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Egyptian Cat Mummy, 1st century AD
British Museum, London
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Rosemary Hill

Mummy of an Egyptian cat
Museum number EA373348, Egyptian Galleries
British Museum, London

things 10
summer 1999
I have nothing against cats, but I think they are over-rated. They have been admired, painted, sculpted and worshipped for so long that they have become smug and conceited. It shows on their faces. They expect a lot and give very little back. I would never do a cat any harm, but I like seeing one discomforted. 

For that reason I am particularly fond of an exhibit in the Egyptian Galleries of the British Museum. It is the mummy of a cat that has just had 'that look' wiped off its face. 

We may picture the scene one fine morning in the Roman period, about 30BC at Abydos, beside the Nile. The landscape is nothing but three stripes: yellow, green, blue - desert, river bank, sky. A cat is strolling in the sun. It pauses to admire its shadow, crisp on the sand in the early light. How, it thinks, in profile, it reminds itself of Nefertiti - in her younger days - and how, couchant, it is like the Sphinx, only more elegant.

The eighteen dynasties have come and gone. Egypt's great glories are past but still, thinks the cat who, like all cats, prides itself on the unswerving self-interest it calls independence, there will be other civilisations. It can look forward to being painted in other styles, worshipped in other rituals; and possibly another age will discover a greater variety of cat food. 

As the sun rises higher, the cat continues to strike attitudes. Now it is being Akhenaten - most feline of the pharaohs - and is too enraptured by its silhouette to notice it is no longer alone. Behind it, in silent sandals, walks a young and enterprising acolyte of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death and mummification. The acolyte moves fast. He is carrying a net and a set of unusually small canopic jars. 

It is all over in a minute. Before the cat can do anything but purse its lips in outrage and open its eyes very wide indeed, it has been catapulted into the Afterlife; in which, after many adventures, it comes to London and takes up its identity as museum number EA373348 in the British Museum's collection. Now, as it anticipated, it enjoys the admiration of a later age - but at a price. For though it has entered upon eternity, it is doomed to spend it with its features fixed at that moment, the only one in 2,000 years, when its composure, briefly, slipped. 

things 10, summer 1999

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