The ancient Egyptians worshipped their cats as gods



Egyptian cat goddess looking after Herstmonceux Museum



Our English word "cat" doesn't seem to have come into general usage until around 300 A.D. give or take a few decades or so. It is interesting to note that several of the world's languages call this animal by a name very similar to the English words "cat" or "puss" (which itself is believed to have derived from the name of the ancient Egyptian goddess Pasht, a cat-headed deity who was considered a darker manifestation of Bast; a.k.a.Bastet, acknowledged as the Mother of ALL cats and a goddess we'll return to later).




For instance, all the following examples are the words for the creature we call "cat":















As for the Egyptians, they called the creature Mau, meaning "to see." No doubt the name also made onomatopoetic reference to the cat's familiar meowing. No one really knows for certain, but it is believed that the cat may have been domesticated by these ancient Egyptians 4,000 to 5,000 years ago; relatively recent when you consider that the dog has been a companion to humans for 20,000 years, perhaps even longer. Some experts theorize that this human/dog relationship may have been going on as long as 50,000 years. As a result, the cat has retained many of its natural instincts and behaviors, having only been among humans a short while, whereas dogs have evolved right alongside us for quite some time now.


In zoological classification cats belong to the Class : Mammalia (mammals - hair covered animals that suckle their young with breast milk), the Order : Carnivora (they are carnivores - they eat meat) and the Family: Felidae. Within this family there are three further subdivisions called genera (Panthera (cats that roar), Acinonyx (the Cheetah) and Felis (all other "small" cats)), and each genus contains individual species. A species of cats is a group that normally breeds and produces fertile offspring (see section on DNA below)   Wild cats inhabit all parts of the world except the extreme Arctic and Antarctic regions, Australia and the wastelands of the tundra where there is no tree cover for prey.





Cats have evolved as predatory hunting animals with great agility and keen senses - particularly hearing, sight and smell. From only a few weeks of age the kittens of all species of cat (including our domesticated varieties) show instinctive behaviour typical of hunter-killers. They are extremely alert to sounds and movements, stalk, ambush, convert rigid stillness into rapid movements to pounce on their prey, and they demonstrate the typical biting and clawing actions needed to bring down and kill prey quickly.


All cats (except the lion and some feral domestic cat colonies) are solitary animals that hunt and fend for themselves. They only come into contact with members of the opposite sex during mating periods when scent in female urine attracts males to her from a long distance. Cats are also very territorial and mark out the perimeter of their "homeland" with their urine. In urban areas our domesticated cats still exhibit these behavioural traits, creating serious problems for male tom cats who inevitably fight with each other as they cross each others territories in search of on-heat females. Neutering can help to reduce the nuisance caused by calling and fighting cats, as well as reducing the number of unwanted litters.


Cats are capable of great speed over short distances - and none is faster than the Cheetah which is able to reach over 60 miles per hour (100km per hour) making it the fastest land animal on Earth.





The earliest ancestors of cats originally evolved about 200 million years ago from reptiles. Prehistoric remains of cats are few and far between but the dental pattern of modern day cats is similar to that found in fossilised creodonts - primitive fish-eating mammals which lived about 50 million years ago, but this genetic line failed to survive and there are no direct descendants today. At the same time another group of animals the miacids also had cat-like cutting teeth - they were small forest-dwelling creatures and these evolved into the carnivores of today - including some cats.


Even though everyone has heard about the "Sabre-toothed Tiger" or Smilodon - which had canine teeth 20cm or longer - this animal is not in fact related to the big cats found on Earth today. The last sabre toothed "cats" died out as recently as 30,000 years ago (based on fossil records in Britain) and possibly only 13,000 years ago (fossil records in California).


Fossils from 12 million years ago are similar to modern small cats. By 3 million years ago there were a wide variety of cats which populated the whole world except the Arctic, Antarctic, Australia and the inhospitable tundra regions. However, Australia does have some indigenous cat-like species e.g. the "marsupial cat".







