“I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I’m sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.” – attributed to Jules Verne
In 2008, Wilm Van Neer and his colleagues from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences happened upon what is possibly the oldest evidence of cat domestication in ancient Egypt. During a series of excavations at Hierakonpolis, located on the western bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt, Van Neer’s team exhumed the remnants of a young cat interred in a grave estimated to be approximately 5,500 years old. Further analysis of the feline skeleton, determined to be a Felis chaus, otherwise known as a “reed,” “swamp,” or “jungle cat,” was found to have a broken left humerus and a fractured right femur – injuries that had healed with human assistance before its death and burial. A separate grave in the same cemetery, which contained the remains of an adult male and female cat, along with four kittens from the Felis silvestris families, believed to have been laid to rest anywhere between 5,600 to 5,800 years ago, was discovered in a later excavation.
Artistic illustrations and portrayals of tamed felines also proved helpful in narrowing down the time period in which domestic cats first became commonplace. One of the first known depictions of a pet cat, complete with what appears to be a primitive collar around its neck, was discovered on the wall of a tomb in Saqqara tracing all the way back to 2500-2350 BCE. By the New Kingdom era, which kicked off in 1550 BCE and ended in 712 BCE, illustrations of domestic cats were a ubiquitous phenomenon in all walks of Egyptian life. Domestic felines, oftentimes donning some sort of collar or leash, were seen as both central characters and auxiliary subjects in countless paintings, relief carvings, sculptures, and other artwork. These cats were pictured pecking at scraps or food bowls, snoozing under chairs or on the laps of their owners, and stalking fowl or fish alongside their hunter masters. The fact that cats had been christened with their own names, as gleaned from a variety of ancient Egyptian literature, is yet more proof of its domestication. Bouhaki, meaning “Divine Ruler of the House,” which appeared in hieroglyphs from the 11th Dynasty (2134-1991 BCE), is said to be the oldest known cat name in history.
The most paramount impetus behind the rocketing rise of domestic cats in northern Africa was perceived spiritual significance, as well as the strong representation of felines within local religions and beliefs, particularly in ancient Egypt. Cats in these parts were exalted, and as such desired, for their innate ability to dispatch rodents, scorpions, snakes, and other pests native to the area, and sought after for the low-maintenance companionship they provided. They were, plainly put, viewed as divine blessings from the gods – so much so that the cats themselves were literally deified. Many early Egyptians went through the trouble of “taming” wildcats simply because they believed the creatures to be the physical incarnations of their anthropomorphic feline gods.
Mafdet, the goddess of justice, judgment, and execution, was the first-ever feline goddess in Egyptian mythology. Also known as the “Slayer of Serpents” and the “Lady of the House of Life,” Mafdet had the body of a tall and slim, yet athletic woman, and the head of a Felis chaus, identifiable by its elongated, blockier muzzle, and extra-long, extra-sharp, outward-facing ears that stood erect, similar to those of a modern sphynx cat, and the dark clumps of hair peeking out of their ear canals. She wore a bejeweled aegis (ornamental collar-like necklace) and a veil that partially covered her thick, braided hair; the ends of her plaits were adorned with snake heads, scorpion tails, and other pests known to plague Egyptian households.
On top of her magisterial duties, Mafdet, as indicated by her appearance, staved off and healed poisonous bites that scorpions, snakes, and other venomous creatures inflicted upon mortals. This belief stemmed directly from Egyptian lore, in which Mafdet was cast as a protector of the quasi-omnipotent sun god, Ra, who was vulnerable to scorpion stings and snakebites.
The veneration of cats was especially prevalent in Bubastis in Lower Egypt, which reached a crescendo in the 10th century BCE. The metropolis itself was named in honor of Bastet, the daughter of Ra. Bastet, who was hailed as the goddess of beauty, domesticity, fertility, childbirth, and women’s secrets, was the most lionized of the feline deities, bar none. More than 700,000 Egyptians congregated in Bubastis every year without fail solely to pay homage to the goddess in what is now remembered as the “Bast Festival.”
A statue of Bastet
Bastet was also depicted as a hybrid of a ravishing woman and a handsome wildcat now believed to be an ancestor of the Egyptian Mau, with gorgeous olive-black fur topped with a lustrous sheen and twinkling blue eyes. In her right hand, Bastet wielded a “sistrum” – a bronze percussion instrument shaped like an ankh, also referred to as the “key of life,” and intersected by three crossbars. In her left, she held a shield of sorts engraved with the head of a lion. A necklace with a golden scarab medallion or a pendant with the Eye of Horus (also known as the “Wedjat Eye”) completed her attire.
