In Ancient Egypt, humans had an intensely intimate relationship with animals. Many animals, including cats, beetles, monkeys, crocodiles, and hippos, held intense cultural and spiritual significance. In a series of blog posts, I’ll be discussing what we can learn from the ways these animals impacted Egyptian culture and religion.
The cat specifically, was cherished deeply by the Ancient Egyptians and played a key role in understanding their history. We’ll be using film and what we know about Ancient Egypt to decode what philosophies we can adopt from cats.
The close relationship between cats and Egyptians likely started to blossom when it was discovered that cats could be used to rid of unwanted pests. According to Philosophy Professor Joshua J. Mark, who wrote an article on the World History Encyclopedia, Egypt’s fascination with animals, particularly cats, was influenced by their effectiveness to eliminate mice, rats, and most importantly, venomous snakes. Cats were also aided by dogs to help farmers protect their crops from wild animals.
Cats, although not perfect pets have relatively easy care requirements compared to other pets during Ancient Egypt, such as monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, and even hippos. Cats, unlike dogs, are very independent and can survive in the wild away from their family home for long periods without issue. Cats also have infamous pathfinding abilities, so a family cat would usually have no issue finding its way back home.
To give evidence to their effectiveness as hunters, Patrick Lacey, a biologist, and food scientist from the Tier Zoo YouTube channel, stated that housecats are such oppressive hunters that over the years they’ve managed to hunt some bird species to near extinction.
Mark’s research stated that Egyptians loved their animals so much that modern archeologists have noted seeing cats and other pets being mummified next to their owners in their tombs. Egyptians would even express their grief after the loss of a pet by shaving their hair. To communicate a dog’s passing, a family member would shave everything off of their body. If a cat had passed, the family member would shave only their eyebrows.
As the relationship between cats and Egyptians was evolving, cats would eventually be recognized and represented in Egyptian religion. James MacDonald, a Bachelor of Sciences, stated on an article in JSTOR, that Egyptians started to give their cats more divine characteristics over time as they started to notice the practical value and companionship they offered for their people. As cats were starting to be recognized as sacred creatures, Bastet, the cat goddess, was born.
Bastet, the Goddess, and protector of cats, women, and children, was highly loved in Egyptian culture. Bastet’s popularity was not without reason, as cats were cherished and revered more than any other pet, and thus, lead to their representation in Egyptian Religion. Bastet was represented as a human woman with the head of a lioness, but would later be changed to that of a domesticated cat.
MacDonald would go on to say that Bastet’s explosion of popularity started around the 5th century BCE. During this time, people were already devoting massive cemeteries dedicated purely to cats. In fact, during this time, the penalty for killing a cat was death. This was perhaps one of the most impactful influences from Bastet’s existence, as the Egyptians expressed great love for their cats, thus, Bastet offered them divine and lawful protection.
Mark’s findings on the WHE identified Bubastis as the cult center for Bastet. Their love for the goddess was so great that an annual festival was held at Bubastis to celebrate Bastet’s existence. This festival outshined all others and was highly anticipated by the people of Egypt. Women especially anticipated the event, as they were pardoned of all cultural and social restraints for the duration of the festival.
Mark’s discoveries expressed just how much the Egyptians loved Bastet and her cats. Bastet was so loved by the Egyptians that when Cambyses II of Persia invaded Egypt, he had his soldiers paint the image of Bastet on their shields. The Egyptians were so appalled to harm an image of any animal or Bastet, that they refused to fight against the Persians. Even when faced with mockery from the Persians after the invasion, the Egyptians love of animals and Bastet continued to thrive until the rise of Christianity.
In conclusion, although the popularity of the housecat among Ancient Egypt was certainly influenced by its association with Bastet, I personally believe it was their magnetic independent personality that was favored by Egyptians, as opposed to their other pets, and what was partially responsible for Bastet’s popularity explosion.
Unlike cats, dogs see us as essential members of their pack that they couldn’t live without. Cats, however, see us as more of a trusted friend who they choose to hang out with through a relationship held together by trust. Since dogs are foundationally pack-hunters who piggy-back off of each other’s strengths, independence is not as important to them as it is to a cat.
