Review: Role of cat in ancient Egypt is focus of Carlos Museum show

If internet cat videos and memes are any indication, people today are as obsessed with cats as the ancient Egyptians were.

Now in Atlanta after a stint at the Brooklyn Museum, “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” at the Michael C. Carlos Museum is a fascinating glimpse at just how crazy Egyptians were for the cats they mummified, commemorated in jewelry and furniture and saw as reflections of the divine on Earth; cats’ endurance, hunting skill and idiosyncratic personalities meant Egyptians saw them as reflecting certain godlike traits.

The Carlos has supplemented the original Brooklyn Museum show with items from its own permanent collection and curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art (and dog owner) Melinda Hartwig’s supplementary attention to Egyptian dog iconography. The thrilling takeaway from “Divine Felines” is how ancient Egypt was a world alive with animal totems for strength and divinity and protection from danger and misfortune.

Depictions of cats varied, from the ubiquitous house cat (first domesticated in Egypt) to majestic lions, some of which were kept as pets by wealthy Egyptians in what sounds like the affectation of a living-large music industry mogul. A common figure called “Bes” with a lion’s head and mane and a humanoid body was said to protect laboring mothers and babies, his effigy placed on the mother’s belly during labor or carved in bas relief on a fountain to serve both a functional and talismanic purpose. And, of course, one of the most famous Egyptian cats is the sphinx, which combines a regal lion’s body in recline in keeping with the majestic associations lions had for Egyptians.

Some of the cat images are as undeniably adorable as viral cat videos today. There are sweetly rendered mothers with kittens. A tiny metal weight used in commercial transactions featuring a cat is so finely detailed you can make out the cat’s rib cage and tiny pieces of jewelry.

As animals go, cats are a remarkably rich, anatomically interesting and expressive subject for artists. The craftsmen and artists of ancient Egypt often brought real gravitas, elegance and poignance to their work. “Statuette of a Cat” is a prime example, a small, delicate sculpture with a serene expression and paws gingerly placed in front which was given to actress Paulette Goddard by her husband Charlie Chaplin. It’s one of the treasures from the Carlos’ own collection included in “Divine Felines.”

Not to shortchange our other domesticated companions, a separate room extols the importance of dogs for the Egyptians, though their import was often more worldly than divine. Often roaming Egyptian cemeteries, dogs were considered guardians of the dead, though their real practice at burial sites, Hartwig notes, was slightly more macabre. One of the most intoxicating objects in “Divine Felines” may in fact be of a dog, an exceedingly lively wooden sculpture “Anubis as the Embalmer” (332-30 B.C.) hinged at its shoulders like a puppet. The piece depicts a dog roughly the size of a vase standing upright, mimicking the gestures of an Egyptian embalmer. The sculpture combines a Wes Anderson whimsy with a touch of the macabre, and it’s hard to resist its seductive visual appeal.

“Divine Felines” is a small (as the museum transforms a portion of its third-floor Near Eastern art galleries, leaving less real estate for this show) but potent show that will delight for both its surface and more substantive charms. While we haven’t quite elevated our own cats and dogs to the realm of the divine, as with the Egyptians, they have become our beloved and constant companions, valued above other animals in a distinct hierarchy of worth. Perhaps we have more in common, then, with the Egyptians than we imagined.


“Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt”

Through Nov. 11. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $8; students, senior citizens and children ages 6-17, $6; free for children ages 5 and younger, members and Emory students, faculty and staff with Emory ID. Michael C. Carlos Museum, 571 S. Kilgo Circle, Atlanta. 404-727-4282,

Bottom line: Gain remarkable insight into the daily lives and rituals of Egyptians through their surprising relationships to cats.

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