Like Mafdet, Bastet shifted to her cat form every evening to repel the reptiles and other vermin that dared encroach her father’s lair, and served as the first line of defense against Ra’s nemesis, Apep – the serpent god of chaos. In addition to keeping poisonous pests out of their homes and temples, Egyptians appealed to Bastet, whose name translated to “She of the Ointment Jar,” for protection against unholy spirits and virulent diseases, particularly those that targeted women and children. On occasion, Egyptians also prayed to Bastet to escort the souls of their loved ones into the afterlife.
The mainstream custom of cat mummification was yet another sign of the domestic cat’s unparalleled prestige. Surviving family members regularly paid top dollar to have the pet cats of the deceased preserved alongside their owners so that the felines could accompany their masters into the next world. The bodies of these sacred creatures were treated with the same degree of respect at the hands of the embalmers. Similar to human corpses, dead felines were dehydrated with salt and slathered with pine tree resins, beeswax, and costly fragrant oils before they were carefully bandaged with fine linen. In 1887, archaeologists discovered a dizzying 300,000 mummified felines in the Beni-Hassan cat cemetery alone, situated 12 miles to the south of Minya in Middle Egypt.
Moreover, pilgrimage participants demonstrated their devotion, apart from bronze statues carved in the likeness of Bastet, by presenting mummified cats as offerings to the gods. John Taylor, employed by the British Museum as an expert in Egyptian antiquities, explained: “You could come along and pay to have an animal dedicated in your name, and then the priests would bury them in a large cemetery.” Litters of live kittens, along with golden amulets and other decorative baubles shaped like or featuring these hallowed critters also made for popular gifts to welcome the New Year.
To say that the ancient Egyptians regarded pet cats as charming accessories and friendly helpers around the house would be as much an understatement as it is inaccurate. Egyptians bent over backwards to please their feline companions, and even endangered their own lives for their cats, who were considered full-fledged members of the family. Cat owners, and at times even passersby, often stormed burning houses to extract these precious pets, which were prioritized over money and other valuables. Spectators also linked hands, forming a human fence around the blazing building, so as to keep passing cats away from the roaring flames.
As one might have expected, they mourned the deaths of their cats as they would their kith and kin. Their miserable masters shaved their eyebrows clean off to mark the beginning of the grieving period, during which they cried, reminisced, and offered somber prayers and special offerings to the departed felines. Only when their eyebrows grew back in full was the grieving period completed.
Rival forces, it seemed, were well-aware of the Egyptians’ astounding obsession with cats and seized the opportunity to use this intel to their tactical advantage. In 525 BCE, a horde of Persian soldiers, as directed by Cambyses II, marched into the Egyptian city of Pelusium. The Egyptian locals rubbed their eyes furiously in disbelief. Each soldier had a cat tucked underneath one arm, and were brandishing a shield painted with the image of Bastet with their free hand. Unwilling to even entertain the notion of angering Bastet or harming even a single fur on the heads of these darling kittens, the locals raised their white flags at once.
The proliferation of domestic cats in ancient Egypt may also be attributed to their reputation as a status symbol. Noblemen, socialites, and other members of the fashionable elite frequently kept cats, dogs, and monkeys as pets. While most pharaohs preferred hunting dogs, lions, and other larger felines, certain royals opted for smaller, cuddlier cats. These royal cats, decked out in sparkling necklaces and earrings worth more than the yearly salaries of several men combined, were free to roam the palace grounds, the plump paunches of these overfed cats grazing the ground as they trotted about. Prince Thutmose, the son of the well-loved 18th-dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep the Magnificent, was renowned for the elaborate limestone sarcophagus he had commissioned for his beloved cat, Ta-mit. Engraved on the front of the sepulcher was an image of Ta-mit, seated before a table laden with a whole goose, loaves of bread, the foreleg of an ox, and a jug of beer crowned with lotus flowers – a symbol of rebirth.
Unsurprisingly, the trading and exportation of cats were expressly forbidden in ancient Egypt. Ptolemaic rulers were so invested in the issue that they inaugurated an entirely new branch of government that was exclusively tasked with policing these affairs. Agents from said department were trained to travel to neighboring territories – at times even journeying abroad – to recover cats that had been stolen or illegally purchased from their kingdom. The killing of cats, be it intentional or accidental, was also outlawed. Perpetrators of this unforgivable crime were indiscriminately executed.