Cat skeletons have been found in very early human settlements but they are assumed by archaeologists to have been wild cats. The earliest true records of domestication of cats date from about 2000 years ago from Ancient Egypt. Examination of skulls found in Egyptian cat burial grounds identified them as mainly being of the species Felis libyca which at that time was a wild cat that inhabited Asia and North Africa. This desert-living cat is now thought to have been the main ancestor of the domestic cats we have today. Migration and interbreeding with native cats resulted (in Europe) in the emergence of a thicker set domestic cat - similar to the European Wild Cat (Felis silvestris)





There are several anatomical features such as a rounded head and a skeletal structure designed for agility which suggest that all cats (domesticated or wild, large or small) have evolved from a common prehistoric ancestor.


Generally, male and female cats are very similar in appearance. The exceptions are adult male lions which develop a mane. Usually males are slightly bigger than females of the same species.


Cats have five toes on the front feet and four toes on the hind feet, although occasionally individuals are born with more toes (an inherited abnormality called polydactyly). Cats walk on their toes and have soft pads on the toes and feet which help to reduce sound when stalking, as well as protecting the underlying bones from concussion during running and jumping.


Cats have evolved with eyes that protrude forwards from the head giving them good forward and sideways vision. The retina at the back of the eye reflects light from an area called the tapetum lucidum, and it consists of a high proportion of cells called "rods" which gives cats excellent vision in poor light - a feature that helps them to hunt around dusk and dawn. Although the image they see is useful, it lacks fine detail so they may miss small objects. Cats do have different cones in the retina for differentiating colour - but their colour vision is very poor compared to ours.


Cats have a dental profile typical of the carnivores. They have four large canine teeth at the front of the mouth which are used to grasp their prey, and large molars including two carnassial teeth (one on the upper arcade of both sides of the mouth). These are used to gnaw and slice the meat into small pieces so that it can be swallowed.


One genus of cat - the roaring cats (panthera), which includes the lion, tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, snow leopard and jaguar, has been determined based upon an anatomical difference in the hyoid bone apparatus. The hyoid lies at the base of the skull and connects it to the larynx. In the genus panthera it is made partly of cartilage, which allows it to move freely and so gives the vocal cords the ability to make roaring sounds. In all other cats the hyoid bone is completely ossified and rigid.


All cats have retractable claws except for the Cheetah - and for this reason it is placed in it's own genus - Acinonyx.  Cats have developed with a wide variety of coat colours and patterns. In wild cats these have evolved as camouflage. It is not surprising therefore that the snow leopard should have a very pale, light, almost white coat - as it inhabits regions frequently covered in snow, whereas it's counterpart the leopard has spots to help conceal it in forests. Tigers have stripes to conceal them in long grass, lion are tawny-brown to blend in with the savannah, and so on. Because coat colour is a genetically inherited feature breeders can influence this in their breeding.



DNA - Inheritance and gene sequencing


All cats have 38 chromosomes in each cell - except for Ocelot's and Geoffreys Cat which only have 36 chromosomes.


A species of cat is a group that normally breeds and produces fertile offspring. However, under artificial conditions - such as captivity - it is possible to cross-breed different species and create variants e.g. leopards have been crossed with lions to create leopons, lions and tigers to create ligers (father a lion) and tigons (father a tiger). The offspring are usually sterile. An exception to this "rule" is that feral domestic cats have successfully bred in the wild with wild cats.


The anatomical, behavioural and other characteristics of modern-day cats can be explained by the genetic transfer of material from one generation to another, the principle of "survival of the fittest" and by adaptation to the surrounding environment. Sometimes a desirable trait transmitted by a genetic sequence can be linked to an undesirable trait. The most notable example of this is white hair coat. White cats are often born deaf, and they are also predisposed to develop hypersensitivity and in some cases cancer of the ear flaps (pinnae) of the ears when exposed to sunlight.


