Did you know that the ancient Egyptians used domestic cats to guard their homes? And that cat fur was often used in medical potions? Or — and this one’s a little more grisly — that at one point kittens were bred to be mummified? These are things that my feline-obsessed self was not aware of until I spoke to Yekaterina Barbash, who curated the “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. Focusing on the role that the feline form plays in ancient Egyptian artifacts, she says the exhibition attempts to use peoples’ fondness for cats as a doorway into learning more about ancient Egyptian culture as a whole.
Being that Yekaterina is a proud cat owner herself, I also pressed her on the under-researched issue of ancient litter boxes.
Catster: Is it fair to say that the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with cats?
Yekaterina: They clearly respected cats very much and they seemed to like all kinds of felines a lot. I don’t know about obsessed, honestly, but they did hold them in very high regard.
Many of the animals the Egyptians respected or equated with divinities were in that position because of what Egyptians observed about these animals. They keenly observed animals in the wild and in a domestic setting and emphasized certain qualities — so both cats and larger felines were observed by the Egyptians to be very soft and very caring towards their young and those were important qualities. But at the same time many of the felines were observed to be important for their aggression; for instance, domestic cats were not only cute and cuddly in the home but they would protect the home by killing mice and hunting snakes. They were protecting families. The same could be said about lions when they’re hunting. These were the basic qualities the Egyptians wanted to associate with divinities.
Did the ancient Egyptians appreciate this duality?
It’s the most important characteristic. In Egyptian culture generally it was important to see more than one side of the story and respect more than one quality in each animal and each divinity. Felines have that duality inherent in them: On the one hand they’re often soft and warm and very cute, but on the other hand they’re aggressive and could kill very easily.
Is this feline duality something you attempted to convey in the exhibition?
Yes, absolutely. The way the exhibition is organized, it tries to point to the duality by having cats on one side and lions on the other; female cats on one side and male lions on the other.
You mentioned the idea of cats protecting the home. What sort of evidence is there to suggest this happened?
Besides the objects found in archeology there’s certain inscriptions referring to this. There’s also inscriptions of the so-called medical-magical nature that come from basically medical dictionaries from ancient Egypt. Texts like this incorporate both medical practices, as in specific ointments or medicines that would heal a person and spells to go alongside it. Interestingly, cats oftentimes figure as one of the ingredients. I’m talking about anything ranging from cat fur to cat feces to even the fat of a cat would sometimes be included as one of the ingredients in one of these potions.
What’s the most ferocious feline in the exhibition?
There are several examples of lion-headed goddesses. The most popular one is Sekhmet — her name literally means “powerful one.” She is a very ferocious goddess who is involved in several legends, all of which talk about the goddess raging and being extremely dangerous to humanity and other gods. They legends talk about the Egyptians having to appease this goddess in order to pacify her and prevent her from destroying all of humanity. Although she doesn’t look very ferocious, she represents the qualities of a female lion with cubs to protect — they can be very dangerous.
What would you say is the most bizarre artifact in the exhibit?
To me, the most bizarre and interesting artifact is the leonine goddess. She is a wooden statuette of one of these lion-headed goddesses and she sits crouching on a papyrus-shaped base. She’s made of wood and gilded in gold. She is extremely unusual in her pose and very difficult to identify. I’ve done a lot of research on this statuette and have not been able to find any parallels yet.
For a visitor who might have less experience in Egyptian art, they might find the feline gods Bes or Tutu more bizarre looking. They’re both gods that were worshipped primarily in the home by Egyptians and they were both considered to be extremely powerful, but they were responsible for the more mundane issues of fate and fortune, health, child birth and infancy. Bes in particular is very un-Egyptian-looking. He combines several feline features — he has the mane of a male lion and a lion’s tail, his face is human but is reminiscent of a snarling lion, and he has the body of a human dwarf. That’s a very bizarre combination of features for a divinity!
So would the average ancient Egyptian home be full of feline-based artifacts?
I would most likely expect the ancient Egyptian home to have smaller representations, maybe even amulets that people would wear. Amulets might represent Bes or the head of Bes. We know that oftentimes pregnant women would wear Bes amulets, and there’s an object in the shape of a half-circle that was used for the magical protection of sleeping children and pregnant mothers. An object like that would include several feline representations, like the head of a leopard or images of a lion. They’d be there to conjure that powerful aggression to protect the people living in the home.
Is it true that sometimes kittens were bred to be turned into mummies?
Right. It’s something that happened. It was a practice that appears in ancient Egypt quite late and it became popular even later, like the seventh century B.C. and later. At that time temples were set up and various animals including cats but also dogs and crocodiles were bred in order to be mummified and donated to a god. There are literally millions of these animals mummies made; in the case of cats many of them do appear to be rather young.
The truth of the matter is that while animal mummies are one of the most numerous objects from ancient Egypt, the Egyptians themselves did not leave many inscriptions describing this phenomenon, and today we don’t know for sure what was the purpose of these objects. They seem to be some sort of a votive offering; they’re often buried within catacombs in the temple complexes. But it is somewhat of a mysterious object. We’re actually organizing an exhibition on animal mummies specifically, which will include cats as well as other animals. It will be a traveling exhibition that begins in about a year.
Is there any evidence to suggest ancient Egyptians invented a litter box for their domestic cats?
[Laughs] I have not come across any evidence for that, no!
Do you own any cats yourself?
Absolutely! I have two. One of them is named partly in honor of the Egyptian god Bes and the other one is named Mumkin.
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