CATS: from Pharaohs’ felines to Fairy Cat Mother & the Egyptologist!
This month’s blog celebrates all things cats, from the feline world of the pharaohs to Queen Victoria’s family pet and Jo’s new role as patron of the amazing Sheffield Cats Shelter!
As a lifelong cat lover, the recent invitation to become patron of Sheffield Cats Shelter was a wonderful chance to get involved with something incredibly close to my heart – an organisation dedicated to finding new homes and better lives for cats and kittens throughout South Yorkshire, not only in Sheffield but as far afield as my hometown Barnsley.
At 126 years old so one of the UK’s oldest charities, the shelter was founded in 1897 by Jane Barker, whose dedication to animal welfare was quite extraordinary at the time. She was also very well connected, and soon acquired not one but two patrons: Winifred, Duchess of Portland and the Dowager Countess of Wharncliffe, both of whom had close links to the royal family who themselves were cat owners. This even included Queen Victoria herself, whose last cat, a black and white Persian called ‘White Heather’, was inherited by her son and successor Edward VII, whose wife Queen Alexandra was also a cat lover and actively involved in their welfare.
Sheffield Cats Shelter’s first two patrons L: Duchess of Portland 1910 © Getty Images & R: Dowager Countess of Wharncliffe 1874 © National Portrait Gallery
And now the shelter once again has two female patrons, firstly the amazing Frankie Seaman from Sheffield. Professional skater, star of Dancing On Ice and wife of former England goalkeeper David, Frankie aka ‘Fairy Cat Mother’ fosters kittens from her local adoption centre in Newbury (close to the Highclere home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon of course). And their second patron is a Yorkshire Egyptologist…
Frankie & Jo at the Sheffield Cats Shelter’s recent 126th Birthday Party © Sheffield Cats Shelter
For as a massive lover of cats big and small I’ve lived with cats my whole life. From pushing around our family cat in my toy pram as a very young child (when I must admit to also wanting a pet lion), my long years as an Egyptology student were accompanied by my own wonderful cat, a tiny black kitten adopted from a local animal rescue charity after being found in a cardboard box in a park one Bonfire Night. Since then we’ve been owned by four more rescue cats, two big Norwegian Forest cats, a tortoiseshell found living on the streets and most recently a tiny one-eyed grey tabby, named in the acknowledgements of all the books they’ve ‘helped’ me write and reminding us every single day that the Egyptians once worshipped their ancestors as gods.
Of course it does seem a bit of a cliché that as an Egyptologist I should love cats so much, but the Egyptians really were on to something. For cats are such special creatures, rightly venerated and adored for millennia within a culture that many of us regard as the greatest of all time. And as an integral part of this culture, cats large and small, from the tiniest kitten to the mightiest lion, were regarded as the ultimate protectors of the home, of the pharaoh in battle and of the very sun itself.
The Great Cat destroying the enemy of the sun god from the funerary papyrus of royal scribe Hunefer c.1300 BC (© British Museum)
For as it travelled through the hours of darkness each night, the sun god was defended by the Great Cat, who in some cases even personified the supreme solar deity. And with the cat’s reflective eyes enhanced in art by the addition of gold leaf to give the same special powers, it was able to spy out the serpent demon lying in wait to devour and destroy the sun. So to prevent this happening by slicing off the serpent’s head (above), the sun could proceed unhindered towards the dawn, arising in the east between twin protective lions sitting back to back to face the opposite directions of yesterday and tomorrow (below). And it’s this same idea represented by the famous Sphinx, whose huge reclining feline form with paws stretched out before it has so far witnessed the sun rising successfully some 1,642,500 times.
The Lions of Yesterday and Tomorrow from the funerary papyrus of priestess Anhai, c.1300 BC (© British Museum)
Now it’s very tempting to see some link between this daybreak activity to the fact that cats are ‘low-light predators’, whose eyesight is specifically adapted for dawn and dusk when they become most active (and like nothing better than jumping on their sleeping owners) Why do cats sleep so much? The hidden science of feline shuteye, explained - BBC Science Focus Magazine. And of course cats are also fastidious in their grooming routines, something the Egyptians, famous for their use of cosmetics and perfumes, deeply appreciated too. For with the name of their most famous cat deity Bast (aka Bastet) suggested to mean ‘She of the perfume pot’, the Egyptians routinely stored their oil and fat-based perfumes within pots of alabaster to keep them cool in the hot climate, with some of these pots (below) even shaped like the cat goddess Bast whose name apparently gives us the word alabaster.
Alabaster cosmetic jar in the shape of a cat c.1950 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain)
With Bast also protector of the home and bringer of pleasure, her tiny images were regarded as key pieces of amuletic jewellery, worn singly or strung in groups by men, women and children to protect them from the hidden spirits which might do them harm or bring disease. Yet the ultimate feline protector was the mighty Sekhmet (below), a lioness rather than a lion, since the Egyptians as keen observers of the natural world could see that the female is usually rather more active than the male. So Sekhmet’s image was worn as a prominent badge of office by doctors (below right), since she was the one believed capable of controlling the invisible forces (aka germs and viruses) who brought illness. Then in much the same way, albeit when tackling rather more visible enemies, the goddess was the protector of pharaoh in battle – “For behold, it is the great Sekhmet that is with him, beside him upon his horse, and her hand is with him. Whoever goes to approach him, there comes a blast of fire to burn his flesh!”.
