The Egyptian solar boat carried the sun around the Earth at night for a new dawn the next day.






Animal worship in ancient Egypt is part of the culture of daily life of Egyptians. Animals of every kind were respected and revered, as they were in close contact with deities and gods that the average Egyptian could not reach.

The cat in ancient Egypt, or miw (to see), was a sacred and respected beast.


These small companions fascinated the Egyptians, and were venerated by all. It was in Egypt that the cat was first domesticated 4,000 years ago and where they were held in the most admiration and respect. There is evidence of wild felines around the banks of Egypt, but it was not until around 2000 BC that the fully domesticated cat was brought into the houses of Egyptians.


The first domesticated Egyptian cats in Egypt were more than likely used for warding off the common asp and other snakes, and the typical chasers of rodents. Slowly though, the cat became more to the Egyptians than just a normal animal, the cat became a god.







Diodorus briefly reiterates the much earlier comments of Herodotus about the devotion and great veneration afforded cats not only during their lifetimes, but even after death. Society was so devout, that if someone intentionally or unintentionally killed a cat, he was put to death. Even in cases of critical national famine, sacred animals such as the cat apparently went unscathed. In addition to being sacred, Diodorus notes their useful characteristics, such as confronting asps positioned to bite and warding off other snakes. Cats were also of service to fowlers in their search for birds in the Nile marshes, as attested by a wall painting in the New Kingdom tomb of Nebamun at Thebes. Diodorus explains that a portion of land for sacred cats was consecrated, which provided for their upkeep and made them self-supporting.


As felines of privilege within the temple of Bubastis precincts, they lived as the earthly embodiment of the temple goddess Bastet. Mummies were placed in the cult center and dedicated to Bastet in order to increase her favor. Evidence also suggests that numerous domesticated cats were bred and some deliberately killed in order to be mummified. This was done to satisfy the great demand for them by zealous pilgrims, who bought and dedicated them at cult centers. Many were needed to go around. Herodotus relates the excitement generated among the throngs of pilgrims after they arrived at Bubastis:


"...they make a festival and great sacrifices, and more wine is drunk at this feast than in the whole year beside." 


(Note 7) The number attending the festival may have reached the extraordinary level of some 700,000 people. It may be that cat mummies numbered in the millions, were it possible to tabulate those buried in sites all over Egypt. As eternal life was all to the ancient Egyptians, so too was it for their sacred animals. The life of a cat in the hereafter, therefore, was a place of sweet greenery, mice, and tasty morsels. There, "meows" would be heard in abundance.




During the New Kingdom (1540 to 1069 BC), there were many tomb scenes that started showing cats as part of everyday life. The ancient Egyptians took their cats on hunting excursions instead of dogs, The most popular excursions being the marshes where cats may have been trained to retrieve fowl and fish. Another very common scene in tomb paintings was the picturing of a cat seated underneath a woman's chair. Children had become known in their family as Mit or Miut, showing great affection not only for the child but for the cat as well. Statues of cats were placed outside the house to protect the inhabitants and to ward off evil spirits. This showed scientists that the cat had become an integral part of the ancient Egyptian family life.


Mafdet was the first Egyptian feline deity, sometimes depicted as a lynx, but the most famous cat goddesses in the world, first revered by the ancient Egyptians were Bastet (also known as Bast, Pasch, Ubasti) and the lion-headed Sekhmet.


Bastet had the roles of fertility, protector of children and the protector of all cats. Bastet became so popular infact that she became a household goddess. This goddess was called Bastet when in full cat form, and Bast when only having the head of one and the body of a beautiful woman. Bastet's counterpart was the goddess Sekhmet who represented the cat goddess' destructive force. Sekhmet is known as the goddess of war and pestilence. Together, Bastet and Sekhmet represented the balance of the forces of nature in Egypt.


