by Elaine A. Evans, Curator/Adjunct Assistant Professor, McClung Museum, University of Tennessee
A recently acquired mask from a cat mummy (Figure 1) reflects many aspects regarding the extraordinary religious beliefs and customs involving sacred animals in ancient Egypt.
Almost all Egyptian gods were associated with some animal and assumed the form of that particular beast. Although certain species of cats are known to have lived in the wild in prehistoric Egypt, there is no evidence that they were worshipped. However, the tame and friendly cat reflected by the McClung Museum’s acquisition appeared in a much later period and was revered. Not all cats were deities, even though the species was believed sacred. A cat became sacred only after special rituals were performed, and in the belief that the cat deity Bastet dwelt within the animal, and perhaps by certain markings deemed divine.
No longer just curiosities to be ignored, mummified cats and other animal mummies have risen in importance. Research is being conducted to document and catalog various aspects of these creatures that are so identified with ancient Egypt. Cat mummies are being carefully investigated in terms of religion, cultural history, relation to the environment, questions relating to the genus and species, whether they were wild or domesticated, the diseases they had, and how exactly they were mummified. Also being determined are their types; that is, whether they were sacred, used as funerary food or votive offerings, or were just beloved pets. The Cairo Museum, in conjunction with the Department of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, leads with its important Animal Mummy Project.
The family of cats (Felidae) is separated into two subfamilies: the larger and the smaller. The first consists of large wild species, such as the lion and leopard, tiger and cheetah. The second, a small African wild cat (Felis silvestris libyca), also named the Egyptian, or Kaffir, cat, is the one this article concerns. This species may actually be the ancestor of the modern domestic cat (Felis silvestris familiaris). The exact location of the first domesticated cat is unknown, but it may be Egypt or the Near East, no doubt spreading from trade routes to different parts of the world. In any case, evidence so far for the domesticated animal in Egypt does not date before the Middle Kingdom, circa 2000 BC, when we learn of them from tomb paintings and cat mummies produced at that time. By the early New Kingdom, circa 1500 BC, more representations are found in wall paintings and reliefs. In the Late Dynastic Period, a highpoint is reached in the appreciation of the domestic cat, and ancient authors, such as the Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 BC) noted their importance. Images were being produced on papyri, as bronze and wood figurines, on sherds, as amulets in various materials, and in quantities as mummies. Such representations had special magical properties and communicated religious beliefs.
Usually, animal cemeteries are reserved for one kind of animal. Those for cats date to around 900 BC, particularly at Bubastis (“House of Bastet”), the temple and cult center of Bastet. According to Herodotus, “Other temples are greater and more costly, but none pleasanter to the eye than this.” (Note 1) The site of extensive ruins and cemeteries, Bubastis is southeast of the modern southeastern Delta town of Zagazig. Situated on the mound of Tell Basta, Bubastis may have been the capital of the entire country during dynasties XXII–XXIII, when it reached great heights as a major center. Cat cemeteries include those at Saqqara and Dra Abu el-Nagga at Thebes, as well as those of lesser scale, such as at Abydos, Dendera, and the Dakhla Oasis. Mummies were abundantly produced in the Ptolemaic Period, circa 332–30 BC, but even in greater numbers into the Roman Period.
Methods Were Barely Recorded
The technical processes of mummification are incompletely known, as the ancient Egyptians did not record them, neither for humans nor for sacred animals. For clues we must look to modern scientific investigators and to ancient writers. The Greek historian and geographer Strabo (64/3 BC–AD 21) makes a scant comment about workshops in a suburb of Alexandria, “…there are many gardens and graves and halting-places fitted up for the embalming of corpses…” (Note 2). Still, it is unknown whether animals were mummified in the same “halting-places” or workshops as humans. But the process appears to have similarities. The words of Herodotus and Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (?-ca. 21? BC) shed a faint light, albeit brief. Herodotus mentions “Dead cats are taken away into sacred buildings, where they are embalmed and buried, in the town of Bubastis…” (Note 3). Diodorus records, with little exactness, that when a cat died, it was wrapped in fine linen and taken to be embalmed. He adds, “…after it has been treated with cedar oil and such spices as have the quality of imparting a pleasant odour and of preserving the body for a long time, they lay it away in a consecrated tomb” (Note 4). There is archaeological evidence at Bubastis that cat bodies had been burnt in brick furnaces and therefore not embalmed, as was the rule at other sites. But this idea is still in debate.
