The Mau - Descendant Of The Sacred Cats Of Egypt
Egyptian Mau with Egyptian cat statue
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
Among the countless breeds of cats, no other but the Mau can claim direct descent from the divine felines of the Nile Valley. ‘O cats of Egypt my illustrious sires’, would be the poetic words of the Egyptian Mau if it could only speak.
Well should this breed of cat, introduced into North America in the early 1950s, be proud of its heritage for in the mist of history its ancestors were worshipped as gods. In the annals of humankind, never was another breed of feline to enjoy such a stature among the animals of the world as the forefathers of the Mau once reached in ancient Egypt. In that era of history, cats attained the zenith of their adoration, savouring their finest hour.
It is believed that cats were first domesticated in that historic land about 3,000 B.C., long after the taming of the dog that some historians say was made some 50,000 years ago. The earliest known records of the domesticated African wildcat were duplicated on early Egyptian tomb murals. Historians believe that the Nile Valley farmers first tamed the feline to protect their granaries from mice and rats.
In the ensuing centuries, the aristocracy adopted cats as honoured guests and trained them to retrieve the quarry of hunters. They were, like their children, highly cared for, pampered and protected. Figures found in tombs often show them bedecked with gold ear-rings and amulet necklaces. Fine Egyptian ladies, as a sign of beauty, lined their eyes to resemble those of their cats. They were associated with entertainment and despite their lack of vocal abilities, they were somehow identified with music and a musical instrument called a seshesh was fashioned in their shape. Felines became a symbol of fertility and happiness, many believing them to be the gift of the gods.
Egyptian cat statue
However, it was in religion that the cat attained its greatest glory. It became the recipient of veneration and worship. The priests made it an object for deification and elevated it to become the chief among Egypt’s sacred animals. In The Book of the Dead, a collection of hymns and religious texts, there is a vignette of a spotted tabby cat, symbolizing the sun, slaying the serpent, Apep, which represented darkness.
The goddess of moonlight and fertility with a human body and a cat’s head was known as Bast or Bastet, and sometimes as Pasht, and was linked to the great sun-god, Ra. The male feline was often presented as Ra himself. This supreme Egyptian deity was also referred to as the `Great Cat’ and, at other times, called ‘Mau’, the Egyptian name for cat which is the sound `mew’ – the cat’s voice
Temples all over the country were built in Bast’s honour and she became one of the major figures in the Egyptian pantheon. It is thought that the word ‘puss’ is likely a corruption of Bast and not, as commonly believed, the sound of the cat’s hiss. In addition, the important city of Bubastis (its ruins today known as Tel Basta) was named for this goddess and dedicated to her worship. In the subsequent centuries, the town became the country’s principal cemetery where cats were buried.
Practically every household in ancient Egypt owned a cat and when it died every member of the family went into mourning. In the same manner as for humans, elaborate burial ceremonies were carried out. The felines of the aristocrats were embalmed, swathed in linen and placed in beautifully painted coffins. According to the Greek traveller and historian, Herodotus, when a cat died, men shaved their eyebrows as a sign of mourning and anyone who injured a cat was drastically punished – to kill one was to court the death penalty.
Egyptian mummified cats
Cats that served in temples were accorded the most sumptuous funerals. The magnificence of these temple ceremonies were described by Herodotus when he visited Bubastis in 450 B.C. They were, some say, even more magnificent than those accorded the nobles of the land.
In the 19th century, vast graveyards with over 300,000 m mummified cats were dug up in the ruins of this once famous religious centre. Most were pulverized and sold as manure, wiping out a legacy of great value. The few that escaped found their way to the museums of Europe. Nevertheless, the worship of cats was so widespread that many other burials places were found and, today, some of these embalmed felines are exhibited in museums around the world.
For hundreds of years when the ancient Egyptians banned the export of cats and government agents were sent to the neighbouring lands to gather and return the cats that had been smuggled out of the country. Nevertheless, in spite of this tight control, Phoenician traders and, later Greek and Roman merchants carried them to all the known parts of the world. From these early Egyptian felines, it is said, all the countless breeds of cats in the world have evolved – most of them hardly resembling the original cats of the Nile Valley.
Only the Egyptian Maus, found in North America, can still directly trace their forebears to the time of the Pharaohs. They all began from a pair of cats, called Gepa and Ludol, which were brought in 1953 into the U.S.A from Egypt by way of the Lebanese Embassy in Rome. From these original imports, breeders have developed a pure line of the Mau in North America. It took 15 years from the time of Gepa and Ludol for the svelte Mau to be given official recognition as a championship class. Unlike many other feline species, today’s Egyptian Mau is a natural spotted breed, rather than a deliberate creation by modern-day breeders.
In the United Kingdom a similar type bearing the same name was established by the selective mating of Siamese and Havana Browns. Hence, it was much different than the later bred North American Egyptian Mau. When the Western Hemisphere’s Mau was developed, to avoid confusion with the American breed, its name in Great Britain was changed to `Oriental Spotted Tabby’.
Similar in body type to the Abyssinian breed, the Egyptian Mau is a very elegant and loving cat which carries most of the traits of its ancestors. Ancient Egyptian depictions of cats generally indicate colour and coat pattern similar to the present-day breed. Even the figure of the sacred beetle of ancient Egypt, marks the forehead of many present-day Maus. Carrying the markings of a spotted tabby, it displays the haughty air of its forefathers.
A quiet, well-balanced and large animal with a somewhat wild look, the Mau is an interesting short hair breed of domestic cat. It is a hardy, medium-sized feline with a thick-silky and fine textured coat, spotted like that of a leopard. They come in three basic colours: light bronze with varying shades of brown; pale clear silver with charcoal irregular markings; and smoke with jet black variable markings on grey with a silver undercoat.
The females are considerably smaller than the muscular males. Both have long graceful bodies positioned high on the legs with the back ones longer than the small and dainty-oval front. The ears, resting atop broad heads with long nuzzles, are large, pointed, tufted and alert. Their eyes are coloured amber, green or yellow.
Maus make excellent parents, caring and playing with their kittens. They are quiet with a melodious voice and dog-like in their love and devotion to their human masters. Somewhat aloof from strangers, they make very good family pets. Refined through thousands of years as house animals, there is no doubt that the Egyptian Maus, carrying the most illustrious pedigree of any cat breed, have a bright future.
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