When cats were king

“Dog” may spell “god” backward, but cats were once worshiped as gods, as Audrey discusses.

Cat people may feel neglected in the Year of the Dog, but in the long debate that has divided animal lovers, scientists have recently confirmed that, at least from an evolutionary point of view, members of the  “felid” cat clan have historically been better hunters, and thus survivors, than their “canid” dog clan counterparts.

Egyptian cat statuette intended to hold a mummified cat, from the age of Alexander the Great (332-30 B.C.), leaded bronze.

Indeed, as “The Story of Cats,” a fascinating 2016 two-parter on PBS’ “Nature,” demonstrated, feline adaptability has enabled cats to “dominate human culture since the dawn of civilization.” 

Cats were domesticated by the ancient Egyptians. These cats worked for their living by hunting rodents and snakes and protecting the grains.  In return, humans fed and, eventually, welcomed cats into their homes. 

Although dog lovers like to point out that dog spelled backwards is god, history indicates that cats were once actually worshiped as gods. 

I found evidence of this while doing a story in Egypt for The New York Times Magazine about the first All Women’s Archeological Research Expedition (AWARE). 

Amel Samuel, a noted Egyptologist with the AWARE group, and I were exploring an ancient necropolis near Saqqara in the Sahara Desert, when a sand storm forced us to take refuge in what looked like a deserted tomb. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I found myself in a cat lover’s nightmare surrounded by stacks of mummified cats in a “cat”-acomb. 

Amel said some 10,000 mummified cats had been stored there in the tomb of the Vizier Abia, adviser to a pharaoh. In Dynasty 26 (664-525 B.C.)  the Egyptians noticed the feline’s striking resemblance to the statues of the Goddess Bast, or Bastet, who was a protector of Lower Egypt and defender of the pharaoh.

Cats eventually became sacred and, thus, the practice of mummification was extended to them. The respect that cats received after death mirrored the respect with which they were treated in everyday life. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that in the event of a fire, men would make certain that no cats ran into the flame. When a cat died, the household would go into mourning as if for a human relative and would often shave their eyebrows to signify their loss. Herodotus noted that when cats died anywhere in Egypt, they were often taken to the great Bubastis Cemetery to be mummified and buried.

In her book “The Cult of the Cat,” Patricia Dale-Green writes that, “The cat’s body was placed in a linen sheet and carried amidst bitter lamentations by the bereaved to a sacred house where it was treated with drugs and spices by an embalmer.” She added that cats would be carefully prepared and the embalming carried out with the same conscientiousness as for a human body, often with provisions for the afterlife such as pots of milk and even mummified mice.  

Chutzpah, the beloved cat of the author’s husband, Seymour Topping. Photograph courtesy Audrey Ronning Topping.

Advancing deeper into the spooky catacombs, we came upon two men pulling rocks out of a deep hole.  Suddenly a slim woman, resembling a Nubian queen — with black curly hair, chocolate skin and golden eyes that glowed in the dark — emerged from the top rung of a ladder. I was struck by her resemblance to a cat. She introduced herself as Inspector Amal Ahmed Hilal and said she worked in the catacombs five hours a day. 

When I asked if she liked working with all these mummies, she smiled sweetly and said, “Every morning I say, ‘Hello everybody, here I am again. It is nice to see all of you.’”  She picked up various mummies and presented them by name. One reminded me of Kvetch, my tabby cat in Scarsdale, and another resembled my husband’s calico, Chutzpah.  I said I was delighted to meet them. Amel noted that some cats had broken necks indicating they may had been ceremoniously sacrificed.

The stunning inspector worked for a Frenchman, Alain Zivie, who spent his life restoring cat catacombs and researching various theories of the cat cult that existed 4,000 years ago. He claimed mummification and preservation of the cat’s body was intended to make it possible for the deceased’s “ka” — the Egyptian soul — to locate its host and subsequently be reborn into the afterlife.

The worship of all pagan gods, including cats, was officially banned by Roman Egyptian imperial decree in the year 392, but cats are still kept as revered pets. At the airport I was amazed to see cats, no dogs, riding around on the baggage claim and noticed people feeding them.  

So maybe we should have a Year of the Cat, too. 

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