Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Cats

The Egyptian was probably the first society that domesticated wild cats, no doubt after a few cat scratches and bites. ‘Mau’ was the name for cat.

In the fertile crop-growing Nile delta, cats were appreciated for their natural ability to hunt and kill vermin and snakes. DNA studies indicate domestication started with Middle Eastern wildcat about 10,000 years ago. As the society evolved, Egyptians embraced a religion worshipping animals, including cat which has long became a symbol of grace and poise. The cat goddess Bast, also known as Bastet was the deity of protection, fertility, and motherhood. The annual festival of Bast saw thousands of pilgrims journeyed to the city of Bubastis(House of Bast) to celebrate. As cats became increasingly integrated into the life of Egyptian society, they were viewed and treated like beloved family members, often pampered and bejeweled. Punishment for killing a cat was death; folks would mourn the passing of a family cat as they would mourn the passing of a family member and shaved their eyebrows; mummification was extended to deceased cats; in the case of fire, effort was put in to ensure the family cat get out. In 390 AD, Egypt was then ruled by the Roman Empire, and by imperial decree, all forms of pagan worship was prohibited and the status of cat was greatly diminished, however cats are still kept as pets and put up with elsewhere because they keep pests in control. In modern Egypt’s largely Islamic population, cats are still adored as cats are revered to some extent in Muslim tradition.

The Greek do not appear to have shown much interest in cats themselves but were great observers and recorders of how Egypt revered their cats. The Greek historian Herodotus observations and records have provided valuable insights to the understanding of Egyptian pagan religion and society.

The Romans on the other hand, share Egyptians enthusiasm on cats. They are greatly interested in them and it was Caesar’s legions that were largely credited for introducing cats to the rest of Europe, particularly to Britain. By the 4th century AD the domestic cat replaced the stone marten in Rome as the rat-killer of choice. In France, the genet was replaced by cat in similar role by the 15th century. Much they admired and loved the cats, the Romans did not elevate the cats to the level of deity or goddess as the Egyptians.