In Bubastis, or Tell Basta, the cats lived a lavish life as the `embodiment' of Bastet in her temples. Here they were served upon and taken care of until they passed away, and it was here that their bodies were mummified and given as offerings to Bastet. Bubastis contains the remains of over 300,000 cat mummies. Upon being inspected, some feline mummies had severe trauma to the head or neck, signifying that they were killed on purpose, perhaps to lower the growing population or for offerings for Bastet. Giza, Abydos, and Dendereh were also feline tomb cities other than Bubastis.




Mummified cat Amsterdam Museum



When a cat died their former owners and occupants of the house would go into deep mourning and shave their eyebrows as a sign of grief.  The process of feline mummification had six steps:

  1. Removal of organs

  2. Body is stuffed with sand or packing material

  3. Feline is placed in a sitting position

  4. Body is wrapped tightly

  5. Faces and designs are painted on wrappings with black ink

  6. No chemicals, only natural dehydration

In the tombs of the cats were set bowls of milk along with mice and rats.

Cats were not only protected by almost every occupant of Egypt, but also by the law. So extreme was the devoutness of the Egyptian culture to the cat, that if a human killed a feline, either intentionally or unintentionally, that human was sentenced to death. Laws were set that also forbid the exportation of cats, though more often than not, many were smuggled to the neighboring Mediterranean countries. Documents state that armies sometimes were set out to recapture these cats from the foreign lands.


Herodotus stated a story once about a fire in a house in Egypt. The men from the house stood outside in a line to protect the cats from harm and danger. Another statement from Herodotus explains even greater the significance of the cat to Egypt. Herodotus begins with the Egyptians in war with Persia. The Persian general had decided to collect as many cats that his men could find or steal, knowing the great importance of the cat to Egypt. The soldiers then returned to the town of Pelusium and set the cats free on the battlefield. Horrified, the Egyptians surrendered the city to the Persians rather than harm the cats.





The technical processes of mummification are incompletely known, as the ancient Egyptians did not record them, neither for humans nor for sacred animals. For clues we must look to modern scientific investigators and to ancient writers. The Greek historian and geographer Strabo (64/3 BC-AD 21) makes a scant comment about workshops in a suburb of Alexandria, "...there are many gardens and graves and halting-places fitted up for the embalming of corpses...." (Note 2) Still, it is unknown whether animals were mummified in the same "halting-places" or workshops as humans. But the process appears to have similarities. 


The words of Herodotus and Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (?-ca. 21? BC) shed a faint light, albeit brief. Herodotus mentions "Dead cats are taken away into sacred buildings, where they are embalmed and buried, in the town of Bubastis...." (Note 3) Diodorus records, with little exactness, that when a cat died, it was wrapped in fine linen and taken to be embalmed. He adds, "...after it has been treated with cedar oil and such spices as have the quality of imparting a pleasant odour and of preserving the body for a long time, they lay it away in a consecrated tomb." (Note 4) There is archaeological evidence at Bubastis that cat bodies had been burnt in brick furnaces and therefore not embalmed as was the rule at other sites. But this idea is still in debate.


The art of mummification was perfected in the Third Intermediate Period (1070-712 B.C.). Around 450 B.C. (Late Period), the Greek historian Herodotus documented the process:


As much of the brain as it is possible is extracted through the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot reach is dissolved with drugs. Next, the flank is slit open . . . and the entire contents of the abdomen removed. The cavity is then thoroughly cleansed and washed out . . . Then it is filled with pure crushed myrrh, cassia, and all other aromatic substances, except frankincense. [The incision] is sewn up, and then the body is placed in natron, covered entirely for 70 days, never longer. When this period . . . is ended, the body is washed and then wrapped from the head to the feet in linen which has been cut into strips and smeared on the underside with gum which is commonly used by the Egyptians in the place of glue.

Bob Brier, Egyptian Mummies

Natron, a disinfectant and desiccating agent, was the main ingredient used in the mummification process. A compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate (salt and baking soda), natron essentially dried out the corpse. Obtained from dried-up river beds, it was packed around and inside the body in linen bags, and left for 35 to 40 days to draw moisture out of the tissues. By removing the organs and packing the internal cavity with dry natron, the body tissues were preserved. 


