According to an Egyptian antiquities official, archaeologists have uncovered remnants of seven ancient tombs in proximity to the pyramid complex in Saqqara, near modern Cairo. Dating from the Pharaonic Age, the exact chronological data relating to these sarcophagi is unclear at the moment (although estimates suggest that they probably hark back to an era before circa 3200 BC). However, it is the ‘content’ of the tombs that might tickle the curiosity of many a history aficionado. To that end, researchers have identified mummified remains of both cats and beetles (scarabs) along with wooden statues of other animals and birds, including a lion, a cow, and a falcon.
Pertaining to the mummified scarabs, the researchers have admitted that those specimens are the first to be found in the area. And since we are talking about beetles, in ancient Egypt, these insects were mythically related to Khepri, one of the rare Egyptian gods who was usually depicted as a man with a beetle head in funerary papyri. As we talked about in our comprehensive article about the Egyptian gods –
There was a symbolic side to the whole affair of Khepri worship – with the entity epitomizing the forces that moved the sun across the vast expanse of the sky. This connection was derived from the action of scarab beetles when they rolled balls of dung across the rigorous desert surface – while the young beetles emerged from inside the dung, from the eggs laid by the parent. This is in fact related to the Egyptian word ‘kheper‘, which roughly translates to – to change, or to create.
In any case, Khepri was also considered as being subordinate to the more exalted sun god Ra, which on occasions also translated to Khepri being one of the aspects of Ra. For example, Khepri was perceived as the personification of the morning sun, while Ra was seen as the more effulgent midday sun. The people also regarded Khepri as one of the Egyptian gods of rebirth, possibly since the Egyptians believed that beetles appeared out of nowhere and yet were able to procreate.
As for the symbolism espoused by the mummified cats and other feline statues, ancient Egyptians certainly shared a proclivity for domesticating cats. This cultural affinity was mirrored by the native Egyptian mythology and religion that popularized the worship of Bastet (or Bast), at least since the Second Dynasty period (post-29th century BC) –
A goddess of the home, love, fertility, joy, dance, women and secrets, Bastet with her cat-like head and woman’s body was considered as a benevolent deity.
Given such propensity for feline symbolization, cats were uniquely sacred in Egypt – so much so that the punishment for killing a cat was death by stabbing. According to Herodotus, Egyptians was so fond of their cats that they preferred to save their cats instead of themselves when trapped inside a burning building. Some cats were also known to be mummified in a ceremonious manner with jewelry – as was the case with many noble people.
Interestingly enough, according to a legend, the Persians took advantage of this seemingly unhealthy feline fascination of the Egyptians by positioning many such animals and Bastet images (painted on their shields) in the front-lines at the Battle of Pelusium in circa 525 BC. The adorable critters ranging from cats, dogs to even sheep, dissuaded the animal-loving Egyptians from firing their arrows – thus allowing the Persians to take the initiative and win the battle.
Reverting to the fascinating discovery in question here, three out of the seven tombs were found to have cat mummies (along with gilded statues of feline entities). And one of the other four sarcophagi belonged to Khufu-Imhat, an ancient Egyptian overseer of the buildings in the royal palace.
Credit for all images: Khaled Desouki and Nariman El-Mofty/AFP