The ancient Egyptians were familiar with a number of species belonging to the family Felidae. These small to large cats included lions (Panthera leo), rw, mʒἰ, and mʒἰ ḥzʒ; leopards (Panthera pardus), ʒbἰ, ʒbἰ šmʿ, bʒ, bʒ šmʿ, and knmwt; cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), nṯr(ἰ)t, ʒbἰ, ʒbἰ mḥ, bʒ mḥ, and mʒfdt (?); servals (Felis serval); caracals (Caracal caracal), ἰnb; wild cats or jungle cats (Felis sylvestris, Felis chaus); and the domestic cat (Felis catus), mἰw (surely onomatopoetic, “mewer”) and feminine mἰἰt. The human–feline relationship has a very long history in Egypt, and there is a wealth of representational, textual, and zooarchaeological evidence indicating that some of these carnivores, notably the lion and household cat, considerably influenced pharaonic culture and life.

Precisely when lions became extinct in Egypt is unknown. They roamed widely the semidesert regions bordering the Nile Valley during Predynastic times and for much of the historic period, and became less common by the New Kingdom. The lion was admired for its majestic appearance, strength, and ferocity. The male was one of the most conspicuous and enduring symbols of Egyptian kingship. Already on the so-called Battlefield Palette, dating from the Late Predynastic period (Naqada III), a larger-than-life lion represents the triumphant king, devouring his defeated enemies. The link between the two is manifested through sphinxes, generally human-headed lions, the embodiment of divine royal power; the fourth dynasty Great Sphinx built by Khafre at Giza is the foremost example. This connection probably also accounts for the pharaohs' practice of keeping tame lions as palace pets; these even accompanied them into war. One first dynasty ruler was buried at Abydos with seven juvenile lions. During the nineteenth dynasty, Ramesses II delighted in his pet lions; one of his favorites was named “Slayer of His Foes.” Inscriptions describe this same monarch doing battle “like a ferocious lion” and “like a lion when he tasted combat.”

Lions were among the characteristic fauna in desert landscape scenes during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, often seen attacking prey. Hunting them, though, appears always to have been a royal prerogative. In the eighteenth dynasty, Amenhotpe III issued a series of scarabs commemorating his killing of 102 (variant, 110) lions. The most vivid illustration of lion-hunting is preserved on the celebrated “painted box” discovered in the eighteenth dynasty tomb of Tutankhamun. From a racing horse-drawn chariot, the young king single-handedly routs a company of lions, slaying them with his superhuman abilities. Dispatching lions also showed the world how strong and mighty the ruler was. A park where such ritual hunts were staged has been identified near the temple that Amenhotpe III built at Soleb in Upper Nubia. During the New Kingdom, lions were also imported into Egypt as trade or tribute from Nubia and western Asia.

The lion was viewed as a magical guardian figure with apotropaic qualities. This symbolism is evident on royal thrones and various types of ritual furniture, which customarily incorporate protective standing lions into their design. From an early age, monumental sculptures of this noble beast were sometimes set up flanking the entrances to shrines and temples. Leonine imagery abounds in religious iconography. This species had affiliations with numerous deities in the pharaonic pantheon; the most important were lioness goddesses such as Pakhet, Tefnut, Hathor, Bastet, and Mut. Above all, there was the dangerous Sekhmet, one of the many forms of the fiery Eye (or daughter) of Re, the consort of Ptah at Memphis, who was depicted as a young woman with the head of a lioness. The male also had strong solar associations. A pair of lions placed back to back, supporting the sun disk between them, were identified with the eastern and western horizons; called “yesterday” and “tomorrow,” they symbolize eternity. During the Late Dynastic and Greco-Roman periods, sacred lions were maintained in the temples of some leonine gods. At the Delta site of Leontopolis (modern Tel el-Muqdam) and at Saqqara, textual evidence suggests that these venerated creatures were mummified and received elaborate burials, but their tombs have yet to be located.

