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Work Divine standard

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Objects from everyday life

Divine standard

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
Objects from everyday life

Author(s):
Bridonneau Catherine

This bronze, topped with a sculpture in the round representing a mother cat and three lively kittens, was the upper part of a divine standard. The cat was first welcomed into Egyptian homes because of its hunting skills, but soon became a household pet. It was also associated with various deities, including the goddess Bast; from the Third Intermediate Period, it became the subject of many offerings to the goddess in the form of bronze statuettes which were placed in her temple.

A domestic scene: mother and babies

This object used to be attached to an ivory shaft; the small hole into which the shaft was slotted is still visible at the back, above the fold that accentuates the base. The hollow, cylindrical lower part opens out to form an umbel at the top, where a scene depicting a mother cat and her kittens is mounted on a semi-circular base. The part that resembles a capital is adorned on both sides with a plant motif in slight relief: a palmette at the front and a partly open umbel at the back. The mother cat is lying on her left side, upper torso erect. She is leaning toward one of her kittens, her head turned slightly to the right. The cat's body follows the curve of the base; the legs define three areas for the kittens. The first kitten is depicted squatting on its haunches, one paw on its mother's nose and the other on her breast; the second is lying down, either suckling or kneading its mother's belly to make the milk flow; the third is lying down, too, and playing with her tail. The Egyptians observed their environment closely and portrayed the attitudes and behavior of their household cats with a certain realism.

The Egyptians and their cats: an exchange of friendly services

The Ancient Egyptian word for cat was "mau", an onomatopoeia for mewing. The ancestor of the modern alley cat was of Libyan origin ("felis silvestris libyca"). The oldest traces of its presence in Egypt date back to around 4000 BC; cat bones were discovered in a predynastic human tomb at Mostagedda near Asyut. Egyptian society was chiefly agricultural, producing large quantities of grain which were stored in the villages near houses or temples. This food had to be preserved at all costs, but unfortunately attracted rodents and insects; the Egyptians were therefore quick to appreciate the hunting skills of the cat, which also caught snakes and scorpions. It was thus readily accepted into the company of humans, then domesticated around 2000 BC. Scenes showing cats on hunting expeditions in the marshes did not appear in tombs until the Middle Kingdom. During the New Kingdom, cats were often depicted sitting under the chair of the mistress of the house.

Animal or god?

The cat was more than a household pet; it was also associated with various deities. In male cat form, the god Re fought the enemies that threatened to keep the sun from rising. The she-cat was associated with several goddesses, especially (from the twenty-second dynasty onward) with Bast, the tamer form of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet and the patroness of motherhood, home, and family; the statuettes of mother cat and kittens are perfect illustrations of this role. The many little metal sculptures found next to feline mummies in the cat cemeteries or in the temples of the goddess, including the one at Bubastis, portray Bast as a cat-headed human or in animal form, with or without her kittens.

Technical description

  • Divine standard

    Late Period, 664-332 BC

  • Sculpture, cast iron, cuprous metal, bronze

    H. 11.2 cm; W. 6.8 cm

  • Purchase, 1868

    E 5586

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Cattle breeding, hunting and fishing
    Room 5

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