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The Hunter’s Helpmeet? Comments on Nebamun’s cat. Cats and ancient Egypt – in the public imagination the two go together and, when we look at the available sources, there was certainly an evident relationship between felines and the ancient Egyptians – in society and in religion.

What types of evidence can we examine to understand this relationship?  In Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, we are very fortunate that a huge range of sources have survived to tell us about so many aspects of ancient Egyptian life – texts, works of art (including tombs paintings, statuary and jewellery) and biological remains.  In this brief article I shall describe and comment upon a particular tomb painting in relation to cats in ancient Egyptian society.

Currently on display in the Nebamun galleries in the British Museum is one of the world’s most famous depictions of a cat in an ancient Egyptian context (fig. 1). Emanating from a now lost tomb, the piece in question originally formed part of the wall decorations of the tomb owner – believed to be a man named Nebamun.  It is thought that Nebamun held the somewhat modest position of ‘scribe and counter of grain’ but he must have attained success for he was able to commission both a tomb-chapel for himself and these lovely wall paintings to decorate it;  the other extant paintings (also in the British Museum) include scenes depicting a garden pond, people partying and a bird count.  Fragments of other scenes are now in other museums such as Cairo and Berlin.  Whilst, as stated, we do not now know exactly where Nebamun’s tomb was situated it is thought to have been constructed in the Theban area (modern Luxor)  and probably dates to about 1350 BCE.

fig. 1. Nebamun in the marshes. © J. Filer

At first, when we look at this tomb painting, the relationship between Nebamun and the accompanying cat seems clear –  the tomb owner stands in his papyrus skiff attempting to bring down birds with a throwstick and, nearby, a cat holds birds in his claws and mouth.  Let’s examine this situation closer, perhaps all is not what it seems?

Firstly, it is clear that the scene does not, logically, represent real life, to whit: Nebamun is far too large to be standing in a relatively small boat and, as the boat is also carrying his wife (named Hatshepsut) and daughter, such a vessel could not possibly have supported the weight of all these people –  in real terms it would simply overbalance and possibly sink!  A comparison can be made with modern versions of these papyrus boats (fig. 2) – they are strong but within limits!  So what is happening here?  The depiction of individuals as proportionately over-large is an artistic device often employed by the ancient Egyptian artist to highlight the importance of certain people in a scene.  The fact that the scene seems illogical would not worry the ancient Egyptians – it is the message that is all important.  The message here is that Nebamun is the most important person depicted – it is his tomb and he has paid for the scenes to be painted.  We do not know whether or not he actually engaged in the sport of fowling in the marshlands – certainly many ancient Egyptians did  but, it is a popular and common image depicted in their tombs whether they engaged in the sport or not!  Further, we do not know whether or not the family accompanied father on such adventures!  Such images are symbolic of the tomb owner (and his family) having achieved their desired goal – being reborn in the afterlife.

fig. 2. modern papyrus skiff. © J. Filer

The second point about this tomb painting, and that most relevant to this article, is to consider the cat itself (fig. 3).  Here it is depicted in full hunting mode, clutching birds with the front and back claws and grasping a bird in its jaws.  Studies of depictions of cats in tombs (and in statuary) and of biological remains strongly indicate the species of cats most readily available in ancient Egyptian society: Felis lybica sylvestris and Felis chaus.  Occasionally, studies of cat mummies have also suggested the presence of the remains of the serval.  It seems clear that the two main species of cat entered Egyptian society by being attracted to the many rats and mice attacking stored grain.  The ancient Egyptians encouraged this behaviour, possibly by offering further food and shelter, and so a symbiotic relationship was formed – to the mutual benefit of both parties!  It now seems likely that Felis lybica was the main progenitor of the ancient Egyptian domesticted cat.  However, there is a conundrum here, in relation to this tomb painting  – this is related to the natural habitat of both species.

fig. 3. cat with birds (detail). © J. Filer

Felis sylvestris lybica, a smaller faced and relatively more ‘chunky’ type of cat, is often referred to as a sand cat in that it prefers to live in the drier areas of Egypt.  Felis chaus, the relatively bigger cat with a longer body and longer face, prefers a wetter habitat, the marshy areas of Egypt.  However, if we study the image of the cat in Nebamun’s fowling expedition it is clearly Felis sylvestris lybica which is represented thus, we have a sand-loving cat in a water environment!  There are a number of suggestions to account for this: that Nebamun had a sand-loving cat but took it with him on his hunting trips, or, perhaps, that the ancient Egyptian artist having been told to depict the tomb owner’s cat had never seen it and so depicted a type of cat he had seen – a sand-dwelling cat.

It was once suggested, by an eminent Egyptologist, that the cat was assisting his owner in retrieving fallen prey!  At this point, we might consider how ‘helpful’ cats can be in relation to humans? Do cats assist humans, as a dog might?  Many cat owners  will have their views on cat co-operation!

There is, of course another possibility that has not been considered – that the cat in question although being a sand-dweller had strayed further afield from it’s natural habitat  in the search for food and, upon espying Nebamun’s sporting activities, decided to purloin some of the catch!!!  This would be more in keeping with what we know of cat behaviour and may also indicate a humourous attitude from the ancient Egyptian artist in depicting such a scene, which he may have witnessed!!!!

To end this brief discussion, I must admit a slightly contradictory state of affairs to that I mention above in connection with ‘retrieving’  – in that, until recently, I had (I cannot say owned) a magnificent Abyssinian cat (fig. 4), a domestic cat of possible east African origins; it is sometimes postulated that  Abyssinians were one of the ancestors of modern domestic cats.  My Abyssinian actually retrieved (and returned to me) objects I had thrown for his amusement.

fig. 4. An Abyssinian cat. © J. Filer

However, I do not think I have destroyed here my own argument regarding cats lack of co-operation, as I believe my Abyssinian retrieved because he wanted to and not because he was assisting me – in any way whatsoever!!!

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