Both the leopard and the cheetah are extremely rare, perhaps even extinct, in modern Egypt. In antiquity, however, these sleek felines were certainly more abundant. Attested from the Late Predynastic period (Naqada III) onward, leopards repeatedly appear among the wildlife in desert hunting compositions on royal and private monuments. The cheetah can seldom, if ever, be positively identified in these. During the Old Kingdom, there is one depiction, on a block of limestone relief, of a tame leopard walking on a leash with its dwarf minder. Another lively vignette, in the fifth dynasty tomb-chapel of Ptahhotep II (D 64) at Saqqara, pictures a leopard and a lion being transported in strong wooden cages, fresh from the chase. In the eighteenth dynasty, Queen Hatshepsut could not have failed to impress when she arrived in the royal carrying-chair with her pair of pet cheetahs following just behind. Additional leopards and cheetahs arrived in Egypt as tribute and trade from Nubia and Punt, as captured in the Punt reliefs on Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, and in the eighteenth dynasty Theban tomb-chapel of the vizier Rekhmire (tomb 100). Their skins too were prized and often imported; these were traditionally worn by the sm-priest (or the ἰwn-mwt-f priest), the supervisor of burial rites, who performed the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.

Images of lions, leopards, and small wild cats figure in the bestiary of demons and real and imaginary animals engraved on apotropaic wands or “magic knives,” fashioned from the canines of hippopotamuses during the Middle Kingdom. The felines on these objects are routinely knife-wielding or attacking serpents, helping to safeguard mothers and young children. The funerary equipment of eighteenth and nineteenth dynasty kings included wooden statuettes of striding leopards (often incorrectly called panthers). A pair of them from the tomb of Tutankhamun bear gilded figures of the pharoah standing on their backs. The leopard may have served the sovereign as a protector and guide in the netherworld. Various attempts have been made to identify the animal associated with the violent goddess Mafdet (perhaps “the Runner”). Whether it was a leopard, cheetah, or possibly a common genet (Genetta genetta) cannot be determined, but its Egyptian name would befit the cheetah, the world's fastest land creature.

There are only a few illustrations of the serval and caracal in Egyptian art. The former species is likely to be recognized from portraits on a series of faience plaques of the eighteenth dynasty from the temple of Hathor at Serabit el-Khadim in the southern Sinai. Servals may have been imported into Egypt from the tropical African hinterlands and may be the “cats of Miw” mentioned in a Ramessid period letter concerning the delivery of Nubian commodities. The caracal, a desert lynx, remains to this day a rare denizen of Egypt. Their realistic representations, easily identified by the long ear tufts, appear in desert hunting scenes in the fifth dynasty tomb-chapel of Nimaatre (G 2097) at Giza, and in the rock-cut tomb of the twelfth dynasty nomarch Khnumhotep III at Beni Hasan (tomb 3).

The household cat is perhaps the most frequently studied creature in Egyptian iconography. There are sound reasons for thinking that its original home was Egypt, even if conclusive evidence is still lacking. The date of its complete domestication has yet to be resolved. As ardent cat-lovers know, the most likely progenitor of the cat was the wild cat (also known as the Kaffir cat), still found along desert margins in modern Egypt. Several felines portrayed during the Old and Middle Kingdoms resemble this species; nonetheless, these may also be the jungle (or swamp) cat, a wetlands-dwelling resident of Egypt. One of these must have inspired the likeness of the fierce tomcat, probably a personification of the sun god Re, that slays the serpent god Apophis, the sun's eternal enemy, as seen in vignettes of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) and other New Kingdom mythological compositions. The common cat is noticeably missing from the vast repertoire of everyday life scenes in Old Kingdom tomb-chapels of the elite, indicating to some researchers that it had yet fully to enter the company of humans. However, other specialists have doubted the reliability of the artistic record as proof of this. In any case, it is only in the eleventh dynasty that cats begin to occur in a domestic context. From its earliest appearance, in the rock-cut tomb of the nomarch Baket III at Beni Hasan (tomb 15), it is apparent that the cat was valued in ancient Egypt as a mouser.

