CAT MUMMIES AT SAQQARA

Most of the cat mummies at Saqqara were young before they died, about 4 months old, and were killed by head trauma, which was sometimes so violent that the skull split in two.  Other cats were killed by strangulation due

Mummified Kitten

Mummified Kitten

to evidence of dislocated vertebrae.  The bodies of the Saqqara cat mummies were in differing stages of decay and in one of two positions.  In the first form of mummification, the front legs were placed downward in front of the body and the back legs, often purposely broken, were folded up in front of the stomach with the tail placed through them, thus making the cat a tubular shape.

          The second type of mummy has the head, legs and body individually wrapped.  Some, but not all of these cat mummies at Saqqara, have painted faces that show the facial features such as the ears, nose and eyes.  Some cats, depending upon the wealth of their owners, have their own mummy cases.  The bodies of the cases were usually made of wood and the heads either bronze or gilded. 

Wooden Cat Mummy Case

Wooden Cat Mummy Case
Gilded Head
Roman Period
Courtesy The British Museum

          Others, especially during the late period, had quite opulent sarcophagi. We know from Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, that “When one of these animals dies they wrap it in fine linen and then,

Bronze cat mummy case late period

Bronze Cat Mummy Case
Late Period
Inscription: To Bast from Horemakhbit, Scribe

wailing and beating their breasts, carry it off to be embalmed; and after it has been treated with cedar oil and such spices as have the quality of imparting a pleasant odour and of preserving the body for a long time, they lay it away in a consecrated tomb.” (Siculus, p. 285)  He continues by adding, “When any animal dies they mourn for it as deeply as do those who have lost a beloved child, and bury it in a manner not in keeping with their ability but going far beyond the value of their estates.”(Siculus,  p. 291)

          Most of the mummified cats were raised in the sacred temples to be sold to pilgrims as votive offerings to

Cat Mummy Sarcophagus 350BC

Cat Mummy Sarcophagus
350BC
Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Bast.  Thus, this reinforces the fact that they were domesticated.  According to Dr. Ikram, the founder and co-director of the animal mummy project at the Egyptian museum, “….the existence of vast quantities of cats fed in the precinct of the temple (before being ritually killed and eventually buried in dedicated catacombs) tends to prove that the majority of these cats were domestic animals, with the wild cats being an anomaly.” (Ikram, 2005, p.118)


          Mummification of a variety of animals, not just cats, was widespread from the earliest dynasties and was carried out for three reasons.   Firstly, owners wanted to assure their beloved pets’ immortality.  Secondly, animals were mummified as a source of food for a deceased human of high status during his or her journey into the afterlife.  And finally, the most important reason was simply that of religious belief.  Offering a votive mummy to the goddess Bast, for example, was done to receive blessings for fertility, safe childbirth, and healthy children.  Because of the importance of garnering favors with the goddess Bast, a whole industry sprung up around the cult.  Cats were raised at the temples for the specific purpose of being sold to pilgrims for mummification (Dodson, 2009).  Thus, there had to be animal keepers, embalmers and most importantly priests.  Here Herodotus writes, “…persons have been appointed of the Egyptians, both men and women, to provide the food for each kind of beast separately, and their office goes down from father to son; and those who dwell in the various cities perform vows to them thus, that is, when they make a vow to the god to whom the animal belongs, they shave the head of their children either the whole or the half or the third part of it, and then set the hair in the balance against silver, and whatever it weighs, this the man gives to the person who provides for the animals, and she cuts up fish of equal value and gives it for food to the animals.  Thus food for their support has been appointed.”(Herodotus, Bk2, 65) The Pharaohs, ever ready to fill their coffers, encouraged the activity to increase tax revenues, and offered incentives to those who participated in this activity, such as not having to serve as common laborers or in other less noble endeavors.

          The process of mummifying a cat started with first removing all its internal organs and then stuffing the empty body cavity with sand or straw.  Once this was accomplished, the body was arranged into a sitting or tubular position.  The cat’s body was then anointed with fats/oils; beeswax, sugar gum as well as various spices such as cinnamon and marjoram, and the body would then be wrapped tightly in white linen or other colors.   In the Roman period, cat mummies were wrapped in geometrical designs in differing colors of linen.

Cat mummy 332BC

Cat Mummy
332BC
Courtesy The Louvre Antiquities Egyptienne

Their faces were then modeled in linen and plaster.   Sometimes small gold amulets were placed in between the wrapping layers (Malek, 1993).  Once completely wrapped and sealed with various resins and bitumen, the cat would be ready to have its facial features drawn and painted in black ink. 

Cat Mummy Roman Period

Cat Mummy
Roman Period 30BC-100AD
Interlaced colored linen typical of era

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Comments

  1. I’m finding conflict between the reverence that cats were treated and the sadistic way they were sacrificed and killed for mummification. Despite the x-rays, couldn’t this still be post mortem treatment?

    • Unfortunately, cats were purposely killed for mummification and to sell to devotees at festivals. Truly a conflict with the reverence they were treated with.