No one knows exactly when cats became domesticated, but some experts believe it was about 10,000 years ago. The ancestors of the domestic cat were probably Libyan wildcats from North Africa and were much larger in size than those in Egypt today. Their fur was yellow-gray with striped markings. The markings provided camouflage that the cats needed to hide among the rocks and sands of the desert.
Perhaps as an act of gratitude or to tame them, the ancient Egyptians would leave morsels of food around for the cats to eat. Eventually the cats accepted the Egyptians and became an important part of their households. The Egyptians realized that cats were very skilled hunters and very adept at killing rats, mice and most importantly, poisonous snakes such as the cobra or the horned viper whose bites were usually deadly. This rodent hunting helped reduce the spread of diseases such as bubonic plague, typhoid, salmonella, and dysentery.
Cats also played a part in Egyptian medicine. The fat, fur and excrements of a male cat were used in medicine, while the placenta and the fur would be used from a female cat. A female cat’s fur, in combination with human milk and resin, could be applied to the skin to soothe burns. Feline placenta would be used in a lotion to keep the hair from turning gray. Cat fat, as well as other animal fats, was used in bandages as a remedy for stiffness. The fat of a tomcat rubbed over things was also guaranteed to keep the rodents away.
The Egyptians loved and pampered their cats. Even in times of famine, household cats would be well fed and cared for. They were routinely bathed and groomed and when mummified were rubbed in cedar oil and wrapped in linens. In Egypt, a Roman soldier was said to have accidentally killed a cat. As punishment, the soldier was killed by the townspeople. When a cat died, the inhabitants of the house where the cat had lived would shave their eyebrows in mourning. To this day, a cat’s home is still the streets, mosques and ancient temples of Egypt.
Cats were also much prized as subjects for mummification. ometimes this was to honor a household cat. In other circumstances, cats were routinely killed in order to be mummified as an offering to a deity, or for a burial.
The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has a collection of feline mummies, amid its other animal mummies. Several examples of cat mummies and coffins accompany this article. Visit the Museum in person or online to see these and more!