BROOKLYN, N.Y. — It is the cat’s meow at the Brooklyn Museum, where the exhibition “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” is on view as a long-term installation in the Egyptian Galleries. For thousands of years, cats, both wild and domestic, have been celebrated for their alternately playful, fierce, sleek, sly and nurturing qualities.
“Divine Felines” explores the role of feline creatures, from cats to majestic lions and panthers, in Egyptian culture over the centuries. As far back as the predynastic period in Egypt, the lion, the king of the jungle, was a popular image; by the Pharaonic period, around 3200 BC, lions had become scarce — and venerated — as the lush landscape of earlier eras was overtaken by desert conditions and the animals moved south. Felines were revered at home and in the temple for their duality: the aggressive qualities that made them ferocious hunters at the same time they were nurturing protectors of their young. Cats, first domesticated in Egypt, were prized as protectors of the home and granary from vermin, an essential defense in an agrarian society.
Yekaterina Barbash, associate curator of Egyptian art at the Brooklyn Museum, who organized “Divine Felines,” points out that the Egyptians did not worship felines per se. Rather, they related the cat’s paradoxical nature to the characteristics of specific divinities. The Egyptians appreciated that duality, the balance of positive and negative aspects. It is those divine feline qualities and that harmonious balance that are the subject of “Divine Felines.”
Each object on view relates to a deity. Protective female deities were most often represented as felines, idealized for their fertility and maternal qualities, and at the same time for their ferocity. Lions were revered as symbols of the pharaoh or gods. Goddesses were tasked with guarding the sun god Re, while male lions protected palaces and temples. Lazy-natured felines are creatures of the sun when they bask in its warmth, which was thought to be the cause of their red or yellow fur, yet rise to ferociousness at the threat of harm. Deities are often paired off in male and female sets that are firm and fluid at the same time.
Early on, the most powerful goddesses took on the appearance of a lioness or a lion-headed woman. Each was known as the daughter of the sun god Re and the “Eye of the Sun.” As fierce aggressors, they exemplify the might and wrath of the sun god. The balance between male and female shifted in later centuries.
For example, Re sent his daughter Sakhmet in lion form to destroy rebellious humanity. When Re changed his mind, she could not be stopped; however, Sakhmet was induced to drink red beer, and in her drunken state she was transformed into the peaceful cat Bastet and ultimately spared mankind. A striding Sakhmet, about 664–332 BC, is portrayed in bronze with a lion head and a male mane but a female body with a sun disk and a rearing cobra on her head. She carries a papyrus scepter that signifies regeneration and rebirth.
The carved syenite face of a lion on view typifies carvings of the goddess Sakhmet made to appease her. It differs, however, because its drilled eyes were once inlaid with gemstones or glass and may represent an animal.
The god Bes was a protector of households, mothers and children; in short, the defender of all that was good and the enemy of all that was bad. Bes later came to symbolize pleasures: music, dance and sexual delight. Bes is depicted as a squatty, bandy legged, leering grotesque with a lolling tongue and leonine ears and tail.
The goddess Bastet, wife to Bes, was also a benevolent and protective feline deity who appears as a cat-headed woman who carries a basket and a sistrum — a rattlelike musical instrument used in rituals.
Among the objects on view that relate to Bes and Bastet is a bronze of Bes playing a lute and standing on the head of Bastet, signifying his protective nature — the melody would have driven away potential harm. A wooden spoon with the face of Bas carved on the bowl dates from about 1539–1292 BC.
A gold amulet in the form of Bes is from the New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amenhotep III–Tutankhamun, circa 1390–1322 BC. It would have been worn by a woman to protect her and her infant during and after childbirth and on the occasion of other life events.
On a limestone stela with Bes and Tutu, the two gods stand on either side of a table. Bes holds a sword and Tutu, the god of fate with power over demons, is seen as a sphinx with a snake tail, with the seven demons he controlled arrayed above him.
The base of a bronze of Bastet as a cat on a lotus column shows the goddess surrounded by a cat with kittens. The kittens speak to Bastet’s benevolent aspects while her pointed ears signify vigilance and her ability to protect the young. It is inscribed with a request that Bastet grant life.
A standing bronze figure of Bastet, possibly a Ptolemaic period work, shows the goddess with a cat head and holding the god Nefertem and an aegis, a leonine head with a collar, denoting protection. Her right hand once held a sistrum.
The powerful goddess Sakhmet, whose name means “The Powerful One,” appears most often as a lion-headed woman with a sun disc — signifying the blazing heat of day — and a rearing cobra on her head and she, too, was fierce. She was a daughter of Re, one of his Eyes of the Sun, and was also the patron of healers, balancing the terror she inspired with her curative powers. She was the wife of Ptah.
A bronze figure of a seated lion-headed Wadjet, usually seen as a rearing cobra, refers to her as the patron of all Egypt; as a daughter of the sun god, she was also the protector of the pharaoh, of Horus and women in childbirth. The figure dates from 664–332 BC.
The sphinx, a lion’s body with a human head, denotes power and protection. A bronze sphinx of King Sheshenq on view is dated to about 945–718 BC. It is inscribed to the king, but it is not clear which of the five pharaohs called Sheshenq is depicted. Whoever he is, he is decidedly regal and he exhibits the duality of divine felines. Recumbent sphinxes appear relaxed and confident of their power. The example on view would have offered protection as a personal temple offering or a cult object. Larger examples would have guarded a temple entrance.
A bronze striding sphinx on view from about the same time presents an image of protective aggression. His lion’s tail and extended legs identify him as Tutu; falcon wings on his flank indicate his ability to fly and two cobras at his sides demonstrate his power against evil. This figure was likely attached to a sacred boat used in temple ritual that was meant to protect along with the divine statue within.
The gilded wood Leonine Goddess, with plaster, linen and bronze, is publicly displayed for the first time, having recently undergone conservation so as to allow inclusion in this exhibition. The lion head, uraeus and the remains of a sun disk identify the goddess as one of the daughters of the sun god. The goddess, dated to 770–412 BC, is displayed in a crouching position on a papyrus-shaped base, and originally contained a cat mummy, probably an offering to a feline goddess.
The nearly 30 objects displayed are drawn from the Brooklyn Museum’s world-class Egyptian collection, much of which was gathered by Charles Edwin Wilbour, a Nineteenth Century journalist and the first American Egyptologist. Wilbour, born in Rhode Island and educated for several years at Brown, headed to New York where he wrote for The New-York Tribune; he also owned a very successful paper manufacturing firm. He spent the last 25 years of his life living in Paris, spending winters on his dahabiyeh that he kept on the Nile and embarking on lengthy expeditions on which he collected papyri, ornaments, ostraca, scarabs and documents.
His children donated his collection and his library to the Brooklyn Museum in his honor in 1916, and his son Victor’s 1932 bequest established the Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund to expand the already extensive Egyptian collections. In 1948, a large bequest from Wilbour’s daughter Theodora resulted in wider gathering, as did the museum’s 1948 acquisition of the New-York Historical Society’s collections of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities into the Wilbour collection. Wilbour funds helped support several important excavations.
“Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum at 200 Eastern Parkway. The museum is closed Tuesdays. For information, www.brooklynmuseum.org or 718-638-5000.