Chris Kouwenhoven

The good old days

How many of us worship our cats, and how many cats feel they deserve to be worshiped? The early Egyptians did just that. Killing a cat was an offense punishable by death. At Busbastis, a city of the Nile delta, the leading local deity was Bast, or Bastet. At first she was a lionheaded goddess but later the domestic cat become her sacred animal. When Bubastis became the national capital in 950 BC, Bast was revered throughout the kingdom. The annual festival at Bubastis was the most important and the most zealously celebrated of all the religious festivals in Egypt with 700,000 Egyptians in attendance. Further proof of the high regard in which the ancients held their cats is the fact that cat mummies have been found along with mummies of Egyptian kings.

The Egyptians valued their cats for their ability to control the rodent population. Exporting cats to other countries was strictly forbidden; however, many of them did find their way abroad thanks to Phoenician sailors on trading missions.

Neither the Greeks nor the Romans regarded the cat as highly as the Egyptians did. Domestic ferrets, rather than cats, were relied upon for controlling vermin in Greece and Rome. Nevertheless, it was most likely the Romans who introduced cats to other parts of Europe where they became established by the fourth century AD. By studying the body shapes and coat colors of cats in different countries, it is possible, in part, to trace the routes along which the domestic cat spread.

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