The body was filled with Nile mud, sawdust, lichen and cloth scraps to make it more flexible. Small cooking onions or linen pads were sometimes used to replace the eyes. Beginning in the third dynasty, the internal organs (lungs, stomach, liver and intestines) were removed, washed with palm wine and spices, and stored in four separate canopic jars made of limestone, calcite or clay. Prior to this, the abdominal contents were removed, wrapped and buried in the floor of the tomb.  However, the heart was left in the body because it was considered the centre of intelligence.


CMC S97 10848; 
PCD 2001-281-029

CMC S97-10830

Materials used in mummification:

  1. linen

  2. sawdust

  3. lichen

  4. beeswax

  5. resin

  6. natron

  7. onion

  8. Nile mud

  9. linen pads

  10. frankincense

Mummification tools:

Brain hooks
(replicas based on examples from the Rijksmuseum, Leiden)
Oil jar
(Royal Ontario Museum 948.1.17)
Embalmer's knife
(Smithsonian Institution 221.389)


The corpse was then washed, wrapped in linen (as many as 35 layers) and soaked in resins and oils. This gave the skin a blackened appearance resembling pitch. The term "mummification" comes from the Arabic word mummiya, which mean bitumen, a pitch substance that was first used in the preservation process during the Late Period. The family of the deceased supplied the burial linen, which was made from old bed sheets or used clothing.


Nevertheless, a dim scene emerges to suggest some activities of embalming. As with craft centers, the preparation quarters were busy, such as those seen depicted in wall paintings showing industrious artisans in workshops for furniture, jewelry, pottery, and stone objects. Thus, brown-skinned embalmer priests can be imagined as they devotedly bend over their tasks, or carry out other duties. Metal and stone tools essential to the preparation of the carcass and dehydrating substances are at hand. They might embalm the cats simply by softening them in natron (mostly sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate), making no attempts to otherwise preserve the body, or sometimes bury or perhaps burn them, and later retrieve the resultant skeletons to be carefully wrapped in linen. In a nearby area would be pots of bitumen that shape and support the linen-wrapped remains and wood boxes filled with fine white linen from a local textile workshop. 


It was important that outwardly the mummy's head should resemble a living cat. Relief models, sculpted heads, statues, and miniature coffins might be placed around the workshop for use as models for proportion and form, painting facial details or decorations on the linen, or for numerous pottery, wood, or bronze coffins for the mummies. Funerary priests dressed in white linen garments were there to oversee the work and recite prayers over a finished mummy or groups of them. Such workshop activities were likely to be separated according to rank.


The cat held a powerful spot in the history of Egypt. While she protected his land and his people, she also protected the mystique that is and was the cat in ancient Egypt.


"Animal mummies are very, very important because we can learn not only about the ancient environment - many of these animals are now extinct in Egypt - but also about Ancient Egyptians' beliefs," said Salima Ikram, co-director of the Animal Mummy Project and the driving force behind the "adopt-a-mummy" concept.


"Pet mummies are particularly nice because you get an idea of Ancient Egyptians' love for their animals," she added.  The ancient Egyptians made mummies of their favourite pets, including dogs, cats, monkeys and gazelles to take the animals with them into the afterlife.  They also offered mummified animals as offerings to particular gods.  "People used to purchase animal mummies made by priests as prayers - like lighting candles in a church," says Dr Ikram.


"If you wanted to be lucky in love, you made a cat mummy offering to Bastet, the cat goddess of love."  But X-rays have revealed some of the mummies to be ancient fakes, containing only rags or pieces of animal, which Dr Ikram says were "probably sold to unsuspecting pilgrims."





A recently acquired mask from a cat mummy (Figure 1) reflects many aspects regarding the extraordinary religious beliefs and customs involving sacred animals in ancient Egypt.




