The name of the show that features images of cats (and dogs) from ancient Egypt is a bit misleading. Although ancient Egyptians often put the heads of animals on top of their deities, there was no cat god or goddess in their pantheon. Small cats, similar to the ones who live with us, were part of their households and were valued both for protection against snakes and rodents and for their companionship. Lions were more rare and lived on the periphery of Egyptian civilization. Hunting lions was a pharaoh’s prerogative and lions were often incorporated into royal imagery like the sphinx with the head of a pharaoh and the body of a lion.
The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, one of Atlanta’s crown jewels and home of the largest collection of Egyptian art in the Southeast, has joined forces with the Brooklyn Museum, also noted for its collection of Egyptian art, to bring together a collection of artifacts that show the importance of cats in the ancient Egyptian world. “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” closes on Nov. 11, and it is definitely worth your time.
Small images of cats were both decorative and religious. Cats were offered as sacrifices to the gods in the belief that the spirit of the cat would take a message to the deity. On display in the exhibit are both mummified cats and cat caskets.
Feline features were also attributed to a number of deities. One of the most prominent was Sekhmet, who is often carved with the head of a lioness. Sekhmet was a ferocious deity who led pharaoh into a battle. After the battle was won there were ceremonies to Sekhmet to soothe her so that the violence of conflict would subside.
The god Tutu, Master of Demons, was often depicted with a lion’s body. He was a popular household god who protected the home from the forces of evil. The god Bes, a dwarf with leonine features, protected women and children and was also venerated at home altars. All of these divinities are represented in the exhibit.
And lest canine enthusiasts feel left out, there is a room devoted to the dog in ancient Egypt. Dogs were also seen as protectors and valued for their companionship. The most famous Egyptian deity with the head of a dog/jackal is Anubis, who was responsible for mummification and safe guarding tombs. Dogs are often found buried with their human masters and were celebrated and mourned.
The exhibit at the Carlos contains statues, carving and jewelry that demonstrate the feline and canine imagery employed by the ancient Egyptians. The museum has a very fine collection of ancient Egyptian art including large statues and mummies. The Carlos houses collections of Pre-Colombian art, art from the ancient Middle East, Greece, Rome and Asia as well as more contemporary tribal art from Africa. Taking in the permanent collection along with the special exhibit could take a few hours or a whole morning or afternoon.
For more information on the exhibit, visit www.carlos.emory.edu.