How to Worship Your Cat Like They Did in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptians revered cats as hunters, gods, and friends. Today’s pet cats have noble ancestors and a rich history—maybe that’s why they think they still deserve royal treatment!
The History of Cats in Ancient Egypt
Archaeologists and Egyptologists have unearthed both regal cat statues and hordes of lovingly preserved cat mummies from Egyptian tombs. As contemporary cat lovers, we clearly think the ancient Egyptians had the right idea—but how did cats become so beloved in Egypt?
Cats as Gods
Egyptian mythology is famous for having a large pantheon of gods and goddesses, many of whom had the heads of animals in preserved paintings and sculptures. Among godly dogs, birds, and crocodiles, their numerous feline deities were some of the most powerful and sacred.
Perhaps the most significant Egyptian god was Ra, the sun god. Ra was said to have combined with the untamed forces of creation at his birth to form the universe itself—so essentially, he was a very big deal. Ra was thought to be reborn every morning with the sunrise, but he had many other forms that he used to walk the earth and the underworld. One of those was, of course, a noble cat.
In addition to being the god of the sun, Ra was also the god of order. One of his biggest challengers in preserving the order of the world was a giant serpent named Apophis who represented chaos itself. Their conflict came down to an epic battle, and when Ra had to choose the best form to defeat the serpent, he took the shape of a giant cat. Egyptians knew that cats were ferocious hunters, and thanks to that strength, Ra persevered and defeated Apophis—along with the help of one of his feline daughters.
Ra had two noble daughters with the heads of fierce lions: Bastet, his first-born daughter who helped him fight the serpent, and Sekhmet, another formidable warrior. Ancient Egyptians were well aware of how strong and dangerous lions could be, which is why the goddess Bastet was first represented as a female lion. Female lions are the primary hunters and leaders of their packs, and Bastet was no exception. She represented fierce female rage and journeyed across the deserts to slay other gods. There’s a reason no one messed with Bastet.
Over the years (and perhaps as Egyptians came to love their pet cats), Bastet traded in her lion’s head for the head of a domestic cat. Her image softened and she turned from a hunter into a protector. Bastet became known as the goddess of domestic life, fertility, and protection against diseases as well as a keeper of women’s secrets—thanks, Bastet. Her younger sister, Sekhmet, took over the job of the fierce, lion-headed hunter, but both remained iconic and beloved.
There are many more feline figures in Egyptian mythology worthy of their own full stories (including the famous Sphinx), and thankfully the Egyptians preserved many of those stories for us. Among the many treasured artifacts archaeologists have unearthed in Egypt are cat statues, paintings, and even silly cartoons. They had a sense of humor about the good old family Felidae—perhaps because they lived alongside them so closely.
Cats as Pets
Ancient Egyptians lived alongside an impressive variety of wild cat species from massive lions, leopards, and cheetahs to more petite African wildcats and servals. These wild cats were appreciated for their skill as predators and their savvy, intelligent minds—which made them a natural pick for domestication. Cats began to live alongside Egyptians as hunters, keeping their homes free of snakes and rodents, but they quickly became much more than just pest control.
The first image we have of pet cats in Egypt comes from a wall painting from the burial grounds at Saqqara, which shows what appears to be a small, tame African wildcat wearing a collar in the Pharaoh's rooms. That painting dates back to around 2600-2500 BCE—that’s more than 4500 years ago!
The popularity of domestic cats only took off after that. Royals decked their cats out in gold and jewels and let them eat off their plates while everyday citizens used their limited precious metals to lovingly adorn their cats and make themselves jewelry featuring images of the cats they loved so much.
That love continued long after death as well. We know that a cat’s lifetime can feel like all too short a time to spend with the friends we love so much, which is why ancient Egyptians were determined to bring their cats into the afterlife with them. Egyptians were known for their intricate mummification processes, and they extended the same tender care to their feline companions.
Indeed, the oldest known pet cemetery in the world is found in Egypt—an almost 2,000 year old site filled with carefully mummified cats. These animals were decorated with jewelry made of metal, shells, and beads. All of them died natural deaths, some even showing signs of old age and illness that meant they would have needed loving and attentive care to have survived so long. They showed every sign of being deeply loved pets who were afforded the same care in death that they received in life.
And what of the people these pets left behind? According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Egyptians would shave off their eyebrows when their cat died and maintain a period of mourning for their pet until they grew back. After that, they would proceed with their life as normal, knowing that their carefully mummified pets would be waiting for them in the afterlife to be their eternal friends and protectors. That sounds pretty good to us.
How to Give Your Cat the Royal Treatment
Okay, we might not be decking out our cats in gold and jewels like they did in the ancient world, but we do our best to show them how much they’re loved. Let’s take a little inspiration from the ancient Egyptians with a few ways to make our cats feel properly worshiped:
- BUILD THEIR KINGDOM. Even if that kingdom is just a studio apartment, give them a throne to lounge on (read: cozy bed), custom-made food just for them (that’s indoor cat kibble), and entertainment fit for a pharaoh (A.K.A. lots of toys).
- FEED THEM A ROYAL BANQUET. The way to your cat’s heart is definitely through their stomach, so give them a buffet of dinner options. The swipe of a paw becomes a royal decree as they swipe at tonight’s selection of crunchy kibble or succulent wet food.
- TREAT YOUR CAT LIKE ART. What’s more gorgeous than your cat? Nothing, obviously. Hang a portrait or two of your cat around your own royal chambers and don’t forget to get your cat a collar that properly shows off how majestic they are.
- SHOW THEM YOUR DEVOTION. Gifts and tributes are well and good, but sometimes all it takes to show a friend how much they’re loved is some kind words and a hug. Tell your cat how much you love them during your next cuddle sesh. Even though they know that already, it never hurts to hear it one more time.
Your resident fluffy tabby or sleek black cat will bask in the love, and maybe the gentle wind of the air conditioner will feel like a cool breeze coming off the Nile river for just a moment. If you see them staring thoughtfully to the horizon, maybe leave them alone for a minute to imagine their life as an Egyptian god.