The ancient Egyptians worshiped the cat: they had a cult of Bastet, which dates back to the era around 1000 BC. It lasted until 390 AD, when it was outlawed by the Roman emperor Theodosius 1. Bastet was a goddess with the head of a cat and the body of a woman and personified fertility and health as a blessing of the Sun. Bastet also patronized domestic cats. At the festivities in her honor, which were attended by up to half a million people annually, hundreds of thousands of cats were mummified and buried.
Extensive cat cemeteries have been found in some Egyptian cities. In 1888, a peasant accidentally dug up one of these cemeteries in the Egyptian city of Beni Hazal. Hundreds of thousands of cats were mummified and buried there. Children, delighted with the find, played with them or carried them to the Nile River – for sale to passing travelers. Most of the found cat mummies were used as fertilizers. Nineteen tons of cat bones were sent to England. Of this huge number of mummies, only one cat skull has survived, which is now on display in the British Museum.
The ancient Egyptians revered their cats so much that the punishment for killing her was death. One Roman soldier had the imprudence to mistreat a cat, for which he was literally torn to pieces by the angry Egyptians. When a cat died a natural death, its owners were required to wear mourning, shave their eyebrows as a sign of grief and perform a ritual of mourning for their deceased pet. The corpse of a cat was wrapped in linen cloth, anointed with herbs and special compounds.
The rich cats were wrapped in colorful linen with intricate patterns. A cat mask made of a material similar to papier-mâché, with ears made of palm leaf stalks, was superimposed on her face. The mummy was placed in a wooden or woven straw box, sometimes decorated with gold, crystal or obsidian. Even kittens were buried in small bronze coffins.
The funerals of the cats belonging to poor people were not so luxurious, but they were not devoid of solemnity. To prevent the cats from starving in the afterlife, mummified mice and shrews were placed with them in the sarcophagus. The most revered cats were those that lived in temples. Their funerals were sometimes so pompous and expensive that special duties were levied on the population to pay them. Images of cats in Egyptian art begin to appear around 2600 BC, but definitive proof that cats were already domesticated was found in a tomb dating from 1900 BC, in which scientists discovered cat bones. buried together with pots of milk. After 1600 BC. cats occupy a more significant place in Egyptian art. They were depicted curled up under their masters’ chairs, gnawing bones, playing with each other and tied to a chair leg. These drawings support the assumption that man was already trying to tame the cat at that time. In one of the paintings, the mother of Pharaoh Akhenaten throws pieces of food to the kitten under the chair at dinner. Another picture captured a cat recklessly hunting birds with people.
Egyptian artists have depicted hundreds of cats on tombs and papyrus. They sculpted them from bronze, gold, stone and wood, made from clay, carved from ivory. Young Egyptian women wore amulets with images of cats, which were called “duck” and were a symbol of fertility. The girls prayed to the gods for the fulfillment of the desire to have as many children as kittens are depicted on their amulet. The word “duck”, like the cats themselves, spread all over the world and, in the end, having considerably transformed, became the basis of the word “cat” in English, French, Italian, Russian, Indian and other languages.
In Egypt, cats were domesticated at least a thousand years before they appeared in other countries. Their spread outside the country was prevented by the Egyptians themselves, who revered cats so much that for many centuries they prohibited their export. When Egyptian travelers found domestic cats in other countries, they bought or stole them in order to bring them back to Egypt, where they believed they belonged. Seeing the real benefit in this “cat scarcity” imposed by the Egyptians, enterprising Phoenicians at the first opportunity took cats out of Egypt and sold them to wealthy animal lovers in other countries. Thus, domestic cats first appeared on the Phoenician trade routes, later spreading throughout the world. They were brought to Greece in 500 BC, to India – to Europe, cats came much later.
As it penetrated Europe, the cat changed. Crossbreeding with a European wildcat, Felis sylvestris sylvestris, made the European domestic cat more stocky and larger than the sleek Egyptian. We can still observe this difference today by comparing the relatively robust European or American Shorthair, which is a direct descendant of the European wild, with skinny African or Asian breeds such as the graceful Abyssinian or the sophisticated Siamese.
In the 5th century. BC. the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and was so delighted with the cats he saw there that he even wrote about them in his diaries. Soon, these animals appeared in Greece. The first image of a cat in ancient Greek art appears in 500 BC. on a bas-relief depicting a dog and a cat on leashes. While the cat and the dog are looking at each other, their owners and several onlookers bent over them, looking forward to how they will react to each other: today’s owners of these animals can immediately predict their behavior.
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