Egypt and its cats

Exquisitely crafted figures of birds and animals, which were held sacred in ancient Egypt, can be found in its animal art

May your spirit live
May you spend millions of years
You who love Thebes
Sitting with your face to the north wind
Your eyes beholding happiness
O night, spread thy wings over me as the imperishable stars

These are the kind of words — some 3500 years old — that one associates with the most glamorous among Egypt’s all-powerful rulers, the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, on whose ‘wishing cup’ these were once inscribed: reflecting grandeur and majesty, an engagement with layers of deep time, the anticipation of nothing but joy in the other world. Now that another exhibition of the great art of Egypt, and once again focussing upon the golden period of ‘King Tut’ — as he came to be affectionately called when a blockbuster show featuring him and his treasures travelled some 40 years ago in the western world — is beginning its tour of the US, the same thoughts return.

The mere mention of Egypt sends grandiose images rushing through everyone’s mind: the great pyramids of the land, time-defying mummies, mystifying hieroglyphs, vivid sculptures, monumental rock-cut temples. But, as if to balance these, one can also move into a smaller, more intimate world, the scale of which the mind is able to comprehend and manage: that of household gods of ancient Egypt and of little things that were viewed with such warmth in that amazing civilisation.

Flying Falcon Egypt; 30th Dynasty, 4th century BC. Multicoloured faience
Flying Falcon Egypt; 30th Dynasty, 4th century BC. Multicoloured faience; and (above) Cat; Egypt; Ptolemy period; 4th century BC. Bronze. Both objects are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"Falcons, Cats and Crocodiles": this is the title of a recently put-together exhibition of Egyptian art that leads us precisely into that smaller, more intimate world. And it happened to be about to open at the Rietberg, that celebrated and wonderfully friendly museum in Zurich, just as I was preparing to leave the city.

Museums are notoriously, but justly, reluctant to let any outsider in while a show is being readied, but I was not exactly an outsider and then Andrea Kuprecht, old friend and senior executive at the museum, had ways to smuggle me into the galleries. I suddenly found myself in the midst of a flurry of activity in there: some objects were already in place, on pedestals or inside vitrines; others were being readied for display. A number of people — two women curators from Egypt, one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, designers, installers, carpenters, lighting experts — were dedicatedly chipping away at the tasks in hand. But, stepping over crates and avoiding cables, I was still able to get a close look at a number of objects. And once I was there, it was not easy to tear myself away from them.

For here, in an astonishing range of materials and techniques, and of scales, was an exquisitely crafted group of animals and birds, which across centuries, had a very special place in the lives, and the hearts, of the people. Some were decorative, others object of entertainment, but most of them sacred. For, in ancient Egypt, as in many other cultures, there was very little that did not revolve around religion and religious ideas.

There was clearly no single, unified system of religious belief in early Egypt, and one thinks of a wide and unsystematic collection of beliefs and practices, which varied by location and social class, the practices of the poor being often quite different from those of the ruling class.

But, everywhere, statues were objects in which deities could descend and manifest themselves, while representations of the dead ensured their survival in the next world. Images of protective deities found in houses, on furniture and jewellery and utensils, or made into amulets, created a powerful shield against the evil forces that one was surrounded by. At almost all levels of understanding, figures of birds and animals were integrated with the world of the sacred.

When a great Pharaoh like Khafra, builder of the second pyramid at Giza, is represented in stone, on the simplest level, the statue is a portrait of a powerful individual, but it is also made up of symbols in which the animal world plays a prominent part. If his head and neck are physically embraced by the wings of a falcon, there is meaning in the image, for the bird is the protective god, Horus, who was also the divine counterpart of the mortal ruler. Horus apart, a host of other deities were depicted in the form of animals and birds: the goddess Sekhmet took the form of a lioness, at once warlike and unpredictable; the god Thoth could be shown both as an ibis and a baboon; others could be seen as half-human and half-animal. And so on.

The most intriguing of animal representations, however, — for some truly majestic renderings of it have survived — is that of the cat, for in Egypt, over time, the animal came to acquire the elevated status of a deity in the form of the goddess Bastet, who presided over fertility and child-rearing, and came to be associated with the Eye of Ra, acting within the great sun god’s power.

The story of the slow but sure transformation — or identification — of cat and deity has been told several times, for it is filled with charm. It all started, close to 2000 BC, with the domestication of the wild cat (felis silvesteris in zoological terms) whom the early Egyptians saw as a benefactor. In the villages, the greatest dangers to households were poisonous snakes, rats and mice, which attacked food supplies in the home and village granaries. The wild cat, it is assumed, strayed into the villages and hunted down the vermin, keeping them at bay, leading to the practice of grateful Egyptians leaving out scraps of food for the cats. It is not difficult to imagine that soon the felines found their way into Egyptian homes, spending some time there, allowing themselves to be tamed and raising their kittens in a human environment. Over a period of time, they became many things: playful and intelligent and affectionate pets, but also protectors.

And when they were raised to the status of deities, with a popular cult growing around them, it is they — as has been wittily said — who domesticated the Egyptians.

To go back to the exhibition at the Rietberg, or to Egyptian animal art, in general. There are magnificent things in it, but there is a sculpted image of a cat, cast in bronze, which almost surpasses all others, considering the remarkably commanding presence it has.

Someone once sat down and compiled a list of all that one can see in a cat: "guardianship, detachment, sensuality, stealth, desire, liberty, pleasure, magic, lust, pride, vanity". They seem to be all there in this object, these traits.