02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

Student Series! Proof that Ancient Egypt is actually Facebook

I mostly say that Facebook is like Ancient Egypt because people go crazy over cats and everybody writes on walls. No, seriously. If hieroglyphics were text posts and we compare how we treat cats over how Ancient Egyptians treated cats, there’s not really that much of a difference. (Well, besides the whole death penalty part. That was crazy!) Ancient Egyptians’ fascination with cats actually goes a whole lot deeper than ours, to the extent of even worshipping their cats and seeing them with a “demigod”(part god, part human) status.

It wasn’t always this way. Ancient Egyptians probably noticed the usefulness of the cat during the harvest, as cats ate vermin and kept the rats from getting into the food. Eventually, the Egyptians “learned to leave out fish heads to tempt cats to visit regularly” and the cats from there became domesticated. In art, the cat was normally depicted as a hunter alongside their owner as they searched for fish and fowl. The cat retained its stature as a house pet in this comfortable relationship for years until around 747 BC (the Late period), which is when the cult of the cat reached its height.

Met-Egyptian fresco & statue

This transition was marked by cats in art suddenly appearing as a representative of “the Sun-god [Ra] hunting the enemies of light and order.” The cult of the cat centered around a goddess named Bast, or Bastet, who, not surprisingly, is commonly depicted in ancient Egyptian art with the head of a cat. Bast is the goddess of fertility and motherhood, and her following grew so large that a great temple to her was built-in the center of a city named “Bubastis” which was just off of the Nile Delta, southwest of Tanis. Pilgrims traveled miles to visit her temple and it became the city hub. Artisans even sold bronze amulets inscribed with a number of kittens or cats on them and sold them to Egyptian women who were hoping for children. The number of cats on the amulet was meant to represent the amount of children the women wished to have. In art, Bast was represented normally with bronze statues of a woman with a cat head or a cat with kittens (usually four) around her feet.

The death of a cat in a family was treated as one of the most tragic of events. Family members mourned as though one of their own had died-even shaving off their eyebrows to showcase their grief. Dead cats were mummified the same way their owners would be, even buried with mummified mice for the afterlife. If a cat was killed, the penalty was death:

“An angry mob gathered around a house in Egypt where a Roman soldier was hiding. The soldier had supposedly killed an Egyptian cat. The mob demanded he be brought to justice for his crime, and although the soldier pleaded innocent, he was dead by the next morning.”

Met-canopic jars

However, according to the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (pg. 136), cats were actually sacrificed in order for loved ones to relay messages to dead family members. “The idea was that the animal would immediately seek out Bastet on its arrival in the underworld and pass on a message.” Although this shows the animal as being one who wandered (possibly guarding) the realm of the underworld, a belief which is common in an ancient Greek story (basically Hera, the queen of the gods, gets jealous of Zeus, her husband, flirting a human named Alcmene. When Alcmene became pregnant, Hera tried to kill her but was stopped by Alcmene’s maid, Galinthias. Hera turned Galinthias into a cat to haunt the underworld as punishment.) So although the (brilliant) movie The Mummy showed high priest Imhotep freaking over the sight of Evelyn’s cat, this is probably not the reason why-more likely it was the producers wanting to make the scene more dramatic.


Cats in Ancient Egypt were revered. They were loved, they were mummified, they were even guarded to keep them from jumping into a burning building. In today’s Facebook centered society, I admit they’re little more to me than a funny video or a post on a friend’s wall (I’m more of a dog person, honestly,) but in terms of Ancient Egypt, well, who can go wrong with a cat?

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