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Bast Cats in Egypt part 1

or How the Cat became the goddess Bastet

by Miut

felis silvestris libyca It began with felis silvestris libyca, or the African wild cat, with tawny yellow-gray fur and striped markings which provided ideal camouflage among the desert rocks and sand. This was a larger cat than the little ones of today, and a predator, not a scavenger. Occasionally among the multi-colored cats of modern Egypt, there are throw backs. The ancient Egyptian cat was the ancestor of many of our cats and represents one of the few remaining links with the ancient Egyptians. The animal has remained essentially the same and so are our feelings, prejudices and attitudes: we have that in common with those people of the past.

For a people dominated by the Nile and its annual floods, fish was considered a ritually impure food and forbidden to priests on duty and was absent from the lists of food offerings in the tombs of the priests and officials. Nevertheless it was the staple of the common people. Crocodiles abounded too, and the hippopotamus was hunted as an undesirable animal which destroyed crops and wreaked havoc in cultivated fields. They became extinct there in the early 19th C.

The dense and humid marshes were at first widespread but gradually decreased as the population increased and the land was cultivated. Eventually they were restricted to the delta region. There a huge selection of birds bred - cormorant, heron, egret, ibis, flamingo, shelduck, teal, lapwing, sandpiper, plover, avocet, kingfisher, stork, hoopoe, and many more.

These were the hunting grounds for the hunter's throwstick, or the ichneumon, the genet, or the cat.

Zoologically, small cats (genus felis) are mammals and carnivores belonging to the family felidae (which also contains three species of lynx, the large cats and the cheetah) but this classification is still not agreed upon.

The swamp or jungle cat (felis chaus) and the African wild cat (felis silvestris libyca) are the two wild species encountered in Egypt. Their presence is confirmed by many reports and observations made in the last 200 years, especially since the French invasion under Napoleon.

The swamp cat is the larger of the two and its name derives etymologically inaccurately from the Coptic shau meaning tomcat. There is some justification because this cat does not occur elsewhere on the African continent although it is found further east as far as south-eastern Asia. As its popular name suggests, it prefers marshy areas with dense ground cover. Their combined head and body length is 650-750mm with long legs but a relatively short tail of 250-300mm. Its ears are long and tufted and they weigh about 8-14 pounds. They are usually plain colored without distinctive body markings, ranging from light reddish brown or sandy fawn to gray, with black tipped ears and tail and faint stripes on the head, a darker dorsal line and stripes on the upper legs and tail.

The smaller felis sylvestrius libyca and felis maniculata are more lightly built. They are 600mm long with a proportional tail at 350mm. Ears have no tufts, and compared to modern cats, the legs are long. The body color can vary considerably according to habitat but the markings on the fur, which are not unlike those of our striped tabby, are an important feature. Pale sandy fawn is the most common color, with a rufous line on the back and multiple transverse stripes of the same color, though paler, on the body. These can also appear on the head and extend to the legs. The black tipped tail is ringed.

cat mummy The Egyptians didn't differentiate lexicographically between different wild cats, nor between the wild and domesticated cats. There was only one word for cat in pharonic Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. It was the onomatopoeic miu or mii (feminine miit), imi (feminine iniit or miat) in demotic, the penultimate stage of the Egyptian language, and emu or amu in Coptic from the 3rd c AD. The cat was simply (s)he who mews, and this was how the Egyptians themselves understood it. The word described the whole genus felis and could also be applied to one or two animals similar in appearance. This is rather surprising when you look at the large number of words for dog, plus the fact they had real names, and cats usually did not.

Attempts have been made to distinguish between the mummified bodies of cats (most dated to the first millenium BC) as to whether they were domestic, wild or semi-wild but this has led to confusing results. It is reasonable to assume most were either domestic pets from ordinary houses or from temple catteries. However many are larger than the swamp cat when normally domesticated animals are smaller. Obviously it would have been impossible to stop hybridisation between the wild and domesticated animals and it is known that semi-domesticated and feral cats and dogs wandered the streets of towns and villages. We have the story of Setne Khaemwaset from around 332 BC to prove that.

There were even some servals found, though they may have been regarded as exotic and imported from the south. Cats of Miu, a locality in Nubia, are mentioned in a Ramesside (1295-1069) list of Nubian tribute, also on faience plaques in the temple of Hathor at Serabit el-Khadim, and some of them are accompanied by the cartouche of Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1457) and Thutmose 3rd (1492-1425)

What could be the earliest representations of small wild cats are so uncertain as to be virtually excluded from serious consideration - they are in the largest and most comprehensive wild life scene known from the 3rd millenium BC. It was found broken into hundreds of small fragments in the sun temple of King Nyuserra (2408 -2377BC) at Abu Gurab on the west bank of the Nile south west of Cairo. In it cats appear several times.

1st picture is of the goddess Bastet from Tilted Mill
2nd picture is of felis silvestris libyca
3rd picture is the mummy of cat from the Roman Period after 30BC