To debunk a myth; the ancient Egyptians did not worship cats (as actual deities). However, they believed domestic cats carried divine energy. The most widespread belief was that cats were the physical embodiment of the divine essence of Bastet, the cat-headed goddess.
The cult of Bastet took firmly hold from the second century BCE onward. Many mummified cats have been found at burial sites across Egypt, such as catacombs of Saqqara and Tell-Basta, the chief places of worship for the goddess. These mummies were intended as votive gifts to please the Goddess. It was big business, and not just for the priests, who maintained large “cat farms” on an industrial scale to steadily supply cat mummies.
Artisans made all kinds of charms and amulets depicting cats, which were worn by men and women to ward off pestilence and bring good luck during childbirth. Cat-shaped jewelry was a popular New Year’s gift, and it was believed that cat imagery would protect the home against other malicious influences. As such the domestic cat is to be understood as the counterpart of the big cat in a wild state, and the feral Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of goddess of war, destruction, and illness.
Ironically, Egyptian cats became soothers of sorrows for the second time after their death, centuries later, when their pulverized mummies (and those of humans too) were used as drug in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards. Until fairly late in the nineteenth century one could find jars with “Mumia vera Aegiptiaca” in apothecaries. Its supposed wholesome effects were based upon the medicinal properties of natural bitumen obtained from the Dead Sea and elsewhere.
The history of cat the in medicine, both as cause of illness and as healing force, is discussed by Donald W. Engels in his book ‘Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat’. According to Engels the common denominator in all recorded accounts is “the magico-sympathetic concept of nature”, by which he means a religious mentality similar to that with which we endow supposed magical powers to inanimate objects. But there is one big difference. The cat is not just an symbolic prop, an object designed to avert evil, but a real living entity. It moves us, as it stirs unknown forces in us. Don’t underestimate this.
· Donald W. Engels, Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat (1999, ed. 2000/08).