In ancient Egypt, humans weren’t the only species special enough to be mummified. Wild and domestic animals, including falcons, ibis, cats and dogs were all preserved by the Egyptians, sometimes as pets for placement in the tomb with their owners, but more often as religious offerings to the gods.
Cats were considered to be the holy animal of Bastet, the goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music and love. Bastet was first depicted as a lioness in ancient Egyptian art and later described as having the body of a woman and a face similar to those of her domesticated contemporaries. She was also known as the goddess of fertility and often shown with kittens. Ancient Egyptians frequently offered mummified cats as a sacrifice to Bastet in exchange for blessings and goodwill. The cats were considered gifts to the gods rather than deities themselves, and were sometimes killed and preserved so that they could become offerings. Today, we call these animals mummy votives.
Both domesticated cats and the North African wild cat were commonly used as votive offerings. In order to facilitate the safe passage of cats and other animals into the afterlife, ancient Egyptians preserved them through an extensive mummification process. Partial and whole cat bodies were embalmed and then wrapped. There were even “false” cat mummies: those that contained the bones of other species or simply rags that were swathed in a bundle and then covered with a cat-like mask. Ancient Egyptians believed that the preserved cat’s body would become a vessel to carry the soul as it crossed over from one life to the next. Bubastis, Egypt is home to the most famous catacombs containing cat mummies- nearly 300,000 of them to be exact!
From cats and crocodiles to bulls, birds and baboons — all can be seen under wraps at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt exhibition.
By: Anna Hubbard, Public Affairs Intern, National Museum of Natural History
Kathryn Sabella, Press Officer, National Museum of Natural History