Cats and Crocodiles: Why Did Ancient Egyptians Worship Them?

Charlotte Booth

Ancient and Classical Ancient Egypt
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It is often stated that the ancient Egyptians were ardent animal lovers. This is based on a number of factors, such as animal-headed deities and the number of mummified animals discovered in the archaeological record.

However, the relationship between the ancient Egyptians and animals was not that straightforward. On the whole animals were seen as practical and all had a function within. Even pets which included cats, dogs and monkeys did not live the pampered lifestyle of modern pets, but were considered a useful addition to the household.

For example cats were homed in order to keep rats, mice and snakes away from the home and the grain storage and dogs were used to aid with the hunting of small prey in the desert and the marshes. Even cats are depicted on hunting expeditions in the marshes where it is thought they were used to flush out the birds from the reeds.

An Egyptian fowling scene showing how the ancient Egyptians used cats for hunting.
An Egyptian fowling scene showing how the ancient Egyptians used cats for hunting.

Whilst pets did have a practical function there is enough evidence to show some were also greatly loved. For example in the tomb of Ipuy from Deir el Medina (1293-1185 BCE) a pet cat is depicted wearing a silver earring (which was more valuable than gold), and one of her kittens was playing with the sleeve of its owner’s tunic.

Despite obvious affection between some owners and their pets only one cat name is known from the archaeological record – The Pleasant One. Most cats were simply called Miw – which was the ancient Egyptian word for cat.

The confusion comes about when considering the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet, the cat goddess which has led some to believe the Egyptians worshipped all cats. This is not the case – the domestic house cat was not worshipped any more than they are today. To understand this disparity we need to look at the nature of the gods.

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Nature of gods

Many Egyptian deities, were represented at times with animal heads or completely in animal form. For example Khepri, was sometimes presented with a beetle for a head, Bastet with a cat head, Sekhmet with a lioness head, Hathor with a cow’s head or simply cow ears and Horus with a falcon head.

However, they were all also presented at other times in full human form.

When a deity was depicted with the head of an animal this represented that they were displaying the characteristics or behaviour of that animal, at that time.

So for example, Khepri with his beetle head represents the sun at dawn. This is based on the observation of the dung beetle. The beetle lay its eggs in a ball of dung which it would then roll along the ground.

Eventually the freshly hatched beetles emerged from the dung. This action was likened to the sun emerging over the horizon at dawn and from it all new life emerged – so technically little to do with beetles per se.

Horus-god
The Egyptian God Horus.

So through observations of nature, certain characteristics were attributed to the gods and this was represented by the image of the animal. There were few taboos on treatment or slaughter of the animals connected with the gods.

As a parallel, in modern India the cow is worshipped and the nation as a whole do not eat beef. In ancient Egypt however, although the cow was sacred to Hathor it did not mean the goddess was present in every cow, and therefore beef was eaten by whoever could afford it.

When leaving votive offerings to deities, it was common to leave a bronze statue of the animal associated with them as a visual reminder of the characteristics being appealed to. However, bronze was an expensive commodity, and it became easier to purchase an animal mummy at the temple to dedicate to the god.

As millions of animal mummies have been discovered of cats (sacred to Bastet), crocodiles (sacred to Sobek) and ibis (sacred to Thoth) it has led to the misconception that they were a nation of animal lovers mummifying their deceased pets.

To understand the relationship between the gods and the animals we shall use the cults of Sobek and Bastet as an example.

Sobek

Relief from the Temple of Kom Ombo showing Sobek with typical attributes of kingship, including a was-sceptre and royal kilt. (Credit: Hedwig Storch / CC).

Sobek, the crocodile god was the son of the goddess Neith, and a symbol of the king’s power and might, a water and fertility deity, and later a primordial and creator god.

The Nile Crocodile (crocodylus niloticus) lived in abundance within the Egyptian Nile and can grow up to six metres in length. Even in the modern world they are responsible for more human deaths on the Nile than any other creature.

As the ancient Egyptians relied on the Nile for water, food, transportation and laundry, crocodiles were a very real threat and part of the worship of Sobek was borne out of self-preservation.

Sobek was worshipped from the Pre-Dynastic Period (pre-3150 BCE) and there were numerous shrines around Egypt dedicated to Sobek although predominantly located in the Faiyum with the main temple at Kom Ombo situated between Aswan and Edfu in the south of Egypt.

There is plenty of evidence from the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BCE) onwards indicating that crocodiles were specifically bred within the temples. At Kom Ombo, for example there was a small lake where crocodiles were bred.

These crocodiles were not however, bred with the purpose of leading pampered lives but for slaughter so they could be mummified and presented to the god as votive offerings.

