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Cats in the ancient world

Updated: Jun 9, 2021

Perhaps no other animal on Earth has experienced the extreme pendulum shifts in opinion as the cat.They have been both worshiped as gods and vilified as demons until finally carving out a permanent role as beloved pet and companion. The cat’s journey around the world began in the ancient era where many cultures not only loved them, but revered them.

The pantheistic cultures of the ancient world, many of whom viewed animals as reflections of the gods, proved to beneficial for the cat as well as other animals. The Egyptian’s love for cats is well documented. They were an animal loving society who incorporated many animals into their spiritual practice, but no other animal was as beloved or catered to as the African wildcats who had slowly become an integral part of Egyptian settlements.

The Goddess Bastet

The cat’s ability to keep humans safe by killing creatures such as scorpions, snakes and rodents solidified their position as protectors of the domestic realm. Thus, the idolized cat became the protector and benefactor of all things pertaining to hearth and home. In the pantheon of Egyptian gods, none were worshiped as fervently and widely as the cat. Cat like gods were rulers of fertility, childbirth, domesticity and women’s secrets to name a few. Possibly the most lionized of these was the Goddess Bastet for whom there was an annual festival held with attendees of up to 700,000 people.

Cats were not only deified in ancient Egypt but considered valued members of the family. Egyptians showered their cats with gifts and adornments. Cats were prioritized over money and property and even had their rights enshrined in law. Harming a cat was punishable by death and cat trading was strictly forbidden. Noblemen and other social elite frequently kept cats, dogs and monkeys as pets. These royal cats were frequently decked out in sparkling necklaces and earrings and had the run of the palaces they inhabited. Cat owners went to great expense to inter their valued family members in large sarcophagus laden with valuable offerings. In fact, the oldest pet cemetery was found in Egypt with over 900 beloved pet remains (most of them cats).

Cat interred in a 2000 year old Egyptian cemetary

Artifacts from other cultures show some cultures had a deep affection for their felines as well. Cats buried with their loving owners have been found in what was once Sumer and China. But, it was the Japanese who came closest to sharing the Egyptian’s adoration. Cats protected their valued silkworms from mice and safeguarded irreplaceable Buddhist scriptures. Felines became lauded as protectors of holy text and were placed on pedestals in front of Buddhist temples.

While not quite as enraptured as the Japanese and Egyptians, the Romans and Vikings saw the cat’s practical value. They became regular and welcome sights on trading vessels. The Romans thought cats embodied independence and freedom and it was the only animal allowed in Roman temples. Although they were considered useful by the Vikings, cats didn’t fare as well in their company as Vikings had a special love for cat pelts and also bred them for that purpose.

Not all ancient civilizations put them on golden pedestals, but most at least recognized their practical value and happily ceded them a place within their settlements. During this era, they were worshipped as Gods, adored as companions and considered valuable members of most communities. Unfortunately for the hapless cat, The Middle Ages saw a dark turn of fortune to the creature once cast upon a pedestal.

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