Laboratory sequencing of feline DNA (the feline genome) is currently being undertaken, and as a result we shall discover more and more about the genetic component of inheritance in these species. This will not only help us to prevent and treat common diseases, but it will help us to piece together the evolutionary trail leading to modern day cats.








In addition to the behavioural characteristics of cats as predators, there are some interesting functional characteristics that are thought to reflect the cats origins as a desert-dwelling creature. One of these is the ability of cats kidneys to concentrate urine much more than other domesticated species e.g. dogs.


Cats also demonstrate some unique metabolic characteristics which set them aside from other domesticated animals such as dogs. As a result they have a specific nutritional requirement for taurine, for example, and for preformed vitamin A and for the essential fatty acid, linolenic acid.





There is something about their confident personality that we admire about cats. In fact, the ancient Egyptians were so fascinated by this detached quality of the cat that they considered them to be nothing less than godlike. To the Egyptians all cats were divine, and extreme behavior was often acted out to reinforce this conviction. For instance, if a someone happened to come across a dead cat in the street, he or she would put on a loud display of sorrow and mourning just to make sure no one thought that they were responsible for killing the cat. You see, according to Egyptian law, being found guilty of cat murder was punishable by death.


Whenever a household cat died of natural causes, the entire family would go through a period of grief, shaving their eyebrows as a mark of their sadness. Deceased cats were very often mummified and entombed with fine jewelry and treasures; a custom usually reserved for only the most powerful and wealthy of the ruling class.







By far, the most fanatical demonstration of Egypt's devotion to her cats occurred in 500 B.C.2 during a period of warfare with Persia. At the city of Pelusium, the Persian and Egyptian armies engaged in fierce combat, but the Egyptians resisted the onslaught with a fixed determination to save their city. The resolve of the Egyptian war machine proved too much for the rapidly tiring Persian army. Sensing ruinous defeat if the battle continued, the Persians retreated while they still could. The Egyptians knew that this wouldn't be the end of it, so the army maintained a condition of battle readiness, waiting for the Persians to return.


What the Persians were up to was a brilliant scheme that displayed a profound understanding of their enemy's culture and beliefs. They discovered a kink in the Egyptian armor, a weakness they would fully exploit. Night after night, the Persians deployed their elite forces to the villages and towns of the surrounding countryside, silently capturing as many cats as they could lay their hands upon. Once satisfied with the number of animals they'd collected, the Persian army returned to the city of Pelusium.  The Egyptians first noticed the distant clouds of dust, kicked up by the approaching Persian army, at dawn. The troops were readied for battle in an orderly manner, well rested and ready for combat.


Within an hour, the two armies positioned themselves in assembled ranks, glaring at each other across the battlefield. The Egyptian General signaled for the attack. In an instant, the Egyptian army charged upon the Persians who, oddly enough, held their ground. The Egyptians roared like thunder as they rapidly advanced on the Persian front line. Suddenly, there was movement within the Persian forces. Curious, but undaunted, the Egyptians continued their charge. Then, they saw a sight that nearly froze them in their tracks. Hundreds of panic stricken cats were released upon the battlefield. The Egyptian army watched in horror as the sacred animals ran about in deadly fear. Confusion spread through the Egyptian ranks as the Persian army seized the opportunity to take the aggressive. Advancing upon the stunned Egyptians in a evenly paced march, each of the Persian soldiers held forth a terrified cat. The Egyptians knew then and there that they were defeated.


Not a single Egyptian soldier dared to engage the enemy, fearing that to do so might endanger the lives of the cats. Without suffering a single casualty, the Persians secured their victory, devastating the Egyptians.  It has been suggested that the Egyptians initially used the cat to control the rodent population which continually destroyed crops. This seems to be a reasonable speculation, but it's obvious that the cat meant much more to the Egyptians than that. Kingdoms don't loose wars merely for the sake of four-legged mousetraps.


