Cats first appear as pets in ancient Egypt early in the second millennium BCE, over a thousand years later than dogs. By the mid second millennium they were firm favorites, and were often represented on the walls of their owners’ tombs, sitting under their owners’ chairs, interacting with other pets and even wearing earrings and necklaces. They are sometimes depicted accompanying their owners’ families on boating trips in the marshes and joining in the hunt by catching birds, although we will see that these representations are probably symbolic and relate to the tomb owner’s family life in the afterworld rather than being direct representations of family outings.

 

Cats were associated with Bastet, the goddess of song and music. Moreover, the sun god, in his epic battle against the ancient chaos serpent who threatened the very fabric of creation, might be depicted as a huge tomcat.

 

Sacred cats in ancient Egypt, however, led a much less happy life than is often imagined. Instead of wandering happily round the temple, being fed delicacies and petted by attentive attendants, they were factory farmed to provide mummified cats so that visitors to the temple might pay for their burial and provide the temple with a handsome income.

 

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Deborah Sweeney

Dr. Deborah Sweeney was born in England, took her BA at Oxford University, and has lived in Israel since 1981. She is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, where she has been teaching Egyptology since...
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