Where do cats come from and why do we love them?

The origin of domestic cats (Felis catus) can be traced back to wildcat ancestors. The process of domestication likely began thousands of years ago in various regions around the world. However, one of the most well-known and documented instances of cat domestication occurred in ancient Egypt.

Aug 14, 2023 - 22:00
Where do cats come from and why do we love them?
Image by Silvano / Pixabay

The domestic cat is believed to have originated from the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), which was native to the regions of North Africa and the Middle East. These wildcats inhabited areas where early human settlements were established, leading to interactions between humans and these animals.

In ancient Egypt, wildcats were attracted to human settlements due to the presence of food sources in the form of rodents. Over time, humans began to recognize the benefits of having these cats around to control pest populations. The mutual benefit of this relationship likely led to a process of gradual domestication. Cats that were more tolerant of human presence and exhibited behaviors conducive to living in proximity to people were favored and likely received better access to food and shelter.

The ancient Egyptians began to appreciate and revere cats for their pest-control abilities and their unique behaviors. Cats' mysterious and independent nature, as well as their hunting prowess, made them stand out as creatures worthy of respect. As a result, cats became a part of Egyptian households and society, and their presence was encouraged.

The Egyptian reverence for cats extended beyond mere practicality. Cats became associated with the goddess Bastet, as mentioned earlier, which added a religious dimension to their importance in Egyptian culture. This cultural and symbolic value contributed to the unique status of cats in ancient Egypt.

From Egypt, cats gradually spread to other parts of the world through trade and cultural exchanges. They became valued for their pest-control abilities in various regions and eventually took on different roles in different societies.

The domestication of cats likely began through a process of mutual benefit and gradual adaptation to living in close proximity to humans. Ancient Egypt played a significant role in this process, elevating cats to a revered status that contributed to their spread and integration into cultures around the world.


A divine status 

Ancient Egyptians held cats in high regard and considered them as symbols of divinity, rather than outright gods. Cats were revered for their characteristics and behaviors, which aligned with certain aspects of Egyptian religious and cultural beliefs.

Here are some reasons why ancient Egyptians held cats in such high esteem:

  1. Protectors against pests: Cats were highly effective in controlling rodent populations, which was crucial in preserving food supplies and preventing disease. Their role in protecting valuable resources contributed to their positive image.

  2. Goddess Bastet: One of the primary deities associated with cats was Bastet (also spelled Bast), who was often depicted as a lioness or a woman with the head of a lioness or domestic cat. Bastet was the goddess of home, fertility, childbirth, and protection. She was seen as a gentle and nurturing deity, and her association with cats made them symbolically important in homes.

  3. Symbolism: Cats were associated with qualities such as grace, agility, and keen senses. These characteristics were admired and emulated by the Egyptians. Cats' ability to see well in low light conditions also contributed to their mystique.

  4. Respect for life: The ancient Egyptians had a deep respect for all life forms. Cats' hunting prowess and the way they cared for their kittens were seen as manifestations of their divine qualities. This appreciation for life extended to animals, and cats' behavior was admired and respected.

  5. Religious significance: The ancient Egyptians practiced a polytheistic religion where various deities represented different aspects of life and nature. Cats, through their connection with Bastet, were seen as having a connection to the divine, and their presence was thought to bring blessings and protection.

  6. Cultural significance: Cats appeared in Egyptian art, literature, and mythology. They were featured in stories and poems that highlighted their positive qualities and the role they played in daily life.

However, while ancient Egyptians did hold cats in high esteem, they did not worship them in the same way they worshiped their major gods and goddesses. Cats were more symbols of certain qualities and aspects of life, and their association with deities like Bastet added to their significance in Egyptian culture.

Valérie Tellier EA Global Coordinator