No Kitten: Cats Rule at the Carlos

Divine Felines exhibit on view until November

Meowseum: Ancient Egyptians' fancy for felines is showcased in a current exhibit at Emory's Michael C. Carlos Museum.
Stephen Nowland

Reacting to their current celebrity at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, the cats of ancient Egypt might be moved to yawn.

For us humans, Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt, which runs through November 11, is cause for excitement. Drawn from the collections of the Carlos and Brooklyn Museums, the show features more than ninety objects and ties together the modern and ancient worlds through love of the animals.

For thousands of years, felines held a place of honor in Egyptian life, both as pets and mythic symbols of deities. Cats were first domesticated in the Egyptian Predynastic or Early Dynastic periods (circa 4400–2675 BCE). One way they came to prominence was their value as hunters, especially given the preponderance of grainaries in Egyptian culture and the need to keep mice, snakes, and other vermin from the food supply.

Beyond their usefulness, they were welcomed as pets. A number of pieces in the exhibition show cats wearing earrings, the equivalent of today’s collar—a sign of care for the animal. Devoted and well-to-do owners occasionally mummified and buried their cats in their own sarcophagi. Some of those were simple rectangular boxes while others reflect singular artistry—for instance, catshaped containers decorated with gold and glass eye inlays.

One piece is the coffin of Princess Mayet, the wife of King Nebhepetre Mentuhotep. Her name literally means “kitty,” and the cat hieroglyph is clearly visible on her coffin.

Among the large articles is a statue of Sakhmet, daughter of Ra, the sun god. A leonine goddess, her name means “power or might,” and 365 statues of her were created either sitting or standing.

Dogs nosed their way into the exhibition too, as the Egyptians saw them as protective, utilizing them on hunts and as guards, shepherds, and police assistants.

The collection “gives us a window into ancient Egyptian culture, to what they loved and valued,” says Melinda Hartwig, curator of Egyptian, Nubian, and Ancient Near Eastern Art. “They loved their animals as much as we did, but in a more complicated way. We don’t see ours as gods.”

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