Thousands of crocodile mummies have been discovered in special cemeteries at Tebtunis, Hawara, Lahun, Thebes and Medinet Nahas, which include adult and juvenile crocodiles as well as unhatched eggs.

crocodile mummies
Mummified crocodiles, in the Crocodile Museum (Credit: JMCC1 / CC).

Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC records that people at Lake Moeris in the Faiyum, fed the crocodiles raised there, and adorned them with bracelets and earrings as a means of honouring Sobek.

The reverence of the Nile Crocodile would not have extended to wild ones along the river bank and there would be no taboo about killing one and there are tomb images of fishermen killing hippopotami (associated with the goddess Taweret) and crocodiles.

Once the temple crocodiles died or were slaughtered they were mummified and buried in clay coffins. Some of these can still be viewed in the chapel of Hathor at Kom Ombo.

Bastet

Wadjet-Bastet, with a lioness head, the solar disk, and the cobra that represents Wadjet (goddess of childbirth). (Credit: anonymous / CC).

Crocodiles were not the only animal mummies given as votive offerings to the gods. Thousands of cat mummies with intricate designs in the bandages have been found at cemeteries at Bubastis and Saqqara.

These were dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet. In the context of Egyptian history the cult of Bastet was relatively new, dating to approximately 1000 BCE. Her cult developed from that of the lioness goddess Sekhmet although her iconography is far older.

Bastet is the daughter of the sun-god Ra and is a peaceful, benign version of the lioness Sekhmet. Bastet is often shown with kittens, as her main role is as a protective mother.

The cult centre for Bastet was at Bubastis (Tell Basta) in the north of Egypt which was prominent in the twenty-second and twenty-third dynasties (945-715 BCE). When Herodotus was in Egypt he commented that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came to the site to pay their respects to the goddess.

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He also stated that at this time people would also take the remains of their own cats to be dedicated to the goddess, whilst going through a traditional mourning period which included shaving their eyebrows.

This was certainly not a traditional practice for cat owners in the earlier years of Egyptian history.

Pilgrims to the cult centre of Bastet dedicated a cat mummy to the goddess with the hope she would answer their prayers. These mummies were sold by the priests at the temple who ran a breeding programme similar to that of Sobek, providing cats for slaughter.

Mummy contents

John_Reinhard_Weguelin_–_The_Obsequies_of_an_Egyptian_Cat_1886-
A priestess offers gifts of food and milk to the spirit of a cat. On an altar stands the mummy of the deceased, and the tomb is decorated with frescoes, urns of fresh flowers, lotus blossoms, and statuettes. The priestess kneels as she wafts incense smoke toward the altar. In the background, a statue of Sekhmet or Bastet guards the entrance to the tomb (Credit: John Reinhard Weguelin / Domain).

Producing mummies to be dedicated to Sobek and Bastet was a lucrative business and it was clear that demand may have outstripped supply. A number of the cat and crocodile mummies have been CT scanned or x-rayed identifying the contents and the mode of death of the animal.

Many of the cat mummies contain the remains of very young kittens who were strangled or had their necks broken. They were clearly bred for slaughter to provide the mummies for the pilgrims.

A number of the mummies, however, show that they were not the remains of full cats but a combination of packing material and cat body parts moulded into the shape of a mummy.

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Similar results have been discovered when crocodile mummies have been scanned or x-rayed showing some were made up of reeds, mud and body parts moulded into the correct shape.

Could these ‘fake’ animal mummies be the work of unscrupulous priests, getting rich from the pilgrims to the religious sites or was the intention and provenance of the mummy as coming from the temple more important than the contents?

What is apparent however, is that this practice of slaughtering young animals in order to sell their mummies to pilgrims is more a business activity than animal worship. There are very mixed messages coming from this practice.

Cat mummy-MAHG 23437‎
Cat mummy-MAHG 23437‎ (Credit: anonymous / CC).

On one hand the animals were revered for their characteristics and behaviour which was considered admiral and associated with a deity. However, on the other hand slaughtering kittens and removing crocodile eggs for sale shows a very practical approach to the animal kingdom.

There are clearly two approaches to the animal world – the religious and the domestic approach. People who cared for animals in the home environment possibly cared for their animals as much as we do today even though they also served a practical purpose.

However, the religious approach is two-fold – the characteristics of certain animals were revered and admired but the innumerable animals raised for the votive cult were not revered and viewed simply as a commodity.

Dr Charlotte Booth is a British archaeologist and writer on Ancient Egypt. She has written several works and has also featured on various history television programmes. Her latest book, How to Survive in Ancient Egypt, will be published on 31 March by Pen and Sword Publishing.

ancient-egypt-how-to-survive

Featured image: Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose’s cat (Credit: Larazoni / CC).

Charlotte Booth