As the loving owner of two cats, one a lithe hunter of flies, the other fat and cheerfully idle, I have a keen appreciation for the species’ tangle of temperaments. The ancient Egyptians understood their contrarian nature, absorbing cats into religious belief and therefore into art. Anyone who has lived with these unfathomable beasts and wondered at their sense of entitlement, their capacity for spite, and their ability to bestow serenity and warmth, can understand why a culture would imbue them with celestial faculties. To the Egyptians, they signified domesticity, fertility, tenderness and protection, but also aggressive, even sadistic power.
The Brooklyn Museum’s Divine Felines, with its assortment of whiskered deities plucked from the permanent collection, is a sort of Old Pharaoh’s Book of Practical Cats. A lion naps, a leopard stretches, and various cat-headed humanoids compete to preside over the rest of the holy clowder (look it up). The whole exhibition could practically fit into the boot of a car; instead, curator Yekaterina Barbash has arranged the statuettes in a small red-walled gallery like gems in a velvet-lined casket. It’s a pocket show, packed with history and the intricacies of a complex faith.
To penetrate this sanctum, you have to pass a ravishingly carved wooden Abyssinian that sits at attention and stares right past you, as cats will. Its outsized ears are tuned to the silent scurry of an eternal mouse. When it came to people, Egyptian artists hewed to strict guidelines of pose and proportion, a canon that yielded rows of figures frozen in cadaverous immobility. But animals, lower in the hierarchy of living things, were rendered with endearing realism, even when they stood in for gods. This particular majestic guard has an utterly specific look, as if the sculptor had studied his household pet at leisure. Its face is blank, its body alert, the muscles seeming to twitch beneath the sleek pelt.
Ancient Egyptians didn’t worship cats; rather they endowed mutable deities with feline features. Powerful goddesses such as Mut, Sakhmet, Bastet, Tefnut, Shesemtet, Pakhet, Mafdet and Wadjet all took feline form. In a bronze dated 664-332 BC, a figure with the face of a female lion and a thick male mane strides forward fearlessly, her head haloed by a sun disc and decorated with a rearing cobra. It is Sakhmet, daughter of the sun god Re, whom he appoints as his vengeful enforcer. According to one myth, an angry Re delegated his daughter to destroy mankind. She turned herself into the predator of the savannah and though he changed his mind, she persevered, undeterred by the counter-order. It was only when she was tricked into drinking beer instead of blood that she finally abandoned her errand of mercilessness. Drunk, she was a pussycat.
Bastet, a more maternal goddess, assumes the form of a domestic shorthair. In one small bronze, she reclines on her left haunch, nursing a guzzling brood, and gazing indulgently at a kitten that clamours for special treatment. At the base of the statuette, an inscription pleads with Bastet to grant life.
Cats have always beguiled their watchers with their combination of ungraspable strangeness and almost human qualities. In his journal, James Boswell records a 1764 conversation he had with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw cats as emblems of individual liberty and people as their oppressors. “There you have the despotic nature of men. They do not like cats because the cat is free and will never consent to becoming a slave. He will do nothing to your order.”
Ancient Egyptians saw that untamable independence as awesome and mercurial, and they associated it not with free men but with female goddesses. Simpler and more predictable male deities generally appeared as hybrid beasts, their cat-ness only glancingly alluded to. The god Bes, a big-bellied dwarf with a cartoon lion’s fat face, might look like a little monster, but he was a beneficent paternal figure, promising comfort and protection. He healed the sick, guided women through childbirth and guarded their offspring past infancy. He obligingly grew people’s fortunes and looked after them in the Netherworld. A merry creature, he sang and danced his way into the hearts of Egyptians. They strung amulets of his grotesque little body around their necks and venerated it in their homes.
Of all the deities in the show, he’s the most recognisable, constantly bouncing on bowed legs, his mouth coiled into a grimace worthy of Uriah Heep. He always looks the same, whether perched on a finial, carved in relief, cast in gold, or forged in bronze. I have a hard time warming to Bes, and not just because he’s homely. He just doesn’t seem very cat-like in appearance or attitude. Instead of blending loyalty with aloofness, as the other deities do, he is as ingratiating and indiscriminate as . . . well, as a dog.
Until December 2014, www.brooklynmuseum.org