Few philosophical debates have endured throughout history. But the most important of these arguments, vital to our being, existing from the times of the ancients to the lifetimes of modern humankind, turning friends and families against each other, is this simple question:
Dogs or cats?
When we investigate the existence of this debate in ancient Egypt, we find a true head-to-head battle of the animals, a twist that may surprise anyone with ancient Egyptian knowledge.
Let’s start with the clear front runner: Cats. It’s generally accepted that cats were most likely domesticated around 2000 BC, and most of the cats we see today are descendents of these ancient felines. After about 500 years of domestication, the importance of cats reached a new level, and cats began to appear in tomb paintings depicting family life.
Cats played a variety of important roles in ancient Egyptian religion, the most famous cat goddesses being Bastet and the lion-headed Sekhmet.
Bastet was typically depicted having the body of a woman and the head of a domestic cat. She was known as a protector of women, children, households, and other cats. She was also the goddess of surprise, music, dance, pleasure, family, fertility, and birth. Most importantly, she was associated with the Eye of Ra, and acted within the sun god’s power. This direct connection to the almighty Ra gave Bastet a prominent presence in Egyptian religion. In 3200 BC, Bastet even had her own city (Budbastis), and was given a grand festival each October 31st in Budvastis and other cities, including Memphis.
Sekhmet is best referred to as Bastet’s evil twin. She is known as the goddess of war and pestilence, who is controlled by Ra (who, by the way, had to get her drunk to calm her down) and she becomes a great protector of humans. By having both a good and evil side in these two figures, the Egyptian religion is not only supporting the concept of duality that it is famous for, but also the subjugation of chaos; the most vital balance of the forces of nature.
One ancient Egyptian word described both wild and domesticated felines–‘miu’ or ‘mii’, which translates to “he or she who mews”. Creative, right? Curiously, there is little to no documented evidence of ancient cat names similar to those we use today. Two names that have been identified are ‘Nedjem’ and ‘Tai Miuwette’– the latter being the companion of the crown prince Thutmose, brother of Akhenaten. In a strange cultural twist, many Egyptian parents actually named their children after cats, using names like Mit/Miut for their daughters.
It is clear that felines were treasured by ancient Egyptians, even in the afterlife. Around 1000 BC cat cemeteries were formed, and, at one point, the penalty for killing a cat–even accidentally–was death. It was even illegal to export cats to neighboring countries, a law which sparked a thriving trade in smuggled cats! Court records confirm that armies were dispatched to bring these kidnapped kitties back to Egypt!
As might be expected, canines appear to be the literal underDOGS when it comes to the favorite pets of ancient Egyptians. Dogs do, however get one major point on the cats versus dogs scoreboard, since dogs were domesticated in ancient Egypt much earlier than cats. One ancient Egyptian word for dog is ‘iwiw’, an onomatopoeic reference to a dog’s bark. Surprisingly, dogs had numerous functions in society. They were trained for hunting purposes, used as police/guard dogs, in military actions, and also as household pets. In ancient Egyptian culture, dogs were among the ranks of the animal god-forms. Most commonly identified as a jackal, Anubis was a god of the underworld; a guide to the afterlife (much like another jackal deity called Wepwawet ‘The Opener of Ways’) and overseer of the mummification process.
It is possible that the jackal was chosen as the anamorphic figure for Anubis because of the attentive nature of the God to the spirit in the afterlife, much like a canine today is attentive to its owner. This could also explain the inclusion of hunting dogs in the tomb paintings of Rameses the Great, with the dogs being allowed to provide companionship for their master in life and the afterlife. In addition to appearing in relief paintings within tombs, domesticated dogs were buried and mummified, sometimes with their own coffin, and most often in the tombs of their owners. Some dogs were buried with great care in the temple of Anubis in Saqqara in order to help ease their passing in to the afterlife.
Even in Ancient Egypt, dogs were given collars inscribed with their names. Many of these collars survive today. From these collars, as well as from stelae and reliefs, historians have discovered that dogs were given names such as ‘Brave One’, ‘Reliable’, ‘Good Herdsman’, and even ‘Useless’. Other names seem to have been chosen based on the dog’s color and some were simply just a number. But it seems that many of the names for these dogs were selected to represent endearment, abilities, or capabilities.
Ultimately, it appears that ancient Egyptians were split down the middle regarding their preference for cats or dogs. In addition to their varied religious, domestic, and military significance, it is evident that both cats and dogs held enough of their ancient Egyptian families’ affection to receive intricate funerary rites.
So…sometimes dogs were truly an ancient Egyptian’s best friend…and sometimes “cats ruled and dogs drooled”…once again proving that the ancient Egyptians were real people…just like us.