Perhaps the most iconic animal associated with ancient Egypt today, cats were regarded as forms of the goddess Bastet, a protective mother. Enormous numbers of cats were kept within her cult temple complexes. They were not pets but communal religious property bred, killed, mummified and buried in a manner similar to that accorded to people as an expression of piety to Bastet.
The Egyptians believed that animals could pass between the divine and human worlds. Images of the gods, including mummified animals, were used to carry messages to the gods. Pilgrims visiting temple complexes for religious festivals could pay for the burial of an animal and gain access to the deity.
Bastet’s festival became a major event, attracting several hundred thousand people. The scale of this booming temple industry can be seen in the extensive mass burials of animals beneath the temple complexes. There are miles of underground tunnels throughout Egypt stacked from floor to ceiling with mummified animals. In 1890 more than 19 tons of cat mummies dug out of a catacomb near the village of Beni Hasan were shipped to Liverpool and sold off in two auctions as fertiliser.
We don’t know what cemetery this cat mummy comes from but it was donated to the Liverpool Royal Institution sometime before 1894, perhaps acquired as souvenir of a Nile voyage (animal mummies were popular purchases for Victorian tourists). It is unlikely to have been from the 1890 Liverpool cat mummy auctions as these cats had been stripped of their wrappings before shipment.
The complex arrangement of the bandages on this mummy follows a style common in Ptolemaic and Roman times, allowing us to date the cat to about the 1st century AD. The inside of a mummy doesn’t always match its outside appearance. X-rays reveal a highly compressed young cat much smaller than the bundle suggests.
You an see this cat mummy on display in the Animal Mummies Revealed exhibition at World Museum.
Accession number 42.18.2