How a sacred ritual turned into a massacre
A mummified cat at the exhibition at the Smithsonian
Ancient Egypt was, to the best of our knowledge, where cats first became household pets. It began when cats made themselves welcome by keeping the storehouses of grain free from rodents. Soon after that, they just moved – as cats have a way of doing.
In the early days of Ancient Egypt, around 3,000 BCE, they were revered. Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess, who was often portrayed on a throne as a human with the head of cat, was among the highest of deities. At one stage of Egyptian history, it became a capital offense to kill a cat – even by accident. And when they died, household cats were often carefully mummified and placed in vaults so that they could be with their human families in the afterlife.
Then it all went wrong.
Over the years, over the centuries, mummifying your cat simply became a religious ritual. The more mummified cats you brought to the temple, the more favor you could buy with the deities. Soon, people were killing their cats to keep up with the religious customs. As cats became fewer and fewer, other animals took their place.
Some of them are on display at an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
“Various gods had different animal totems or avatars,” said Melinda Zeder, director of the archeobiology program at the museum. ”Priests who maintained temples for these different gods offered a service whereby people could have an associated animal mummified and placed in a catacomb in their name.”
Eventually, during the New Kingdom and from about 650 BCE to about 200 CE, bringing a mummified animal was like lighting a candle and making a donation to your local church. It was like buying and selling doves to be sacrificed, as at the Jewish temple in Jerusalem – famously the one where, according to the gospels, Jesus turned over the tables in anger at how sacred practices had simply turned into businesses.
But in those last few hundred years during which the old religion still dominated Egyptian life, the religious mummy business in Egypt was a disaster for animals of all kinds.
“Literally millions of animals like dogs and cats were raised by temple priests and mummified.,” Zeder said “This practice extended to wild animals like the sacred and glossy ibis and the baboon – and may have contributed to the extinction of these animals in Egypt.”
The sacred ibis and baboons were mummified by the millions because they were sacred to Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. Various birds were associated with Horus, the hawk god and messianic son of Isis and Osiris. Cats continued to be sacrificed to Bast, literally by the millions, since she was thought to protect the household.
During that same time, according to Egyptologists, other animals of all kinds – pigs, hippos, and the sacred Apis bull who was at one time considered to be the embodiment of Osiris – were being raised simply to be killed and turned into mummies.
Almost like we treat animals at factory farms today.