Sekhmet (L) in our recent ‘Tut 22’ exhibition and (R) in our previous ‘Gods’ Land in God’s County: Egypt in Yorkshire’ exhibition, both © Barnsley Museum & Heritage Trust
Yet there were also other feline deities like Mafdet the serval or wildcat, whose sharp claws represented the blade with which enemies of the crown were executed, their hearts dropped at pharaoh’s feet like the familiar gift of a dead mouse. In central Egypt around Minya, the local cat goddess Pakhet ‘the Scratcher’ hunted by night and patrolled the desert, where the aforementioned lions of Yesterday and Tomorrow representing the two faces of the lion god Aker protected Egypt’s boundaries as far as the horizon.
Gods Mihos Lord of Slaughter and Shesmu Lord of Blood were both lion-headed figures too, wielding their knives to perpetrate great violence while at the same time both closely associated with perfume, this blending of apparently contrary attributes nonetheless reflecting well-known aspects of feline behaviour. Take for example the multifaceted Shesmu, whose role as divine perfume maker involved squeezing out fragrant ingredients in the same way he squeezed out life from his unfortunate victims, their heads likened to grapes within a wine press and explaining Shesmu’s other titles ‘Lord of Perfumes’ and ‘Lord of Wine’. And with both these commodities extensively used in temple rituals and no more so than in the worship of feline deities, their sacred creatures - both cats and lions - were also offered the finest of foods and lavish jewellery, all to a musical accompaniment.
Cats serving mice on a satirical papyrus c.1400-1200 BC (© Cairo Museum)
But beyond such ritualised worship within the temples, the Egyptians clearly saw the amusing side of feline behaviour too, creating Tom and Jerry-like cartoon stories featuring cats in the most unlikely roles (above), from nursing baby mice and styling the hair of giant mice to whom they serve drinks, in a topsy-turvy world which surely made the Egyptians smile.
Obviously knowing full well how cats and mice actually behave together, this was probably the reason they were already living alongside cats by c.4000 BC, their homes and all-important grain stores kept free of rodents by the natural predators rightly regarded as protectors of the home and those within. And as much-loved pets sometimes buried with their owners, some cats were even provided with their own bowls of milk as an eternal food supply.
Fish dinner beneath the chair of Lady Tawi c.1400 BC (MMA facsimile, public domain)
Certainly the cats kept by Egypt’s elite are known to have enjoyed the finest of foods, from the cat enjoying a fish dinner beneath the chair of her owner Lady Tawi c.1400 BC (above) to the cat belonging to Tutankhamun’s uncle Tuthmosis, portrayed seated on a cushion in front of a whole roast duck! We even know his cat was named Tamiu, the ‘ta’ bit meaning lady or female and the miu simply the word for cat based on the noise they make, such detail carved on to the small stone coffin made for Tamiu c.1370 BC and her mummified body, also shown on her coffin, once placed within.
Tamiu with her duck dinner, and in mummified form at far right (© Cairo Museum)
For the Egyptians’ expertise in preserving human bodies also extended to animals, and with cats literally mummified in their millions its usually assumed this must have been done with little care given the sheer numbers involved. Yet our scientific analysis disproves this, the samples we’ve examined in our lab having been preserved using exotic resins imported from abroad, often at far greater cost than the preservatives used for their human counterparts.
So as I said, the Egyptians had it right. Cats are such special creatures who really do deserve the best, something which the Sheffield Cats Shelter has been doing for the last 126 years and hopefully for the next 126. But as food prices sky-rocket and people struggle to feed themselves let alone their pets, the inevitable rise in the number of cats and kittens being abandoned, often with tragic consequences, is heartbreaking and the Shelter, like so many other animal charities, full to overflowing.
So please consider donating if you can. Maybe take unwanted items to animal charity shops or attend a local event to help raise funds, like the upcoming ‘Catwalk’ Fashion Show the Sheffield team are currently organising (details below). Meanwhile here at Immortal Egypt, we recently had the chance to help in an unexpected (if most appropriate) way - for in return for autographing 80 first day covers for sets of Tutankhamun postage stamps The Sheffield Cats Shelter (@thesheffieldcatsshelter) • Instagram photos and videos, ‘a charity of my choice’ was sent a cheque towards much-needed supplies, admittedly sachets of cat food rather than individual roast ducks, but we’d like to think Tamiu would still approve!
For more about Sheffield Cats Shelter visit The Sheffield Cat Shelter | Working To Help Cats Since 1897 (thesheffieldcatsshelter.org), its ‘Catwalk’ Fashion Show at The Sheffield Cats Shelter (@thesheffieldcatsshelter) • Instagram photos and videos