In wall paintings and reliefs of tomb-chapels belonging to Theban notables of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties, we encounter the cat in its most touching role—a beloved family pet, sometimes bejeweled, often sitting under the mistress's chair. In contrast with pet dogs, however, there is only one cat known to have received a personal name: in the eighteenth dynasty tomb-chapel of Puimre at Thebes (tomb 39), a tabby is called “The Pleasant One.” Since most cat owners seem to be women, several leading Egyptologists have suggested that the cat may have had erotic connotations or was even a symbol of female sexuality. The image of a cat is known from a host of minor works of art, such as jewelry, cosmetic implements, and amulets. It was also a popular character in the topsy-turvy animal world found on limestone figured ostraca and a couple of “satirical” papyri from the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties.

Nowadays, the cat is widely known as a manifestation of the goddess Bastet, who was worshipped at the Delta site of Bubastis (modern Tell Basta), but this association came comparatively late in Egyptian history. Beginning in the Third Intermediate Period, cats became closely linked with the gentle side of the lioness goddesses. This connection prompted the thousands of votive bronze cat statuettes, as well as the tens of millions of cat mummies, offered by pious pilgrims wishing to petition these deities at their cult temples in late dynastic and Greco-Roman times. According to Diodorus Siculus (I, 84), who visited Egypt in the first century BCE, the unintentional killing of a cat brought a sentence of death.

See also FELINE DEITIES.

Bibliography

  • Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des alten Ägypten: Untersucht an-hand kulturgeschichtlicher und zoologischer Quellen. Munich, 1988. An authoritative discussion of felines in ancient Egypt; includes zooarcheological findings.
  • Charron, Alain. “Des ‘momies’ de lions à Saqqarah.” Bulletin de la Société d'Égyptologie, Genève 21 (1997), 5–10. Includes interesting remarks on lion cults during the Late Dynastic and Greco-Roman periods.
  • Les Chats des pharaons: 4000 ans de divinité féline. Catalogue, 27 octobre 1989–25 février 1990. Brussels, 1989. Informative catalog of a museum exhibition devoted to the domestic cat in ancient Egypt, at the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique, Brussels.
  • Delvaux, Luc, and Eugène Warmenbol, eds. Les divins chats d'Égypte: Un air subtil, un dangereux parfum. Leuven, 1991. Important collection of eighteen articles relating to aspects of the common cat during pharaonic civilization, published on the occasion of the exhibition Les chats des pharaons. Contains an extensive bibliography.
  • de Wit, Constant. Le rôle el le sens lion dans l'Égypte ancienne. Leiden, 1951, 2d ed. rev., Luxor, 1978. Excellent in-depth study of the place of lions in sacred and secular life in ancient Egypt.
  • Hornung, Erik, and Elisabeth Staehelin, eds. Skarabäen und andere Siegelamulette aus Basler Sammlungen. Mainz, 1976. In discussing small cats, lions, and leopards on scarabs, and as scaraboids, the authors present a valuable overview of these felines in Egyptian religious beliefs, with many references.
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London and New York, 1996. In this handsomely illustrated book for a general audience, considerable space is devoted to surveying the various felines in ancient Egypt; extensive bibliography.
  • Jordan, Paul, and John Ross. Riddles of the Sphinx. New York, 1998. This popular work presents much useful information on sphinxes in ancient Egypt, notably their close leonine associations.
  • Makek, Jaromir. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. London, 1993; reprint, Philadelphia, 1997. Authoritative and well-illustrated survey of the household cat in Egypt.
  • Osborn, Dale J., and Ibrahim Helmy. The Contemporary Land Mammals of Egypt (Including Sinai). Fieldiana Zoology, New Series, 5. Chicago, 1980. The standard work on the land mammals of modern Egypt.
  • Osborn, Dale J., with Jana Osbornová. The Mammals of Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1998. Provides a fine survey of the felines recognizable in Egyptian iconography.

Patrick F. Houlihan