The Real Reason Ancient Egyptians Worshiped Cats

There are lots of people who are really really really ridiculously fond of cats. Domestic felines can be affectionate, playful, intelligent companions. (Let's be clear: This does not include people who own lions, tigers, and oh my!) On the other hand, Mr. Fluffer and his relatives, domesticated or stray, are estimated to kill upwards of 4 billion songbirds each and every year, according to Nature. Most of the damage is done by strays, of course, and they also have a significant impact on the population of small mammals. Which brings us to the Ancient Egyptians. Who really really really liked cats.

The story is told by Smithsonian that the Egyptian sun god, Re, became angry with humanity and sent his lion-headed daughter, Sakhmet, to exact vengeance. Sakhmet was a little too good at her job, however, and Re scaled things back a bit by letting her over-indulge in red beer, which kind of passed for blood. She curled up and went to sleep, becoming a peaceful cat.

Ancient Egyptians revered cats, a lot

Egyptians esteemed cats from at least 5,000 years ago, says Jstor. Felines, believed to be domesticated first in Egypt, were held in such high regard that anyone who killed a cat, even by accident, was in turn sentenced to death, according to National Geographic. In a time long before scientifically-based agricultural techniques, anything that could be done to preserve the food supply was very important indeed. Cats, of course, are natural hunters who would have been protecting grain stores by eliminating rodents. There is further evidence, however, that the Egyptians recognized cats' value as protectors of households — against rodents, yes, but also against venomous snakes — and as those cuddly pets from the first paragraph. Evidence exists from around 1000 BCE of cat cemeteries.

Theologically, the goddess Bast (sometimes called Bastet) was depicted as a cat, but Antonietta Catanzariti, curatorial fellow of the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, says it's incorrect to say the Egyptians worshiped cats. "What they were [actually] doing was associating cats to specific deities because of their attitude, how they were behaving in the natural world," she told Smithsonian Magazine. Egyptologist Melinda Hartwig, curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern art at Atlanta's Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum, agrees. Cats weren't worshiped, but it was believed that they carried a bit of divine essence within them, she told How Stuff Works.

Though trying to convince a modern cat that it isn't actually divine might be daunting.