Exhibit explores role of cats in ancient Egypt

Four thousand years before cat videos took over the Internet, large wildcats and their small, domestic cousins had starring roles in ancient Egypt. Felines were associated with deities and admired for their grace and beauty.

Statue of a sphinx with two serpents (© Smithsonian Institution)
This bronze sphinx, circa 945-712 BCE, shows the god Tutu. A guardian of fate, Tutu is flanked by cobras and has a lion’s body, a king’s head and a serpent’s tail. (© Smithsonian Institution)
Tall mummified cat (© Smithsonian Institution)
Mummified cat (© Smithsonian Institution)

At the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, the exhibition Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt explores the significance of cats in religious, social and political life.

The exhibit includes 81 artifacts from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 BCE) to the Byzantine era (395–642 CE), ranging from statues to coffins to amulets to a mummified cat.

Divine Felines, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, links feline traits — hunting prowess, ferocity, an ability to see in the dark, playfulness and tender care of kittens or cubs — to Egyptian divinities. These (sometimes opposing) traits reveal a duality that mirrors ancient Egyptians’ view of the world.

The sun god Re and several related goddesses appear in the form of cats and lions, a nod to the feline habit of basking in sunlight.

Lions, emblems of strength, were linked both to royalty and to divinity to the Egyptians. Divine Felines features many items connecting lions with kingship — for example, a scarab decorated with figures that “tell the story of a king hunting lions, symbolizing control and conquest,” said curator Antonietta Catanzariti.

Kings traveled with lion-themed objects and worshiped the lion-headed goddess Sakhmet. Because lions lived at the edge of the desert, said Catanzariti, “they were believed to protect Egypt’s border with the outside world.”

Sculptor's model of a walking lion (© Smithsonian Institution)
Carved from limestone, this sculptor’s model of a lion in mid-stride dates from 664 to 630 BCE. (© Smithsonian Institution)

Amulets conferred protection, as well. Often depicting cats or cat-like goddesses, they were owned by people of all social classes and found in nearly every household.

One of the exhibit’s most whimsical treasures is a small, bronze figure of a cat with kittens.

Sculpture of cat with kittens (© Smithsonian Institution)
This bronze sculpture dates from 664 to 630 BCE. The wooden base is inscribed with a request that the goddess Bastet grant life. (© Smithsonian Institution)

The mother cat represents the goddess Bastet, who was linked with fertility and childbirth. In this depiction, the cat’s protective qualities are vividly evoked — along with ancient Egyptians’ affection for the animals they cherished.