The Cult of the Cat

Part I - The Deity

Thou are the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods,
and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs
and the governor of the holy Circle;
thou art indeed the Great Cat.

Inscription on the royal tombs at Thebes

In ancient Egypt it might be said there was a cult of the cat and it lasted for over 2000 years. The ancient Egyptians respected their environment and the animal kingdom. It was in Egypt that the first signs of cat's domestication appear.

Cereal growing was vital and the cat was recognised for its ability as a mouser. But the cat's value did not stop there. The gods of ancient Egypt in common with those of other early civilisations were endowed with many attributes, some human and some animal. It is only a small step from seeing a god as part animal to regarding the animal itself as representing the god and endowing it with similar powers.

It is difficult in a culture so long-lasting and incorporating so many cults, deities and beliefs, to be sure where one stops and another begins. The cat seems to have been first associated with Isis who merged into Mut the great mother-goddess and protector. Along with several other goddesses she is depicted with a lion's head. Sekhmet, a terrible lion-headed goddess took on lion form to bring destruction on those who rebelled against her father, the supreme solar deity Ra, who was also depicted as a cat early on.

Her little sister Bast, or Bastet as she is sometimes called, started out a lion-headed goddess about 3000 BC. She was known as the Lady of the East to distinguish her from Sekhmet who was the Lady of the West. Later the domestic cat became Bast's sacred symbol. The centre of her cult was at Bubastis which became the capital of Egypt around 950 BC and Bast became a national goddess. She was a fertility goddess which reflects the cat's reputation for sexuality and of course she watched over cats. She was also the goddess of music and dance and the sistrum was her sacred instrument.

 

 

 

At Bubastis sacred temple cats were tended by priests who acted as interpreters for every twitch of a whisker. The cats were mummified on death and given full burial rites. Family cats were zealously guarded too. Egyptians decorated their homes and themselves with amulets and jewellery bearing the cat. Families shaved off their eyebrows in mourning the death of a cat and anyone killing a cat either by accident or deliberately faced a death sentence.

 

Puss is derived from the Egyptian 'Pasht' one of the names of Bastet.

 

The markings on the heads of Egyptian cats such as the Gayer Anderson cat may well have recalled the sacred scarab beetle to the Egyptians.

 

 

From being worshipped in Egypt, the cat travelled to Rome where it was valued as a rat catcher. Romans called the cat 'felis' which has the same root as 'felix' meaning good omen. The Romans identified Bast with Diana so the sun goddess became the moon goddess.

Read The Cult of the Cat Part II

 
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