Carola Carlino
Jun 15 · 9 min read
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Story of cats who became mummies
We are in the first century BC, in the golden sandy lands of ancient Egypt. The wise priests who guard the temples are knowledgeable men with a deep expertise in the art of mummification. After observing for a long time that bodies buried in the sand remained intact thanks to the underground heat, they developed a new method for burying the bodies of the dead in sarcophagi and preventing them from decomposition.
The process of mummification is a real τέχνη that combines science and religion. The human body, deprived of its organs and immersed in saline solutions for more than forty days, is then filled with straw, sewn up and wrapped in linen bandages, to be finally laid in the sarcophagi and from there directed to eternal life. It is a procedure that implies a deep knowledge of human anatomy, but the purpose for which the bodies were mummified reveals the existence, in that remote culture, of an indispensable religious component. According to the Egyptians, in fact, this was the only way to guarantee eternity to their loved ones, and it is for this reason that, before the sarcophagi were closed, the bodies were accompanied by amulets and other objects (including food) that the living thought might be useful to the dead in the afterlife.
What not everyone may know, however, is that it was not only humans who were mummified, but also animals. It is still unclear when the cult of animals became widespread among the ancient Egyptian people, but animals were certainly considered special beings, belonging to both the sensory and the supernatural worlds. Historically, forms of animal worship are attested as early as the end of the Predynastic period: archaeological excavations in the royal cemetery of Hierakonpolis have brought to light about seventy animal tombs, located in an area adjacent to the burial place reserved for humans. However, it was especially in the Ptolemaic period that animal worship became more and more persistent, to the point that several necropolises were built for the burial of mummified animals.
Map of Ancient Egypt showing all the animal necropolis discovered in the country according to the species found
As it can be seen from the map, there were many animals in ancient Egyptian society, from what we might call ‘domestic’ animals, such as dogs and cats, to the more ‘wild’ ones, such as crocodiles, gazelles, snakes, up to those considered the most sacred of all, such as bulls, rams and ibises. According to scholars, the veneration of animals stems from different motivations. On the one hand, it can be explained as a desire on the part of the Egyptians to make exclusive the aspects of their own culture, especially when they began to come into contact with other peoples from whom they wanted to continue to distinguish themselves; on the other, it is motivated as a purely religious fact.
There is, indeed, a close connection between the religious and the animal spheres: many animals were considered the representation of deities on earth and this is why in the Egyptian pantheon, which was very rich and diversified, every divinity had an animal consecrated to it. Thus, for example, Thot, god of knowledge, was represented by the ibis (sometimes also by the baboon), because the elongated beak of this animal looked like the stylus of a scribe. However, the god-animal association does not arise only from physical resemblances, but often by combining the virtues of the deity with those that the animal might represent. In this case, the sources testify to the sacred value that was attributed to the cat, as a representative of the goddess Bastet.
This divinity, protector of fertility and love, was first represented as a lioness and then as a cat. To prove this dual nature of the deity, in 2001 archaeologists found in the tomb of Maia, the nurse of the Emperor Tutankhamen, the remains of a mummified lion and those of a cat. The tomb was located near the city of Saqquara, in the area called The Necropolis of Sacred Animals, not far from the complex consecrated to the goddess Bastet, called Bubasteion.
The presence of this feline in human contexts is recorded around 9500 BC: thanks to a campaign of archaeological excavations in 2004, it was possible to find out in the Neolithic village of Shillourokambos, in Cyprus, some remains of cats near burial places where also human remains were found. The man-cat relationship has lasted over time and has evolved, to the point that in later civilizations the cat has taken on different values and symbolic meanings, until it reached a sacred significance. In Egypt, for example, it began to be venerated by some populations of the Nile who established a real cult. Archaeology has transmitted some evidence on how cats were perfectly integrated in family life, such as the parietal painting representing the sculptor Ipuy and His Wife Receiving Offerings from Their Children.
Furthermore, the cohabitation between men and cats was also regulated by strict legislation: for example, it was forbidden to export a cat in the neighbouring territories, as well as it was absolutely forbidden to kill a cat, to the point that whoever had committed this crime faced certain death. Diodorus Siculus, a Siceliota historian, who lived in the first century BC, in his monumental work, theBibliotheca Historica, devotes a chapter to the history and culture of the Egyptian people. He describes, among other things, even the actions taken by men and women towards the animals considered sacred. Also another historian, the Greek Herodotus, provides detailed information about the sacrality of these animals. In the second book of The Histories, the author tells which was the treatment reserved to the animals considered sacred and among which, besides the cat, are mentioned also the ibis and the falcon.
