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The ancient Egyptian wing of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University is dimly lit. The smell is musky. There are mummies here, real ones wrapped in ceremonial cloths and kept just below protective glass casings in their coffins. There is a very large, inscribed sarcophagus. The rooms have been built and lit in a way so that you can almost feel as if you are coming across these treasures hidden in a tomb. There is also a mummified cat.
Dr. Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist who has spent the last 30 years of his life studying ancient Egyptian culture and art, curated this wing. Lacovara is the type of guy who sounds a bit uncomfortable and terse if you ask him about himself, but as soon as you get him going on the role of cats in ancient Egyptian culture, he's a talking machine. When I asked him if the Egyptians were more cat-crazy than we are today, he shot back, "They had a whole temple dedicated to cats. I'm not sure it gets more cat crazy than that."
The cat temple was built in the city of Bubastis, a name that more or less means "House of Bastet," the feline goddess. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, traveled to Bubastis sometime in the fifth century B.C. and wrote this about the cat temple:
"Temples there are more spacious and costlier than that of Bubastis, but none so pleasant to behold. It is after the following fashion. Except at the entrance, it is surrounded by water: for two canals branch off from the river, and run as far as the entrance to the temple: yet neither canal mingles with the other, but one runs on this side, and the other on that. Each canal is 100 feet wide, and its banks are lined with trees. The propylaea are 60 feet in height, and are adorned with sculptures (probably intaglios in relief) 9 feet high, and of excellent workmanship."
He keeps going and going about it. Apparently Herodotus was impressed with the temple. He also says this:
"On every occasion of a fire in Egypt, the strangest prodigy occurs with the cats. The inhabitants allow the fire to rage as it pleases, while they stand about at intervals and watch these animals, which, slipping by the men or else leaping over them, rush headlong into the flames. When this happens, the Egyptians are in deep affliction. If a cat dies in a private house by a natural death, all the inmates of the house shave their eyebrows ... The cats on their decease are taken to the city of Bubastis where they are embalmed, after which they are buried in certain sacred repositories."
Right, cats regularly used to fling themselves headfirst into giant fires. Which sounds a lot like ancient Egyptians used to fling cats into fires because they probably didn't spay and neuter and had way too many of them, but who am I to disagree with Herodotus? In any case, Bubastis was apparently the sacred epicenter of cats and also the place for an annual festival attended by several hundred thousand people where women would throw "their clothes over their head," drink a lot of wine, sing songs, and have a feast. All in the name of, you know, cats.
For Lacovara, explaining why cats were so important to ancient Egyptians is quite simple: "They killed snakes, mice, and all of the things that threatened the household." This household cat goddess Bastet was, more or less, important because cats could play a functional role. An animal that can sit in your lap and also kill other animals that are messing with your food? It seems so obvious why the cat would become a god in their eyes.
Yet, this makes the current question about cats even more unclear. Cats have never been less functional than today. If anything, cats are celebrated for their laziness, their lack of function. Their killing powers are now largely exercised on beautiful, soon-to-be-extinct birds, at least according to songbird activists and author Jonathan Franzen. Our current obsession with cats seems to have done the exact opposite: to remove all function from the cat by making it an image, an art object that succeeds precisely because it accomplishes nothing.
The mummified cat in the Carlos Museum is actually a kitten. Just 6 inches in length, you could easily miss it in the glass case. I walked passed it twice before I noticed the object wrapped in miniature, kitten-size strips of linen. According to the case, the kitten mummy dates to a time around when Herodotus visited Egypt. It is also extremely cute. Those tiny strips of linen bring to mind what an awakened mummy cat would look like in a cheap horror movie from the '50s. The shape looks a lot like a mummified penis. I laughed, convinced that I was looking at the world's earliest lolcat.
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