Roman Period, 1st Century AD.
Ref. McClung Museum:  Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Galal El-Sayad,  Fig1



In such a setting, the McClung Museum's small, stiff mask (6.7 cm. high x 5.7 cm. wide; ears 2.21 cm. high.), of unknown provenance, was naturalistically modeled in linen and bitumen (pitch). The linen was smoothed and formed over soft bitumen, the latter acting like pliable clay when guided by fingers of an artistic embalmer. On the exterior, an application of several layers of the once-bright, white, finely woven linen resulted in a slightly bumpy surface (Figure 2).







Facial features are detailed in line by black paint. (Note 5) Encircling the short neck is a dark stain with vestiges of bitumen where the neck had extended into the former upper body wrappings. Tiny sand particles rest on the left side of the upper head, side of the face, around the right eye, and between the linen weave throughout areas on the top and rear of the head, which create an illusion of white patches in the now aged, tan linen. On the interior, layers of more coarsely woven linen are shaped over bitumen. The slightly hollowed muzzle area is blackened by traces of bitumen[?], as is the upper rear of the head. There are no hollows for the ears, a separate exterior shaping method being used for them.



Almost all Egyptian gods were associated with some animal and assumed the form of that particular beast. Although certain species of cats are known to have lived in the wild in prehistoric Egypt, there is no evidence that they were worshipped. However, the tame and friendly cat reflected by the McClung Museum's acquisition appeared in a much later period and was revered. Not all cats were deities, even though the species was believed sacred. A cat became sacred only after special rituals were performed, and in the belief that the cat deity Bastet dwelt within the animal, and perhaps by certain markings deemed divine.


No longer just curiosities to be ignored, mummified cats and other animal mummies have risen in importance. Research is being conducted to document and catalog various aspects of these creatures that are so identified with ancient Egypt. Cat mummies are being carefully investigated in terms of religion, cultural history, relation to the environment, questions relating to the genus and species, whether they were wild or domesticated, the diseases they had, and how exactly they were mummified. Also being determined are their types; that is, whether they were sacred, used as funerary food or votive offerings, or were just beloved pets. The Cairo Museum, in conjunction with the Department of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, leads with its important Animal Mummy Project.


The family of cats (Felidae) is separated into two subfamilies: the larger and the smaller. The first consists of large wild species, such as the lion and leopard, tiger and cheetah. The second, a small African wild cat (Felis silvestris libyca), also named the Egyptian, or Kaffir, cat, is the one this article concerns. This species may actually be the ancestor of the modern domestic cat (Felis silvestris familiaris). The exact location of the first domesticated cat is unknown, but it may be Egypt or the Near East, no doubt spreading from trade routes to different parts of the world. In any case, evidence so far for the domesticated animal in Egypt does not date before the Middle Kingdom, circa 2000 BC, when we learn of them from tomb paintings and cat mummies produced at that time. By the early New Kingdom, circa 1500 BC, more representations are found in wall paintings and reliefs. In the Late Dynastic Period, a highpoint is reached in the appreciation of the domestic cat, and ancient authors, such as the Greek historian Herodotus (484?-425? BC) noted their importance. Images were being produced on papyri, as bronze and wood figurines, on sherds, as amulets in various materials, and in quantities as mummies. Such representations had special magical properties and communicated religious beliefs.


Usually, animal cemeteries are reserved for one kind of animal. Those for cats date to around 900 BC, particularly at Bubastis ("House of Bastet"), the temple and cult center of Bastet. According to Herodotus, "Other temples are greater and more costly, but none pleasanter to the eye than this." (Note 1) The site of extensive ruins and cemeteries, Bubastis is southeast of the modern, southeastern Delta town of Zagazig. Situated on the mound of Tell Basta, Bubastis may have been the capital of the entire country during dynasties XXII-XXIII, when it reached great heights as a major center. Cat cemeteries include those at Saqqara and Dra Abu el-Nagga at Thebes, as well as those of lesser scale, such as at Abydos, Dendera, and the Dakhla Oasis. Mummies were abundantly produced in the Ptolemaic Period, circa 332-30 BC, but even in greater numbers into the Roman Period.



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