18 April 2012

A Million MI-(A)W Mummies

The ancient Egyptians didn't just make mummies of dead people but went hog-wild mummifying all sorts of non-human species too: reptiles, birds, dogs, baboons, bulls, rams, crocodiles, and even an occasional hippopotamus. However, one of the most common animal mummies in Egypt was the cat (left).  

Fully domesticated cats probably became companions to humans in Egypt somewhere around 2000 BCE.  At first, they were captured from the wild as kittens to be domesticated. But they soon became home bodies and bred as pets.  By 1350 BCE, cats were occasionally buried with their owners.  The female cat, especially, was noted for her fecundity and  was associated with fertility and female sexuality. Around 900 BCE., a striking change took place in the Egyptians' religious beliefs: many animals were now thought to be the incarnation of certain gods and goddesses.  Female cats were believed to be the earthly representation of the goddess Bastet who was pictured as a woman with the head of a cat (below left). Consequently, cats were raised in and around temples devoted to Bastet, especially in the city of Bubastis, on the Nile in Lower Egypt.  At least 20 of her cult centres are known and all of them, presumably, were once filled with felines.  When the cats died, they were mummified.

Feline mummification had 6 steps:
1. Remove internal organs.
2. Stuff body with sand or other packing material.
3. Place in sitting position.
4. Wrap tightly.
5. Faces painted on wrappings with black ink.
6. Natural dehydration.*
The cat mummies were buried in huge cemeteries, often in large communal graves.  Cat cemeteries lined the Nile River, while the goddess' main temple at Bubastis alone contained an estimated 300,000 cat mummies.  So many cat mummies were discovered in Egypt that it's a good guess that there had once been millions of them.

That's an awful lot of dead MI-(A)W's. 

In 1888 an Egyptian farmer digging in the sand near the village of Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt uncovered a mass grave. The bodies weren't human. They were feline — ancient cats that had been mummified and buried in pits in staggering numbers.

Bastet (Late Period)
"The plundering of the cemetery was a sight to see, but one had to stand well windward. The village children came [...] and provided themselves with the most attractive mummies they could find. These they took down the river bank to sell for the smallest coin to passing travellers. The path became strewn with mummy cloth and bits of cats' skulls and bones and fur in horrid positions, and the wind blew the fragments about and carried the stink afar"

Two years later, about nine tons of cat mummies from the cemetery were shipped into the port of Liverpool. They were sold off by the ton: bidding started at £3 per ton and gradually advanced to £5 17s 6p.  One company bought 38,000 pounds of cat mummies to pulverize and sell as fertilizer in England; this shipment alone was said to contain 180,000 mummified cats:

Some contractor came along and offered so much a pound for their bones to make into something - soap, or tooth-powder, I dare say, or even paint. So men went systematically to work, peeled cat after cat of its wrappings, stripped off the brittle fur, and piled the bones in black heaps, a yard or more high, looking from the distance like a kind of rotting haycocks scattered on the sandy plain.  The rags and other refuse, it appears, make excellent manure, and donkey loads of them were carried off to the fields to serve that useful, if unromantic, purpose.

This was not the result of people mummifying their beloved pussy pets. The cat mummification industry was big business.

And therein lies the rub. 

From about 332 B.C. to 30 B.C., cats began to be raised for the specific purpose of being turned into mummies. The mummies were sold to people on their way to worship Bastet and left at her temples as offerings. Scientists have uncovered a gruesome fact: many cats died quite premature and unnatural deaths. Two- to four-month-old kittens seemed to have been sacrificed in huge numbers because they were more suited to the mummification process.

Within the elongated oval shape of the cat mummy, the squeezed skeletal body of the cat embedded in wrappings is visible. The thin white arrows indicate the squeezed thorax; white arrow: fractured vertebra of the tail; arrowhead: fracture/hole in the occipital region of the skull. 
Look at what happened to the mummified cat (above) from the National Archaeological Museum of Parma, Italy.  As reported in the April issue of The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, this mummy has just been examined radiographically in order to evaluate and describe how cats were wrapped and mummified in ancient Egypt. 