Despite the cat protection laws that were quite actually set in stone, Phoenician traders acquired cats from local Egyptian smugglers, who had set up shop near Avaris, the capital of Egypt under the Hyksos rulers, in exchange for high-quality embroideries and textiles such as the Dibapha (meaning “twice-dipped” in purple dye), as well as transparent sheets of glass and multi-colored glassware. From the Phoenician shores, traders secretly shipped cats, scarabs, and amulets to Greece in large numbers, and thus began the spread of the African domestic feline, as well as the practice of taming and raising local wildcats, across mainland Europe.
Although the Phoenician merchants were undoubtedly principal contributors to the rise of European house cats, domestic cats were snuck into Greece in numerous ways. Many of the Egyptians who immigrated to Greece and vice versa – between 1550 to 1069 BCE, during which the New Kingdom bore solid relations with the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Aegean kings, and again throughout the Ptolemaic years of Hellenistic Egypt under the jurisdiction of Alexander the Great and company in the 4th century BCE – brought their pet cats on board with them. The Greek mercenaries recruited by different pharaohs over the years may have also done the same following the completion of their missions.
The Greek tyrant Agathocles of Syracuse may have been yet another reason for the inevitable escalation of the domestic African wildcat population in Greece. Legend has it that in the spring of 307 BCE, right after Agathocles and his troops had conquered the Numidian city of Miltene in what is now eastern Algeria, they lighted upon an elevated and sweeping stretch of rugged land that measured “200 stadia” (about 185 meters or the length of an ancient Greek stadium) across, and was absolutely swarming with feral domestic cats. Said Agathocles: “There, no kind of bird [made] its nest, whether in trees or in the ravines, on account of their hatred for the cats.” Soldiers, whether under instruction or of their own volition, rounded up a number of these wild felines and hauled them back to Greece.
The domestic cats that were smuggled elsewhere in Europe via land and sea trading routes were also predominantly used as mousers, and occasionally as hunting aids in tracking wild fowl. House cats that were exported further into the Far East from China, however, were entrusted with different duties. Not only were domestic felines, which were introduced to ancient Japan circa 500 CE, used to prey on mice that compromised their silk worm supplies, they were charged with safeguarding the irreplaceable Buddhist scriptures that were being ferried over from China, as well as the sacred manuscripts enshrined in Japanese temples. These house cats were lauded as the divine defenders of rare and holy texts, and were placed on pedestals that towered over those of all the other creatures in the land. Cat-related Buddhist beliefs, including one that associated dark-colored cats with promises of gold, and light-colored cats with silver, only heightened their appeal.
Conversely, the first batches of house cats that arrived in Greece were more or less shrugged off as passive, uninteresting creatures that – apart from the company they provided, which, even then was a term used loosely – were of little worth. There was no mention of the domestic cat in Greek mythology, nor in traditional lore, which favored lions, cheetahs, and other much grander, more strapping felines. The Greeks appeared to have been oblivious to the house cat’s hereditary talent for mousing, and instead relied on pole cats, weasels, ferrets, and martens for their pest control needs.
It took several years for the Greeks to catch up with the trend. Weasels, ferrets, and other animals of the like were inherently anti-social, often unpredictable, and at times, even downright hostile to their human handlers, whereas house cats, while solitary creatures, were much easier to tame by comparison. More and more Greek farmers began to employ cats as mousers for their granaries until this, too, became common practice.
Greek house cats never did achieve the same footing as their Egyptian or Japanese counterparts in terms of religious or spiritual importance, but in time, they too, became an integral and indispensable part of family life. Domestic cats began to make appearances in more contemporary literature. The celebrated playwright and comedy powerhouse Aristophanes, who dominated the theater scene in the 5th century BCE, was particularly fond of these pint-sized felines, and often cast them in his productions. It was he who invented and popularized the expression “the cat did it” – a comedic trope in which cats were used as scapegoats for broken and misplaced items around the house, akin to how dogs today are often blamed for eating a child’s homework.
Tamed felines first appeared in ancient Corsica and Sardinia in sparse numbers about halfway into the 3rd century BCE, shortly after these Mediterranean islands were incorporated into the Roman Empire. Another wave of domestic cats followed in tow in 31 BCE when the Romans subjugated Egypt. Not unlike the first house cats in Greece, domestic felines failed to gain immediate traction during their first years on Roman soil.
Only a negligible smattering of cat remnants – none of them intact– were recovered from the ruins of Pompeii, which was thoroughly annihilated by the unsparing eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The pair of cat skulls that were eventually plucked out from the Imperial Villa in Oplontis indicated that domestic felines, while not completely unheard of in the doomed city, were reserved for the rich and famous, and that these creatures were considered exotic, rather than standard pets. Experts speculated that pet cats only entered the norm sometime in the 4th century CE, considering the conspicuous increase in domestic cat remains retrieved from the archaeological deposits in Naples and other Roman territories of this period.