Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt

Why, Yes, I Do Own This!

Often the phrase “crazy cat lady” is a moniker uttered with a mix of derision and pity for a woman who is perceived to fill the emptiness in her life with a clowder of cats. I now dare these foolish mortals to stand before the lion-headed Egyptian Goddess of War, Sekhmet, who massacred mankind for their rebelliousness, only to be pacified by consuming barrels of red beer, which she mistook for the blood of the slaughtered. This imposing feline guardian would give any detractor reason to pause.

So, I say unto all Crazy Cat Ladies (like myself), Unite! The Carlos Museum has an exhibit for us! “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” is an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts that showcase the importance of the cat reflected in the deities they worshipped. This exhibit presents Sekhmet, Bastet, and others, as well as the cat’s role as a pet and a cultural icon in ancient Egypt.

A Purrfect Venue

The South Entrance

The south entrance to the Michael C. Carlos Museum is an elegant building that emerges from a calm woodland with an angled marble front styled in the Beaux-Arts look. Inside, replicas of ancient Roman and Greek sculptures patiently grace the walls. A bas-relief of female votaries hangs above a water fountain. An artistically lit replica of the Rosetta Stone dignifies yet another wall. This small, hidden collection was an engaging introduction to the larger exhibits kept on the higher floors.

Me At The South Entrance Under the Triangle

As I walked through the door into the gallery, I was inundated by the reverent and majestic air of the spirits of the venerable cats present. I am, after all, an animist. I feel that everything around us is imbued with a spirit, a soul, and to recognize that spirit is to show respect and gratitude. I took a moment to thank the feline spirits present for sharing their knowledge. And then, with the curiosity of a cat, I joyfully took a look around.

The walls of the space are painted a warm orange, which took away the trope of stuffiness that many museums have. The feeling of this color harkens to the warmth, comfort, and energy of sunshine. I instantly felt happy, and was fascinated by all the objects around me. It was all I could do to keep myself from wanting to touch and hold all the artifacts. Yes, it was very quiet, but only because it was a slow day at the museum. When I whispered to a guard if I could take pictures, he answered me in a jarringly normal tone of voice. No need for tomb-like silence here!

By the way, his answer was, “No pictures.” Keep that in mind as a visitor.

The Call of the Cat

Courtesy of NPR.org

The exhibit has a little more than 90 objects that range from tiny beads that richly adorned jewelry to huge granite statues and a large coffin. One statue, made from a kind of granite called granodiorite, was a bust of Sekhmet that was about three feet tall. The size and the blackness of the stone commands respect! This goddess could destroy you for mere insolence, or could protect you from the fiery rage of Set himself. Also impressive about this piece is the detailed carving of the lioness’ face, headdress, and clothing, which has held very well since 1352 B.C.E.

Another piece that caught my eye was a small bronze and wood carving so small that could be held in the palm of the hand. It was a sweet vignette of a mother cat nursing her kittens. The museum’s choice to place these divergent

Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum website

objects near one another was nothing short of simple genius. What better way to show the duality of a cat’s nature by showing both the hunter’s ferocity and the mother’s nurture?

Many other pieces in the exhibit do not fail to delight. A large wooden coffin encircled with faint, faded paintings belonged to a Princess Mayet, which, as it turns out, is literally translated as “kitty” in ancient Egyptian. In a nearby case, a fragment of limestone teaches an amusing language lesson–a hieroglyph depicting the front leg, shoulder, and head of a lion means “front,” while the hieroglyph showing the rear of a cat means “end.” And, of course, no ancient Egyptian exhibit would dare be amiss without a cat mummy, complete with both its simple wooden coffin and a decorated sarcophagus illustrated with the deceased cat and the goddesses Isis and Nephthys.

Happy Cats!

A Canine Surprise

Thankfully, the exhibit isn’t just for cat lovers. A third room holds The Dog Exhibit. This enchanting display has (I am guessing) about 25 objects. The star piece is the first one noticed upon entering the room. It is a handsome black statue about 14 inches tall of Anubis in immaculate condition. He stands, leaning forward with an arm extended and a palm held upward. He seduces the viewer, saying, “Don’t worry. Take my hand, and I’ll lead you through the treacherous underworld to your Afterlife.” Another object, which appears to be a small plate, portrays a family playing with their pet dog, showing the same bliss we have today for our own frisky pups. But, my personal dog-themed favorite was a simple wooden spoon, pocked with a few ancient bite-marks. What made it stand out was the handle shaped like a playful jackal! It made me giggle, reminding me of my own totem, the trickster Coyote. I’d give my eyeteeth for a replica of that spoon!

For those who love cats, dogs, ancient Egypt, and for those who can appreciate our love of animal companionship hasn’t changed in millennia, I cannot recommend this exhibit enough!

Don’t Forget the Bookstore With All Its Cool Mementos!

If You Plan To Visit

Tickets are purchased on the main (first) floor, which can be entered through the quad at the front of the building. All-day admission is $8.00 for adults and $6.00 for students. The Divine Felines exhibit is on the third floor, easily accessed by stairs or elevator. The exhibit will stand at the Michael C. Carlos Museum until November 11th. The museum is located on the Emory University campus at 571 S. Kilgo Circle, Atlanta, 30322. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10am–4pm; Saturday 10am–5pm; and Sunday noon–5pm. More information can be found at carlos.emory.edu.


All photos courtesy of Allyson Brooks, National Public Radio, and The Brooklyn Museum.