Skip to content

“Felines – fact and fiction in Ancient Egypt” Joyce Filer (EEG meeting talk)

Sunday was the October meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and our speaker this month was Joyce Filer. She used to be the Curator of Human and Animal Remains at the British Museum, and for one of her masters degrees her dissertation subject was cats in Egypt which is what she was talking to us about.

Her talk covered quite a lot of ground during the hour & a half she was speaking. Part of it was about the more modern representations of Egyptian cats – quite a few 19th Century oil paintings scattered through her slides, all with black cats in and the occasional tiger skin. One of her main themes was how this was actually a completely unrealistic depiction of what ancient Egyptian cats would have been like. She showed us pictures of a few species of wild cats that are prevalent in the area, most of them are sandy coloured with stripy markings. Which is a much better colour scheme if you’re trying to blend into the desert or marshes of Egypt. And if you look at cat mummies that have been unwrapped then the remaining fur is generally of that sort of colour. The solid black or solid white colour of more modern cats is actually an artefact of breeding. And she made a point that the perception of Egyptian cats as black is heavily influenced by the statues we’ve found – most of which are bronze and have corroded to a blackish/greenish colour. At the time they were made, they’d’ve been a brown colour much more like the cats themselves.

She also showed us a lot of depictions of cats in Egyptian art. These (as with all Egyptian art) are both representative & symbolic. There are scenes which show cats as part of the family – trustingly sitting near people, allowing their kittens near people. Wearing collars and jewellery (did they really wear earrings? Who knows, but they’re often shown with earrings). But the symbolic side of it comes from how the cats are often shown as sat beneath a woman’s chair – they are a symbol of fertility, associated with the feminine.

She didn’t just talk about domestic cats, she also talked about the bigger cats that are seen in Egyptian art. Leopard, cheetah and possibly serval skins are part of the regalia of high-ranking priests, and so are often shown in tomb paintings. Lions are obviously part of Egyptian symbolism – sphinxes with lion bodies, gods & goddesses with lion heads (like Sekhmet). And depicted being brought as presents to Pharaohs, or being hunted by Pharaohs. But not tigers, because tigers are native to India (which is probably why they show up in 19th Century artistic representations of ancient Egypt – they are painting the exotic lands they actually know, rather than thinking about what the reality would be).

As well as this she showed us some of the evidence from mummified cats. And made the point that these can show us what species were definitely mummified, but not rule out anything else being mummified because a large number of cat mummies were destroyed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for fertiliser or as fuel for steam trains! The mummies that remain do show some striking similarities – cats were generally either 4 to 5 months old or 9 to 12 months old. And most have had their necks wrung. She made the point that this suggests that cats were “farmed” for mummification, both to get the large numbers required and to get the right ages.

Joyce Filer is a good speaker, and this was a good talk – not only informative but also containing many entertaining anecdotes about her own cats, and her time working at the British Museum.