During the years 1887-1889, Edouard Naville excavated Bubastis and found huge pits filled with the remains of cremated cats near brick ovens that were blackened from use.  In one pit he found 720 cubic feet of bones, but he noted that in many cases ichneumons (mongoose) were buried along with the cats.  Naville’s find is troubling since Herodotus recounts an instance whereby cats are swallowed up by fire.  “….when a fire occurs, the cats seem to be divinely possessed; for while the Egyptians stand at intervals and look after the cats, not taking any care to extinguish the fire, the cats slipping through or leaping over the men, jump into the fire; and when this happens, great mourning comes upon the Egyptians.”(Herodotus, BK2,66)  This is a very strange observation that contradicts the very essence of the ancient Egyptian religion according to which, the Ka (soul) should never be destroyed.  How is it that the same Egyptians that forbid the killing of a cat could systematically incinerate hundreds?  Killing a cat was a crime punishable by death as Diodorus Siculus states, “And whoever intentionally kills one of these animals is put to death, unless it be a cat or an ibis that he kills; but if he kills one of these, whether intentionally or unintentionally, he is certainly put to death, for the common people gather in crowds and deal with the perpetrator most cruelly, sometimes doing this without waiting for a trial.  And because of their fear of such a punishment any who have caught sight of one of these animals lying dead withdraw to a great distance and shout with lamentations and protestations that they found the animal already dead.  So deeply implanted also in the hearts of the common people is their superstitious regard for these animals and so unalterable are the emotions cherished by every man regarding the honour due to them that once, at the time when Ptolemy their king had not as yet been given by the Romans the appellation of “friend” and the people were exercising all zeal in courting the favour of the embassy from Italy which was then visiting Egypt and, in their fear, were intent upon given no cause for complaint or war, when one of the Romans killed a cat and the multitude rushed in a crowd to his house, neither the officials sent by the king to beg the man off nor the fear of Rome which all the people felt were enough to save the man from punishment, even though his act had been an accident.  And this incident we relate, not from hearsay, but we saw it with our own eyes on the occasion of the visit we made to Egypt.” (DS BK, Ch83)  In addition, Herodotus noted that if a cat dies in a house all the people living in that house must shave off their eyebrows in a show of mourning.

Naville never did find any evidence of cats having been embalmed at Bubastis (Naville, 1891) even though Herodotus wrote that cats were brought from miles around to be mummified there. Later excavations in the area, however, revealed hundreds of mummified cats and rats buried in holes in the walls overlooking the human tombs. Naville instead was only able to find many bronze cat statuettes, “We discovered a few of them sitting cats, heads, the inner 

Cat Cemetery Bubastis

Cat Cemetery Bubastis

part of which is empty; a good specimen representing Bast standing under the form of a woman with a slender body and a cat’s head, wearing a long dress and holding in her hands a sistrum and a basket, and having at her feet four crouching kittens.” (Ibid., p. 53) 

Bast holding a Sistrum with Kittens at her Feet

Bast holding a Sistrum with Kittens at her Feet symbolic of fertility
Courtesy The British Museum


Since Bubastis was at the edge of the Egyptian empire, invasions were common place and, as Egypt began to weaken and fragment in the later dynasties, both Greek and Persian invaders tried their luck at conquest.   Since his father Cyrus had conquered the Middle East, it was left for his son to conquer Egypt. Thus, in 525BC, he set off toward his prize aided by Arab Bedouin, who supplied the army with water. They reached the city of Pelusium, located at the very tip of the Delta region, not far from modern day Port Said.  There, the cunning Cambyses II thought of an ingenious battle strategy.  Being familiar with the Egyptians’ religious practices, he had the image of Bast painted on his soldiers’ shields and drove hundreds of the sacred cats in front of his army  putting the sacred animals between his army and the Egyptians.  Naturally, the Egyptians would not fight, but turned and fled, for they would not kill a cat or any other sacred animal.  Cambyses forced the ill prepared, newly appointed Pharaoh to retreat to Memphis, where he defeated him, and sacrilegiously killed the Apis bull, and proclaimed himself the next pharaoh of Egypt, ushering in the Persian period of rulers that would last to approximately 425 BC.  During these periods of foreign domination, the Egyptians continually fought for the return of their throne and finally in 404 BC Amyrteos regained control of the empire after the death of Darius II, beginning what is now known as the Late Period.  The next to the last ruler of the Late Period, Dynasty 30, was Nectunebo I, who rebuilt the temple sanctuary at Bubastis adding a peri-style court with columns on the eastern, southern and northern sides.  His successor, Nectunebo II the last native Egyptian to rule Egypt, was defeated by the Persian Artaxeres III.  A cruel vicious man, he ransacked temples, seized treasures, and carried them back to Persia.  Sacred animals were killed and their temples and cities completely destroyed.  As a result of the Persian invasion, Bubastis in 350 BC entered a period of slow decline.  The last dynasties, 31 and 32, of the ancient Egyptian empire were ruled by invading Persians and Greeks.   

Despite foreign rule and the destruction of her temples, the cat goddess Bast remained in the hearts of the Egyptians. Bast still continued to be worshipped by the Greeks and Egyptians alike, as a recent discovery in the city of Alexandria of a temple dedicated to Bast and belonging to Queen Berenice, wife of Pharaoh Ptolemy III, dates to the 3rd Century BC.

Bast Alexandria

A limestone statue of the Goddess Bastet –
Discovered at Kom el Dikka, Alexandria
(King Ptolemy III)
Courtesy of The Supreme Council of Antiquities

With the slow demise of the empire, however, so too came the demise of the cult of the cat. When Rome annexed Egypt in 30 AD for its abundant grain supply, it was not long afterward that Mark the Evangelist brought Christianity to Alexandria in 33 AD.  There was not much resistance to the new religion, as various aspects of the old religion were incorporated, making the transition more palatable for the pagan Egyptians.   In 380 AD, Theodosius I, the last emperor of both the eastern and western Roman Empire, proclaimed Christianity the official religion.  Ten years later, in 394 AD, Theodosius I secured the importance of this new religion by banning Pagan worship of any kind throughout the empire.  Now, with the last vestiges of the ancient Egyptian religion crumbling under threat of lawful punishment, temples were destroyed or left to become derelict.  Animal cults vanished, and along with them the cult of Bast. The cat would never again be worshipped on such a grand scale, and Egypt would not be able to secure its independence from foreign rule for almost 2,000 years. 


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 


Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats


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