Cats could just as easily survive in the wild, but they choose to stay in our company rather than be alone, perhaps out of their love for us or their desire for affection. This can be best represented by the film Kedi.
Kedi is a film that takes place in Istanbul. Istanbul is a city in Turkey with a stray cat population of around 125,000. This documentary interviews a handful of people who discuss how their daily lives are impacted by the housecats they form relationships with. This wonderful film supports the philosophy that cats are independent creatures who choose to share their lives with us out of their own free will.
Much like how many Egyptians from the Old Kingdom would have treated their cats, the citizens of Istanbul do not feel sorry for these stray felines, rather, they welcome them with open arms as if they were registered, citizens.
The consensus among the people who were interviewed is that most cats in Istanbul are not seen as pets, rather, trusted friends who hang out with them as they please. They seem to enjoy the company of a stray cat much more than if they were a pet. Many people today keep cats as pets, but those cats live with them because somebody decided they wanted a pet.
JoJo was a stray cat who used to live in my neighborhood. He was shy yet very friendly, and I was always looking forward to seeing him again. When I stopped seeing him, I became worried and concerned that something had happened to him, especially after winter had set in and snow started falling. I think we value our relationships with stray cats more than our pets because we never know when we’re going to see them again, and when we do, we enjoy their company because they chose to hang out with us, not the other way around.
Istanbul’s cats are much different than cats from other regions, as they’ve been accustomed to living alongside humans every hour of the day. Cedya Torun, the film’s director, stated in an interview with Vanity Fair, “If you were to visit Istanbul and sit down on a park bench, a cat would soon be likely to come over to you and sit on your lap”.
Cedya would later comment on this behavior by mentioning that cats in Istanbul have been used to forming immediate bonds with strangers. It is this fact that keeps the citizens of Istanbul from adopting any of these cats, as, to them, these cats should not belong to one person. One Interviewee in the film even commented that keeping a cat to yourself in Istanbul “just to be able to pet them”, is seen as selfish. Viewing a cat as a pet rather than a friend is seen as an insult to their magnetic independence.
It’s much more satisfying to win an animal’s affection whom you would expect to be a loner. When you establish a friendship with a cat, it gives you the suggestion that it was something about you that allowed for this unique relationship to blossom. It is easy to establish a relationship with a dog, because they see us as their masters, thus, act out of a mission to please us. If you’re able to establish a relationship with a cat, it really says something about who you are.
If you were to play with a dog and then leave them alone, they would quickly become bored and would soon come back to you for affection and playtime. Cats do not see us as a source of nourishment and playtime, rather, it just so happens that we love to spend time with them. If you played with a cat and then left it alone, they would easily be able to find something to do on their own. Cats see us as friends rather than masters, allowing for a type of relationship that is not often seen between humans and animals.
These cats have taught the citizens of Istanbul to always appreciate what’s in front of you, as you never know when it will be gone. These cats allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of us, and that allows for a loving and blossoming relationship.
Cats and Religion
In one of the film’s stories, a fisherman talked about his relationship with Bengu. The fisherman explained that Istanbul has a saying that states:
It is said that cats know of God’s existence. Dogs see people as God, but cats do not. Cats know that humans are the middlemen who act upon God’s will. It’s not that they aren’t grateful, they just know better.
Perhaps the reasoning behind the cat’s popularity in Ancient Egypt and modern-day Istanbul is what their personality can teach us about valuing who you are. Since they see us as friends, they know better than to totally rely on us, thus, are much less prone to attachment disorders than dogs or humans. Even cats who are pets, do not see us as their masters, rather, they allow us to take care of them since it’s in their best interest.
Independence, up until the 21st century, has had a mixed reputation. In almost all religions, especially Christianity, the teachings provided are all mostly centered around a universal philosophy of goodwill and good karma. Many agnostics and atheists believe that religion was created for this specific purpose so that people would be “forced” to be good out of fear of what will happen to them, or what their God(s) will do to them if they don’t.
This quote from Kedi suggests, cats, although grateful for God’s existence, know better than to follow in our footsteps. Many of us make decisions out of fear of what will happen to us, instead of making decisions out of a need or want for something. Some of us form attachment issues to our partners out of fear of being alone. Some of us devote ourselves to a God(s) out of fear of what our future holds. Some of us buy “limited edition” products out of fear of the product’s permanent retirement.
