Cats affected every aspect of ancient Egyptian life. From household companion to the object of religious worship, cats held sway over Egyptians like no other animal. Although priestly slaughtering of cats in religious ceremonies was acceptable, accidental killing of a cat by a civilian outside of the temple was punishable.
Breeding Programs Established
Cats were so steeply ingrained in ancient Egyptian life that breeding programs to ensure the supply of felines were established. According to the Daily Mail Online, scientists at the University of California-Davis discovered that ancient Egyptians were indeed the first civilization to maintain catteries -- or cat breeding programs.
The demand for cats for religious sacrificial purposes warranted breeding programs aimed solely at maintaining supply for the purpose of slaughter, UC Davis researchers said in an article in the Journal of Archaeological Science. In a study of the mitochondrial DNA extracted from well-preserved mummies of cats, researchers discovered close genetic ties to the DNA of today's modern house cat. This link, researchers contend, is evidence of cat domestication from ancient Egypt. It also demonstrates that breeding programs in ancient Egypt laid the foundation for today's felines.
Religious expression in ancient Egypt when the relationship between cats and humans was established was centered around the worship of various deities. Ancient Egypt Online details the role of the cat goddess Bastet in the religious lives of Egyptians. Depicted as female, the deity Bastet was revered for her playfulness, grace, affection and cunning -- all qualities admired today in modern house cats and most likely expressed by the cats of ancient Egypt that patrolled the fields and also took up residence in homes of commoners and royalty. Worship of Bastet was centered at her main temple located in Bubastis in Lower Egypt. However, she was a focal point within temples throughout the Egyptian kingdom. Bastet was also linked to other Egyptian deities. She was considered the daughter of Ra and the mother of Nefertem.
The cats that lived in temples dedicated to Bastet were mummified upon death -- whether that be by sacrifice or natural causes. Discovery News reports that researchers suspect cats, especially kittens, were chosen to be slaughtered in large numbers because they were more suitable for mummification, which played a major role in ancient Egyptian religious expression.
Egyptian tomb paintings depict cats as hunters, symbols of fertility and companions in the afterlife, according to Pictures of Cats. Most cat sculptures from ancient Egypt surviving today are made of bronze. This is because the sculptures made as shrines were intended to last for an indefinite period of time. Many of these bronze sculptures depict cats with jewels, an indication that ancient Egyptians valued cats as part of their society. The website Best Cat Art explains that cat images were used to adorn everyday objects such as bracelets, amulets, rings, mirrors and cosmetic pots.
Rodent Catcher/Crop Protector
Just as Siamese cats earned their keep in ancient Japan catching rodents in temples and the home, cats in ancient Egypt influenced society by doing what comes naturally to them: catching rodents. Ancient Egypt Online informs that cats hunted alongside ancient Egyptians. It is difficult to determine if this hunting was done by cats the size of today's modern house cat or by cats similar to what we today would consider a wild cat. This is because the Egyptian language does not distinguish between the two, according to Ancient Egypt Online, but rather uses the same word "miu" for all cats. An article in the Daily Mail Online suggests Egyptians depicted cats as protectors of grain crops as they warded off rodents and snakes in the fields.
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.