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In ancient Egypt, cats seemed quite at home

The ancient Egyptians, not unlike ourselves, realized that the benevolent nature of the cat was to be valued no less than the creature's crafty hunting abilities.

Philippe Germond, in his book "An Egyptian Bestiary" (Thames & Hudson, 2001), writes of the recognition, particularly in the Late Period of Egyptian art (664-332 BC), that she-cats were the expression of "gentleness and protectiveness."

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Given the vast numbers of cat statuettes that were made as votive offerings (cats were seen to embody the goddess Bastet), it's perhaps surprising to learn that dogs had been domesticated long before cats. The cat image seems so inextricably Egyptian, while dogs were seldom represented in Egyptian art.

At first, wild cats were probably tamed, rather than fully domesticated. They were encouraged by farmers eager to protect their crops from mice. Aristocratic human hunters are represented in tomb paintings assisted in their pursuit of birds by fierce cats. Later, cats became – as today – a domestic presence, elegant and exotic as well as companionable. In some paintings, they are shown as house cats, sitting under a seat or playing on top of the furniture.

The statuettes, like the one shown here, often had earrings or nose rings, illustrating how familiar the Egyptian craftsmen became with Felis catus, the ancestor of our modern cats. They observed not only its proportions but also its stance with uncanny accuracy. The enigmatic, aloof character of the feline is conveyed with admiration. Egyptian cats are not exactly cuddly. But the affection they inspired may be indicated by the serious amount of effort that went into their mummification, burial, and inclusion in the accouterments and imagery of the tombs.

Symbolizing Bastet, cat statues are sometimes part human. Ancient Egyptians, in their worship, did not draw strict lines between the human and the animal kingdoms. Nor do we, of course! The 18th-century English poet Christopher Smart wrote an extraordinary poem in which he considered "his cat Jeoffry." One line reads: "For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary." Another: "For every house is incompleat without him & a blessing is lacking in the spirit." The ancient Egyptians seem likely to have agreed on both counts. We still regard cats with both awe and love.