louisiana (I had been visiting my half-brother in Beaumont, Texas). I named him Heathcliff, but I can't remember what happened to him. Dogs and cats tended to be cheap, outdoor only, and short-lived, and no one in my family's economic bracket took them to the vet when they were ill or injured. I only remember one female pet (my father referred to females as "gyps"), a little white dog named Tippy who was hit by a car and died in my lap when I was six.