Number 22 out of 28: This piece is part a Blog Challenge to write and publish a post, every day of the 28 days of February 2015, from Coach and Writer Sandra Peachey – the author of ‘Peachey Letters – Love Letters to Life’.
Bastet – worshipped Egyptian Goddess: part woman, part cat…
As a relatively sane woman with a respectable number of decades lived under her purple belt, why would I be revering cats, recounting their exploits and expounding upon what we humans can learn from them? There are any number of reasons – starting with a simple love of cats and how a prolonged meditation upon them is turning into a treatise that is intended to entertaining and to gently teaching.
There is also the fact that cats are the most popular pet on the planet and almost inevitably to be found living with or by, a huge proportion of man’s global population.
In fact it is believed that the ancestors of the modern domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) have been man’s companion since the Neolithic age – around 9500 years ago.
As man came out of the cave and started civilisations, so too he started to form more formal bonds with the feline; and so it is surmised that around 6000 years ago the African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) entered Egyptian towns in search of food – catching rats in grain stores – and choosing to live close to humans.
The African Wild Cat
We can only guess at how and why a wild cat would come out of the jungle and allow its’ species to become domesticated, but as a result their destiny was precluded by many human friendly, inherent characteristics such as their attractive appearance, small size, social and affectionate nature, their love of play / hunting and a recognisable level of intelligence, all of which combined with an innate tameness, to make them ideal human companions.
So it was that after two more millennia have passed, cats had evolved from convenient rodent catchers, to cult status. The feline had, (it is believed) through natural inclination and selective breeding, become the helpmeet and companion of humans; and the Egyptians have long since welcomed them into their homes. And beyond being a pet, the cat was worshipped as a truly sacred animal and as a species had its’ very own Goddess – Bastet or Bast.
In the history of Eqyptian worship, Bastet appears as either a fierce lioness or a woman with the head of a lioness. The lioness was known as the fiercest hunter in the African animal kingdom, hunting as she did, in co-operative groups of related females.
Originally Bastet was viewed as a protector goddess. Over time and with the waxing and waning of the royal dynasties and their deity preferences, her worship also waxed and waned. Yet when domesticated cats became an every day part of Egyptian life, Bastet began to be represented as a woman with the head of a cat and ultimately emerged as the quintessential Egyptian cat.
Cats were adored in life and the vast graves full of mummified feline remains attest to their status in death. The Egyptians relegated their revered deified pets to remain in their own country and did not allow them across their borders. Yet cats still crossed those borders, being secretly traded, and so spread across South East Asia and into India.
The Romans, as travellers and conquerors of so much of the world, absorbed the cult of the cat in to their Empire. Whilst cats were highly revered in ancient Egypt, the Romans evolved this admiration, considering the feline to be their God of Liberty. Cats were in fact, the only animals allowed in to Roman temples. They were often also kept as mascots by the Roman army. And as a result, when the Romans conquered Britain, they brought the domestic cat with them, and into our pagan lives.
Our sea faring ancestors of more recent centuries took cats with them to the colonies, and so our feline friends found their way to America, Australia and much of the rest of the world too.
So it is that cats have a long history of being worshipped and adored by man, woman and child. May be this explains their inherent self satisfaction – it has been bred into them, marching through their DNA, from then, till today.
And for all this, the modern day moggy that sleeps by your side has changed very little in body or instinct from his ancestors of ancient millennia. Compare a striped tabby to an African Jungle cat and what you will see, is familiarity. Restricting breeding stock has encouraged beautiful coats, colourings and other managed characteristics such as the blue eyes of my own pedigree Birman – George. However – most domesticated cats still have all the instincts and capabilities needed to succeed in the ‘wild’, or in the streets, or where ever fate or their inclination may pitch them.
Yet compare a Chihuahua to a wolf and see the gulf from a dog’s ancestor to the present day; the modern canine being so often mutated into something physically unrecognisable from its’ ancient sire.
Something instead, has stabilised the cat’s evolution; perhaps that it is already perfect and perfectly adapted, having solid feline genetics that have confounded the world it regally inhabits.
And despite history and black cat witch hunts, felines have remained with us, even serving human kind in the First World War – sniffing out poisonous gas in the murderous muddy trenches, and being stationed on war ships to root out rats.
So as for thousands of years we have chosen to co-habit with these creatures, then as we have observed them, created a sympathetic symbiosis then small wonder that having worshipped them, we now have so much to learn from them…
PS: My reference sources include: the Wikipedia and Cats Protection League websites; many books read; many years spent in observation; many hours spent in speculation, and needless to say – in wonder of, cats…
PPS: Did you know that a collection of my ‘Peachey Letters’ have been gathered together in to a beautiful book, cats and all? I’m completely biased of course, but it makes a purrfect present, whether you be a cat lover or no. All of human life is in this gorgeous book – all the fear, light, dark, and of course love, for any one who wants to be entertained and to know that they are not alone in life, what ever it holds for you, even if it isn’t all about cats… You can buy ‘Peachey Letters – Love Letters to Life’ from book websites any where in the world, including Amazon (in both Paperback and Kindle)…