In addition to being fantastic pets, cats may have prevented humankind from going hungry and contracting sickness.
Imagine a time and place where every home was inhabited by tiny, dangerous animals. Every round showed a new threat: asps hidden in clay jars, rats destroying vast amounts of stored grain, scorpions slithering under cradles. Ancient Egypt was home to one animal that had the ability to defend the globe from these little monsters: the cat.
The same lovely critters that now sleep on our pillows were used by the ancient Egyptians to save their lives. It makes clear why they drew Egyptians of all generations to venerate them.
One of the first Egyptian gods, Mafdet, was revered by those who prayed to him for protection from venomous animals like snakes and scorpions. She was portrayed in a number of fierce feline forms, but was most usually a female with a lion, cheetah, or house cat’s head (although she has also occasionally been depicted as a female cat with a female head). Because cats could protect against the tiny monsters that made Egyptian houses perilous, Mafdet was honored as the protector of the house and of the entire kingdom.
Mafdet was replaced as the popular feline deity later in Egyptian history by the goddess Bastet, also referred to as “Bast.”
Due in large part to cats’ well-known tendency for removing snakes, scorpions, and other vermin, she shared the same reputation as Mafdet as a fierce protector of the home (particularly of children and nobility). She was revered as the “Eye of Ra,” the sun god, by her followers, who believed that she vigilantly watched over the world and guarded Egypt against invasion.
As Bastet transformed into a goddess of the family, fertility, and love, her reputation significantly softened. As opposed to being only semi-feral animals who stalked and guarded their owners’ homes, the Egyptians truly domesticated their cats, making them treasured family members. Because they saw their cats as dedicated, important family members, Egyptians began treating them with the same respect and dignity as their own children. Followers of the Bastet cult used to mummify their cats and mourn them in the same way as they did their human family members, much like cat lovers now lament their own furry family members.
We frequently make fun of cats’ belief that they deserve to be worshipped. Anyone who has ever encountered a spoiled tomcat can witness to the fact that cats have never forgotten their days of being loved. Ancient Egypt had a solid reason to worship cats. Cats used to keep homes safe from vermin and even save lives. If not for them, they might not have been able to ensure the survival of society as we know it!
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