*Co-written with Luigi Prada; read his bio here.
On 20th April, either 202 or 178 BCE, an embalmer named Onnophris wrote to Machatas, an official (epistates) in the village of Tanis in the Fayum semi-oasis, concerning kittens he had donated to the cat-goddess Bastet (also known by her Greek name of Boubastis), or at least had intended to donate!
“Since some kittens were born in my house and their mother did not attend to them, I went to the temple of Bastet and asked the dancers [i.e., priests] to come and to carry them back to the temple of Bastet. After they did not arrive, but went elsewhere, it happened that the kittens, while they were being weaned by me with milk at home, were snatched by a tomcat and carried down out of the house into the street. I rushed down and called for help to those who were present and heard. Thus, we stood about and with difficulty removed one kitten, those who had joined to help including Phasis, the village scribe, to whom I gave an official testimony of all that had happened.” (Based on the translation by R. W. Daniel)
The tomcat killed some of the kittens – even though this is not explicitly stated (perhaps intentionally so, out of religious propriety regarding such an unholy happening), the loss of sacred animals is why Onnophris sounds so panicky in this petition.
Onnophris then collected the surviving kitten and took it to the temple of Bastet, handing it over to some of its priests – the same people who had neglected to collect the kittens from his house before the incident took place. To protect himself from future accusations that he acted improperly in this situation, he asked the village scribe Phasis – an eyewitness to the tomcat’s attack – to write down Onnophris’ account of events. Additionally, as an added level of protection, Onnophris also had this plea written:
“So that I am not later denounced in an unseemly way, certain persons having acted maliciously, I beg and request you that, having subscribed regarding each of these statements … [text lost].”
But why did Onnophris have to go to such lengths?
The reason lies in the importance that animal cults had in ancient Egypt, especially in the later phases of the country’s history, including the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Overall, animals could play a twofold role in Egyptian religion: some were actual divine animals, physical incarnations on earth of a deity; others, instead, were sacred only in that they were associated with a deity in a ritual fashion. The best example of a proper divine animal is the Apis bull worshipped in the ancient capital of Memphis: honoured even by Alexander the Great on the occasion of his Memphite visit, the Apis was reborn and had to be identified each generation into another bull – almost like a bovine counterpart to the Dalai Lama – and his cult thrived for centuries on end.
As for the other kind of animal cults, its premise lay in the fact that many deities of the Egyptian pantheon had animal associations. Their zoomorphic appearance, and their representation in Egyptian art as animals or as animal-headed humans, is what comes first to mind: think of the god Horus, with his falcon head, or of the aforementioned Bastet, often pictured as a cat, or a cat-headed woman. It is thus no surprise that Egyptian deities could also be worshipped by ritually dedicating animals to them. This applies both to living animals, as in the case of the kittens that Onnophris planned to present to the local temple of Bastet, but it was also true with dead (often, ritually euthanised) animals, whose mummified remains were dedicated in their thousands by pious visitors as ex-votos and buried in sometimes huge catacombs, which archaeologists are still exploring to this day.
Once dedicated, these animals were the sacred property of the relevant deity. It is thus understandable why Onnophris sounds so worried in his petition, fearing not so much the goddess’ punishment – as the kittens were killed through no direct fault of his – but rather legal problems. Indeed, the special status of sacred animals was sanctioned in a number of Egyptian texts: legal texts from this time discuss the abuse of sacred animals and the resulting penalties, and people are warned against hurting them in wisdom texts too, compositions that contained moral instructions as to how a rightful person ought to behave. Thus, the demotic papyrus P. Ashmolean Dem. 1984.77 verso, from approximately the 2nd century CE, says:
“Do not beat any (sacred) animals with a stick, stone, or any (piece of) wood. Be careful with regard to the animals which are sacred.” (Translation by R. Jasnow)
And even Herodotus, the Greek writer who visited Egypt in the mid-5th century BCE, makes the following remark, in Histories 2.65.5:
“Whoever kills one of these creatures intentionally is punished with death; if he kills accidentally, he pays whatever penalty the priests appoint. Whoever kills an ibis or a hawk, intentionally or not, must die for it.” (translationby A. D. Godley)
Indeed, the cult of animals was one of the aspects of ancient Egyptian religion that most struck the imagination of contemporary classical writers, for better or for worse. As an egregious example of the latter, the poet Juvenal, active in the late 1st and early 2nd century CE, thus began his Fifteenth Satire:
“Who knows not (…) what monsters demented Egypt worships? One district adores the crocodile, another venerates the ibis that gorges itself with snakes. In the place where (…) ancient hundred-gated Thebes lies in ruins, men worship the glittering golden image of the long-tailed ape. In one part cats are worshipped, in another a river fish, in another whole townships venerate a dog; none adore [the goddess] Diana, but it is an impious outrage to crunch leeks and onions with the teeth. What a holy race to have such divinities springing up in their gardens! No animal that grows wool may appear upon the dinner-table (…) but it is lawful to feed on the flesh of man!” (translation by G. G. Ramsey)
Perhaps as a poetic licence, Juvenal lets his imagination – and his invective against Egyptian cults – run amuck, ridiculing Egyptian beliefs to the point of even making up accusation of vegetable-worship and cannibalism!
In the context of millennia of history of Egyptian religion, the misadventure of Onnophris and of his kittens in the small village of Tanis is perhaps a minor incident – yet, it powerfully and colourfully conveys the worries, hopes, and beliefs of a whole civilisation.
Technical Details (Greek text)
Provenance: Near Tanis in the Fayum; Egypt
Date: 20th April 202 or 178 BCE
Collection: Cologne, Papyrus Collection (inv. 21358)
Designation: P.Köln XV 594 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Robert W. Daniel (2017), “594: Petition concerning Kittens” in P.Köln XV, pp. 1–11.
Technical Details (Demotic text)
Provenance: Thebes (probably), Egypt
Date: Late 2nd century – early 3rd century CE
Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (P. Ashm. 1984.77)
Designation: P. Ashmolean Dem. 1984.77 verso
Bibliography: RichardJasnow, “A Demotic Wisdom Papyrus in the Ashmolean Museum (P. Ashm. 1984.77 Verso)”, in Enchoria 18 (1991), pp. 43–54, pls. 9–11.