Cats have taught us that we should make decisions out of free will. If God wants us to be good in His name, I’m sure He’d be much happier knowing our goodwill would merely be a consequence of our dreams, aspirations, and independent free will, rather than seeing us doing good deeds out of fear of what He might do to us. If you were to follow the path of the latter, you would not truly be following the words of God, you would merely be acting out of primal fear, and would become nothing more than a sheep who does not truly understand what the word of God is all about.
The Ancient Egyptians may have developed a deep and sacred love for their cats out of admiration for how they carry themselves. After all, I’d like to think that at some point in time, there was an Egyptian who, for the first time, met a creature who can make decisions without worrying if their Gods and Goddesses would approve of their actions.
In many ways, Kedi is very similar to My Octopus Teacher. Octopus make decisions based upon a desire for a fulfilling life. Cats make decisions based upon their value for pride and self-respect. As such, these two animals might just be the most influential and philosophical in history. Both the cat and the octopus see their independence as a gift, a personality that is rare among humans.
Whisper of the Heart
In both Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, the cat’s philosophy is expanded upon further. In Whisper of the Heart, Moon, a street cat, teaches Shizuku, an aspiring writer that relying on oneself as opposed to relying on someone else allows for a much more fun and meaningful life than what is offered from a dependent personality.
In Whisper of the Heart, our main character Shizuku is faced with multiple obstacles in her life. She’s trying her best to graduate from middle school so she can be enrolled in high school, and she’s exploring her growing relationship with Seiji, her soon-to-be-crush, that will soon change how she views the world.
As Shizuku and Seiji continue to interact, Seiji explains that Moon is just one name he has. As a street cat, he has no true owner and is welcomed by many families throughout Tokyo.
As their relationship grows, Shizuku becomes endlessly infatuated with Seiji after she learns about his passion for violin-making. Seiji’s mission is to take a trip to Italy so he may learn from a mentor about becoming a better violin-maker. It’s not that Shizuku wants to know what goes into making violins, rather, she’s inspired by how driven and charismatic he is towards his craft.
The truth is, Shizuku loved Seiji for who he is, not for the desire for a relationship. Much like Moon, Shizuku decided to seek a relationship with Seiji based upon an independent desire, supporting my philosophy on cats from earlier.
When Shizuku learned of Seiji’s mission, she knew that she too had to have a mission out of respect for herself. Even though she knew Seiji would love her anyway, she wanted him to proud of her because she was so proud of him. So, she decided that she wanted to write a story. Even when her mentor and Seiji’s grandfather, Nishi, agreed that her rough draft was far from perfect, she continued to polish her story and expand her passion for writing out of her love for Seiji. Love created an opportunity for Shizuku to better herself and express her independence, something a dependent personality would never allow for.
Whisper of the Heart expands upon what cats can teach us and how they impacted Ancient Egyptian Religion. Love should be an emotion that allows you to grow and express your independence. Relationships born out of a fear of loneliness are not founded upon love, as there is a lack of admiration for the other person. When you take yourself out of your cage, you can truly appreciate your partner for who they are and allow your love for them to turn your dreams into reality.
In conclusion, I think the cat’s popularity among Ancient Egypt was not without reason. Cats are wonderful animals who are much smarter than what we give them credit for. Many of us suffer from a limited potential because of how our fears affect us. Cats suffer from no such weakness, as such, we can learn from them and take by their example. If you make decisions from your free will, you will live a much happier life than if you only live in reaction to fear. If you enjoyed this content, consider subscribing so you can be up to date on the progress of The Octopus Adventure.
- MacDonald, James. “Why Ancient Egyptians Loved Cats So Much.” jstor.org, ITHAKA, 27 Nov. 2018. Web. 24 Mar. 2021.
- Mark, Joshua J. “Bastet.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 24 Jul 2016. Web. 24 Mar 2021.
- Mark, Joshua J. “Pets in Ancient Egypt.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 18 Mar 2016. Web. 24 Mar 2021.