Nevertheless, a dim scene emerges to suggest some activities of embalming. As with craft centers, the preparation quarters were busy, such as those seen depicted in wall paintings showing industrious artisans in workshops for furniture, jewelry, pottery, and stone objects. Thus, brown-skinned embalmer priests can be imagined as they devotedly bend over their tasks, or carry out other duties. Metal and stone tools essential to the preparation of the carcass and dehydrating substances are at hand. They might embalm the cats simply by softening them in natron (mostly sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate), making no attempts to otherwise preserve the body, or sometimes bury or perhaps burn them, and later retrieve the resultant skeletons to be carefully wrapped in linen. In a nearby area would be pots of bitumen that shape and support the linen-wrapped remains and wood boxes filled with fine white linen from a local textile workshop. It was important that outwardly the mummy’s head should resemble a living cat. Relief models, sculpted heads, statues, and miniature coffins might be placed around the workshop for use as models for proportion and form, painting facial details or decorations on the linen, or for numerous pottery, wood, or bronze coffins for the mummies. Funerary priests dressed in white linen garments were there to oversee the work and recite prayers over a finished mummy or groups of them. Such workshop activities were likely to be separated according to rank.
A Mask With A Past
In such a setting, the McClung Museum’s small, stiff mask (6.7 cm. high x 5.7 cm. wide; ears 2.21 cm. high.) of unknown provenance was naturalistically modeled in linen and bitumen (pitch). The linen was smoothed and formed over soft bitumen, the latter acting like pliable clay when guided by fingers of an artistic embalmer. On the exterior, an application of several layers of the once-bright, white, finely woven linen resulted in a slightly bumpy surface (Figure 2).
Facial features are detailed in line by black paint (Note 5). Encircling the short neck is a dark stain with vestiges of bitumen where the neck had extended into the former upper body wrappings. Tiny sand particles rest on the left side of the upper head, side of the face, around the right eye, and between the linen weave throughout areas on the top and rear of the head, which create an illusion of white patches in the now aged, tan linen. On the interior, layers of more coarsely woven linen are shaped over bitumen. The slightly hollowed muzzle area is blackened by traces of bitumen(?), as is the upper rear of the head. There are no hollows for the ears, a separate exterior shaping method being used for them.
Through time, the cat mask, representing one of a variety of types made, was somehow disengaged from its conical-shaped, linen body wrappings. It may be concluded that the missing bandaging was elaborately folded in geometric patterns, or perhaps in alternating bands of brown and natural linen (Figure 3).
The mask does not reveal whether it contained a skeleton, but examples without skeletal material are known. Based on the interior dimensions, if a skull was inside the mask, the cat was probably immature. The neck diameter would have allowed a skull that had fallen apart to drop down, a condition seen in the x-rays of some mummies. (Note 6)
Cats Led Privileged Lives
Diodorus briefly reiterates the much earlier comments of Herodotus about the devotion and great veneration afforded cats, not only during their lifetimes, but even after death. Society was so devout, that if someone intentionally or unintentionally killed a cat, he was put to death. Even in cases of critical national famine, sacred animals such as the cat apparently went unscathed. In addition to being sacred, Diodorus notes their useful characteristics, such as confronting asps positioned to bite and warding off other snakes. Cats were also of service to fowlers in their search for birds in the Nile marshes, as attested by a wall painting in the New Kingdom tomb of Nebamun at Thebes. Diodorus explains that a portion of land for sacred cats was consecrated, which provided for their upkeep and made them self-supporting.
As felines of privilege within the temple of Bubastis precincts, they lived as the earthly embodiment of the temple goddess Bastet. Mummies were placed in the cult center and dedicated to Bastet in order to increase her favor. Evidence also suggests that numerous domesticated cats were bred and some deliberately killed in order to be mummified. This was done to satisfy the great demand for them by zealous pilgrims, who bought and dedicated them at cult centers. Many were needed to go around. Herodotus relates the excitement generated among the throngs of pilgrims after they arrived at Bubastis: “…they make a festival and great sacrifices, and more wine is drunk at this feast than in the whole year beside” (Note 7). The number attending the festival may have reached the extraordinary level of some 700,000 people. It may be that cat mummies numbered in the millions, were it possible to tabulate those buried in sites all over Egypt. As eternal life was all to the ancient Egyptians, so too was it for their sacred animals. The life of a cat in the hereafter, therefore, was a place of sweet greenery, mice, and tasty morsels. There, “meows” would be heard in abundance.
The McClung Museum cat mummy mask was acquired in 1999 from Reverend Terry Barnwell of Crossville, Tennessee, through the generous donation of Dr. and Mrs. Galal El-Sayad of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
- Herodotus, II, 137
- Strabo, VIII, 10
- Herodotus, II, 67
- Diodorus, I, 83
- My appreciation to Kendra Roth, Assistant Conservator, Metropolitan Museum of Art, who confirmed that ultraviolet tests on ancient paint for age are often inconclusive.
- I would like to thank Robert Reed, Department of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine, University of Tennessee, for this information.
- Herodotus, II, 60
Godley, A. D., trans. 1966. Herodotus. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann Ltd., London.
Jones, Horace Leonard, trans. 1966. The Geography of Strabo. G. Putnam’s Sons, New York; William Heinemann Ltd., London.
Oldfather, C. H., trans. 1946. Diodorus of Sicily. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann Ltd., London.