Certainly, something of the cat's behavior suggested that a very powerful spiritual connection existed between humans, cats, and the gods. The Pharaohs and the priests alike were quite protective of their honored feline population. The distribution of cats throughout the Kingdom was carefully regulated, while exportation of cats was absolutely forbidden. Since the cat insured agricultural security by keeping away harmful pests, a surplus of goods was able to develop which gave Egypt wealth and strength, and plenty of economic clout when it came to dealing with other countries. No wonder they guarded these animals so closely. The domesticated cat was nothing less than a priceless secret weapon that contributed immeasurably to the greatness of ancient Egypt.


But eventually domesticated cats did find their way out of Egypt thanks to the Greeks who stole the animals to control their own rodent problem, and to use as powerful bargaining chips in international trade. This didn't go over so well with the Egyptians. In fact, one Pharaoh sent out his army to various lands in a futile effort to recapture the liberated felines and return them home to Egypt.


Unfortunately for the Egyptians, it was too late. Warfare and trade had resulted in the distribution of domesticated cats throughout the Mediterranean and perhaps by this time, even as far as Asia. The Egyptian monopoly on domestic cats had at last come to an end.


Domestic cat





Phoenician cargo ships are thought to have brought the first domesticated cats to the European continent around 900 B.C. In time, the Romans adopted the cat as a symbol of freedom and liberty. Never quite venerating felines to the extent of the Egyptians, the Romans nevertheless held the cat in high regard, and it is believed that they are responsible for introducing the cat to Britain during the course of their numerous campaigns of conquest in that region.


Over the subsequent centuries, the domesticated cat proliferated throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. Though no longer worshipped as deities, cats were still honored and appreciated for their mousing abilities no matter where they turned up. By the 11th Century, about the time the Crusades began, cats were in huge demand since the rats were beginning to overrun the cities. Domesticated cats could now be found as far as Scotland.  While their obvious hunting abilities were being put to good use, the domesticated cat retained its mysterious, otherworldly aura of heavenly protector and benefactor.


Catholic Monasteries kept cats as guardians (that is, until the Church decided that they didn't like cats anymore); Sailors would bring along cats during long sea voyages believing they possessed miraculous powers to protect them from dangerous weather; in a very short time, the cat spread throughout the world, becoming a treasured companion and friend.


All seemed well for these cats and the people that loved them, for a good long time in fact. Unfortunately, this was not to last. By the close of the 15th Century, Pope Innocent VIII decided that adulation for cats was tantamount to pagan worship in defiance of God. This led to the belief that cats were evil, existing solely to mislead and destroy the faithful. The Inquisition was given instructions to hunt down all cat owners and try them as heretics and witches. For a while, cats were burned to death by the hundreds, right along side their human caretakers. The crime: "consorting with demonic forces."  It was a far cry from their exalted days in ancient Egypt.


But cats persevered. In fact, they flourished. Centuries passed as people of various cultures spread diverse influences across the globe, while the stoic cat accompanied this progress each step of the way. And through it all, the cat has thankfully retained its independent qualities, its silent contemplative nature, its persona of supernatural wisdom.


Obviously cats won't be leaving the scene anytime soon. They are very much a part of our our consciousness, both culturally and spiritually. Their traits are often used to describe human activities. To comment on their independence is nothing more than a safe cliché. Being such an ubiquitous animal, we tend to take them for granted, but remember this: They are the descendants of temple dwelling cats, domesticated by the Egyptians and regarded as sacred. To ignore their unique lineage is to sever all metaphorical links to our mystic past, and this would indeed be a tragedy.


NOTE It should be noted that all cats - including domesticated species - are obligate carnivores and they cannot survive without ingesting nutrients derived from animals. CATS MUST NEVER BE FED AN EXCLUSIVELY VEGETARIAN RATION.










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See the Asian Group.

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Egyptian Mau

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