A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to author Roby Sweet. Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Cats of Few Colors: Ancient Egyptian Felines Came in One Variety


The African wildcat (F.s. lybica).
By Donovan Reginald Rosevear
(The carnivores of West Africa).
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cats today come in many colors and patterns: black, white, gray, brown; solid, “tuxedo,” tortie, calico; classic tabby, spotted tabby, mackerel tabby. We modern felines are a varied bunch, but cats were not always so.

In ancient Egypt, where domestic cats originated, the cats had just one color and pattern. They looked an awful lot like their very near ancestor, the African (or Arabian or Near Eastern) wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica (or F. sylvestris libyca—the so-called experts not only cannot select just one name, they also cannot decide how to spell). Those wildcats had sandy-colored coats with a reddish line along the back and paler stripes on the sides. In other words, they were tabbyish. The tails had dark rings and a black tip with no tuft.

Fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun,
(detail) Theban necropolis.
Now in the British Museum.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The domesticated cousins looked much the same: sandy coat, stripe along the back, fainter stripes along the sides, and striped, black-tipped tail. We know this from the many depictions of cats in painted domestic scenes that had become common by about 1450 BC. One common theme in these tomb paintings is the “cat under the chair,” in which a cat sits under a woman’s chair. (She of Little Talent failed in her attempt to find a public domain image we could use to illustrate this. She is so sorry.)

Another theme is the “cat in the marshes,” in which a cat is pictured in an outdoor scene, often hunting birds. The example pictured is from the Tomb of Nebamun in the necropolis of Thebes, from sometime after 1450 BC. According to Jaromir Malek, the scene symbolically represents Nebamun and his family all together, including the family cat (p. 68). The cat appears to be having a grand time catching birds in the afterlife.

The domestic cat with the tabbyish libyca wildcat coloring was probably the type of cat introduced to Greece and then Italy. Different coat patterns began to emerge by about 500 BC in the eastern Mediterranean (Engels, 84–85).

[Information for this post came from Donald Engels’ book Classical Cats (London: Routledge, 1999) and Jaromir Malek’s The Cat in Ancient Egypt, revised edition (London: British Museum Press, 2006).

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