Wrappings of Cat Mummy, Parma Museum
Radiographs made by Giacomo Gnudi, veterinary radiologist at the University of Parma, show that the cat was bound and wrapped tightly to take up as little space as possible, with the ribs compressed and the front legs placed very close to the chest which forced the skeleton into the 'sitting position'.  A coccygeal vertebra at the bottom of the spine was fractured in order to reposition the tail as close as possible to the body.  A hole in the skull (white arrowhead) also seems to confirm the hypothesis of a very unnatural death.  In other words, the cat was murdered, probably by a spike driven into its head.  Or rather, we can say that this was kitten murder: the long bones and vertebrae of the skeleton and the eruption of definitive canine teeth suggest a cat ranging in age from 4–5 months.  The fact that the cat was so young suggests that it was one of those bred specifically for mummification.  It is likely that it was an offering to the goddess Bastet.**

Owing to the huge demand for mummified cats throughout the Late Period (ca. 1069-30 BCE), different qualities of cat mummies were sold with better or worse  features according to the clients' budget.  It was possible to find 'cheap' cat mummies with just a few bones inside or even an empty 'shell' or to spend much more and get a complete mummified cat body embedded in decorated wrappings. The cat mummy from the museum of Parma is one of the most valuable types.  The cat's skeleton is complete and the arrangement of the mummy’s wrappings, too (above left) is intricate, with painted geometrical patterns.  The eyes are depicted in black ink on small round pieces of linen bandage. 

If This Be Love

How do we square the Egyptians reputation for loving, protecting, and even worshipping cats with the mass slaughter of temple-raised kittens?  Cats were protected by a kind of common law: Diodorus Siculus (writing between 60-30 BCE) is quite explicit:
Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.
And the Greek historian Herodotus (5th C. BCE) tells us that, when a cat died, the household would go into mourning as if for a human relative, and would often shave their eyebrows to signify their loss.

So who was buying dead-kitten mummies in the millions?

Everyone, it seems: 
On the day of her festival, [Bubastis] is said to have attracted some 700,000 visitors  "both men and women who arrived in numerous crowded ships.  The women engaged in music, song and dance on their way to the place, great sacrifices were made and prodigious amounts of wine were drunk, more than was the case throughout the year. [Herodotus 2.60]
Is it fair to complain (as A Thinking Person's Blog does) that, "There is nothing that is cat loving or cat caring about this process. It is all about the human and his insecurities and superstitions. It is simply cat use and abuse."

I'd say like to say MI-(A)W to that but, of course, we cannot impose our contemporary western ideas upon the distant past.  Imagine that you were about to approach Bastet to offer a sacrifice.  After all, you had to take care to placate the goddess.  True, in her docile moods, Bastet gives life, and joy, and protects the household, but she also had an agressive side if provoked!  And that would worry you while you wanted to have a good time at her festival.  Better to offer a pre-wrapped mummy... and relax.  Doesn't it make sense to give her what she most loves?  Perhaps, even in ancient Egypt, each man, each woman, and each mummifying priest kills the thing he loves:
                                 The coward does it with a kiss,
                                 The brave man with a sword!

Or a bloody spike.

* This is unsure.  Possibly chemicals were used, similar to the dehydration treatment of humans: natron, a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate, sodium bicarbonate mixed with small quantities of salt and sodium sulphate, and particular herbs to improve artificial dehydration.

**The National Museum of Parma bought this cat mummy in the 18th century from an antiquarian; there is no documentation about which part of the Egypt it came from, but it is certain that it was an offering to the goddess Bastet, possibly from the temple of Bubastis. Sources for this post, in addition to "Radiological investigation of an over 2000-year-old Egyptian mummy of a cat", JFMS, include The Role of Cats in Ancient Egypt, by M.E.; Cats in Ancient Egypt, Wikipedia; News on t he Mummy Cat at Archaeology Museum Parma, Think Archaeology; and A Wuthering Expectations Investigative Report - Were mummified cats actually shipped to England for use as fertilizer?


Above left: Cat mummy in folded shroud, National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, NL; AMM 16c.  Photo credit: Animal Mummies Online. A list of cat mummies found in various museums, with links to photographs, is available at The Animal Mummy Database.

Upper Centre: The Mi-W  Hieroglyphs (uploaded to YouTube) by on 6 Mar 2010.

Middle left: Bronze Bastet statue, Louvre Museum N 3857. She wears ankle bracelets and a tight, mid calf-length dress with a V-neck and sleeves that cover her shoulders. Photo credit: © 2009 Musée du Louvre/Christian Décamps.

Lower Centre:Giacomo Gnudi et al., "Radiological investigation of an over 2000-year-old Egyptian mummy of a cat", JFMS, Fig. 1.

Lower Left: Outer wrappings of the cat mummy from the National Archaeological Museum at Parma; via Think Archaeology

Bottom left: Cat Mummy wrapped in Meander pattern shroud.  British Museum EA 37348. From Abydos, Roman Period, Acquired 1902 from Egypt Exploration Fund.

Blog Archive