Of this important relationship between cats and humans, and of the sacredness the latter attributed to felines, there remains an important testimony visible today at the Museo Orientale Umberto Scerrato, in the city of Naples, southern Italy. During the preparatory work for the Museum exhibition, in 2014, a rectangular wooden showcase, that had never been seen before, was found. When the showcase was open, five mummies of cats appeared. But how did these mummies arrive in Italy?
On March 1st 1890 the Neapolitan lawyer Alfonso Donnabella sent a letter to the general secretary of the African Society of Italy (SAI), Giuseppe Careri, asking him, “Have you received my letter with Rubattino’s note? Have you received the money order for my subscription to the bulletin? Have you received the package of photos? (I shipped these three parcels in January). Have you received thecats?”. Since there are no other felines in the African Society collection, scholars are certain that Donnabella was precisely referring to the cat mummies.
The letter is dated in March 1890 and the mummies arrived in Naples in February 1890, when the lawyer was in the Egyptian city of Mansura, which is about an hour and a half walk from the necropolis of Tell-Basta and in the map shown above is called Bubastis. Therefore, it is likely that Donnabella has bought the mummies in a local market and that they came from another necropolis, such as, for example, that of the city of Istabl’Antar. But this is just an hypothesis.
Mummy №65 before the restoration
The mummies are of different sizes: the shortest measures 31 cm and the longest 56 cm. When they were found inside the case they had numbered labels: three of them were unreadable, the others showed the numbers 66 and 68. As for the conditions, the No.65 and No. 66 have been preserved intact. At the time of its death, the cat of the mummy №65 in the linen bandages was between six and eight months old. X-ray analyses show that the cat was placed with its upper and lower limbs longitudinal to the body and with the tail tucked in on its belly. This made it impossible to determine its sex, because the tail covers the hips.
Mummy №66 before restoration
As for number 66, what might appear to be a mummy like the others is in fact a trick, because radiological analyses have revealed that there are few animal bones inside and the rest is made up of linen bandages. Could this have been a way of deceiving the pilgrims who bought these mummies to deposit them in the temples of the gods? We do not know, but we hope that the prayers of the unfortunate buyer have been heard!
Mummy №67 before restoration
Mummy №68 before restoration
The bandages covering the mummy No.67 and the mummy No. 68 have been deteriorated in some points. In the mummy №67 a double colouring of the bandages can be observed. It is due to the heat with which the mummy was dried and the reaction of the chemical elements used. The №68 mummy has a completely different covering, made to form a pattern of square lozenges. The characteristics concerning these mummies can be observed also in other cat mummies displayed in museums in other countries. For example, the cat mummy preserved at the MedelhavsMuseet in Stockholm in the Egyptian collection also shows bandages placed in the same lozenge pattern as mummy №68 preserved at the Museo Orientale Umberto Scerrato in Naples and the same reproduction of facial features.
Mummy №69 before restoration. The head is detached from the body.
Mummy No.69 is the one with the worst conditions, with the head detached from the rest of the body.
Archaeological researches and the discovery of these mummies have made it possible to identify a cultural universe that resurfaces from the past and lives on in the present and the future. Just as the ancients wanted mummification to guarantee eternal life, so the museum exhibition allows each object a witness to the people and times of the past to have a long life.
A mummified gazell with folded legs, Medelhavsmuseet
I would like to thank Maria Diletta Pubblico, from the University of Naples “L’Orientale” (Italy), for providing me with the last five images of the story representing the cat mummies and the articles related to the discovery of the mummies in Egypt.
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Bewes, J. M., Morphett, A., Pate, F. D., Henneberg, M., Low, A. J., Kruse, L., … & Adams, E. (2016). Imaging ancient and mummified specimens: Dual-energy CT with effective atomic number imaging of two ancient Egyptian cat mummies. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 8, 173–177.
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Pubblico, M. D., Oliva, C. (2019). Les cinq momies de chat de la Società Africana d’Italia (SAI) Nouvelles recherches, nouvelles découvertes. In: Porcier, S., S. Ikram & S. Pasquali. Eds. Creatures of Earth, Water and Sky. Essays on Animals in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. — Leiden, Sidestone Press: 293–304.
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Zivie A. (1998), The Tomb of the Lady Maïa, Wet-nurse of Tutankhamun, in Egyptian Archaeology, 13, pp. 7–8.
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Carola Carlino
Phd Student
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