Friday, October 9, 2015

#Cats are connected with ancient religions

By Gregory Elder
As this column is being written, the author’s daughter is locked in her room adoring her two cats. These two characters have come to our house for an extended visit, to share their glory — their fur — with us.

Said daughter seems to worship these hungry and beautiful freeloaders like little furry gods. And she is not the first to do so.

The image of the cat in world religions goes back a very long way.

Archeology suggests that the African peoples honored the big cats, such as the lion, from earliest times, and in early Egypt the lion was associated with the kings. The obvious example of this is the famous Sphinx at Gaza guarding the path to the pyramid of Khafra.

The hieroglyph of the paw of a lion with the fist of a man was a symbol for royal power, and it was a very unwise man who violated the will of the king.

The first known domestic cats are found in the art of ancient Egypt in the period of the Middle Kingdom, or around 2000 to 1700 B.C., although certainly their presence in Egyptian homes goes back a long time before that.

Because Egypt depended on a grain economy, the invariable vermin this crop attracted made cats popular with the Egyptians.

In Egyptian tomb art, small cats are normally depicted sitting under the chairs of aristocratic women, but not men, which suggests they were taken as a symbol of femininity and sexuality. They appear in hieroglyphic writings and statues of house cats are common.

When a family pet cat died, the Egyptians would shave their eyebrows, the same act of ritual mourning that was done for a dead human. Dead cats were often mummified to give them a good chance of making it into the land of the Beautiful West, or the happy afterlife.

The ancient Egyptian word for cat was “miu,” an appropriate sound for a cat.

Not surprisingly, the cat was soon elevated to the level of the gods. While the Egyptians had a number of cat gods, the most important of them was Bast, or Bastet.

Bast was originally a lion goddess, but in the later years she became more domesticated and was understood to be a domestic type of cat. She was said to be the child of the powerful royal gods Ra and Isis, and was married to Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming, an important god in his own right.

Bast’s name seems to mean something like “she of the ointment jar,” suggesting that she was a medicinal goddess. Her patronage was protection from demons and disease, as well as fertility.

Bast had a particularly holy city called Bubastis by the Greeks, and probably Per-Bast by the Egyptians, or “House of Bast.” In ancient times, Per-Bast would attract as many as 700,000 adult worshipers a year, who came to offer prayers and sacrifice in her huge temple in the Nile Delta.

Women would lead processions into Bast’s temple singing hymns and carrying clanging sistrums.
Children were not allowed at Bast’s temple, perhaps because incredible amounts of beer and wine were consumed by the worshipers who would drink themselves stupid in honor of the goddess.

Bast’s temple was filled hundreds of cats at all times and thousands of their mummified remains have been found in the area.

Alas, Bast’s great temple is gone now, although it does get a cameo appearance in the Bible, when the prophet Ezekiel warns of the coming wrath of the Hebrew God, saying, “The young men of On and Pi-beseth shall fall by the sword and the cities themselves go into captivity.” (Ezekiel 30:17)

While later religions have not been quite so obsessed with cats, they do put in a good word for them every now and then. The mottled fur of a tabby cat, which seems to show the letter M, is supposed to have come from a touch of the Virgin Mary on the head of a cat, when the tabby comforted the Christ Child when he was upset in his crib.

The prophet Muhammad had a cat named Muezza, of whom he was very fond. It is said that on one occasion, when Muezza was sleeping on the sleeve of Muhammad’s favorite shirt, the prophet cut off the sleeve rather than disturb the beloved cat, when it was the hour of prayer and he was in a hurry.
On another occasion, he is said to have had a vision of a woman being in hell because she starved her cat to death.

That is not a danger any of this author’s plump cats have ever been in, as they lie about the house, doubtless dreaming of past glories.

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. Write to him at Professing Faith, P.O. Box 8102, Redlands, CA 92375-1302, email him at or follow him on Twitter at Fatherelder.


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