Miss Cuddlywumps introduces the Egyptian sun god Ra, who, as a cat, killed a snake-demon every night
In ancient Egypt, cats were valued for their ability to kill creatures that were potentially dangerous to humans. I am referring here to rodents, scorpions, and snakes. And when an Egyptian god took on the form of a cat, he could kill a demon creature far more dangerous than the flesh-and-blood serpent it resembled. This cat was required to kill a snake that could stop the sun from rising.
Facsimile painting by Charles K. Wilkinson
of scene in Ramesside tomb at Deir el-Medina
(c. 1295–1213 BC).
The sun god Ra was the creator of all life and the strongest of the Egyptian gods. As the story goes, Ra journeyed across the sky each day, and each evening, as Atum-Ra, he slipped beneath the horizon and entered the underworld. There, in the guise of the “Great Tomcat” or Mau, Atum-Ra confronted the evil snake-demon Apophis, who was darkness and chaos. The god had to kill his enemy so he himself could return to the world in the morning as the shining sun.
Jon Bodsworth (photographer).
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The confrontation between Atum-Ra and Apophis is seen in Egyptian tomb paintings and in the Book of the Dead. Most depictions show the god as a cat, using a knife to cut off the serpent’s head. Sometimes the cat is shown simultaneously crushing Apophis’ head with one paw while decapitating him with a knife held in the other paw.
As Jaromir Malek wrote, “These are no pussycats but strong and powerful animals” (p. 84). He speculated that these cats were based not on domestic cats but on wild servals.
wall painting in tomb of Inherkha, Thebes (c. 1160 BC).
Uploaded by Eisnel at en.wikipedia.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The feline creature depicted in the Theban tomb of Inherkha (c. 1160 BC) is especially wild- and fierce-looking. It has a large, muscular body, long ears, and a long tongue. No housecat ever looked quite like that! It could be, as Malek said, that this is an imaginary catlike creature, designed by the artist to be more fearsome and powerful than any existing cat.
Engels, Donald. Classical Cats. London: Routledge, 1999.
Malek, Jaromir. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. Revised ed. London: British Museum Press, 2006.