New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt

Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

These Amazing Jigsaw Puzzles Feature Artworks by Female Artists From Around the World

JIGGY
JIGGY

There are many different reasons why people might choose a traditional jigsaw puzzle over Candy Crush, Untitled Goose Game, or another smartphone-optimized activity. There’s a tactile satisfaction in the process of fitting the pieces together that you don’t necessarily get from the smooth surface of your phone, for one. It’s also something you can enjoy with a group.

For Kaylin Marcotte, it was a way to unwind at night after seemingly endless days working as theSkimm’s very first employee. Though the low-tech nature of jigsaw puzzling was part of the appeal, she didn’t see why the designs themselves needed to be quite so old-fashioned. So she decided to found her own puzzling company, JIGGY.

This week, JIGGY debuted its first collection, featuring artworks from emerging global female artists. If you’re thinking en vogue modern art sounds like just the thing to fill your blank wall space, Marcotte agrees: The puzzles come with puzzle glue and even a custom precision tool to help you apply it smoothly, so you can frame and hang your creation after completion. If you’re more of a puzzle repeater than a puzzle displayer, that’s fine, too—just pop the pieces back into their sustainable glass container until next time.

The contributing artists hail from all over the world, and each artwork embodies a distinctive style. “Bathing with Flowers” by Slovenia’s Alja Horvat depicts a lush tropical atmosphere, while “BerlinMagalog” by Diana Ejaita (based in Germany and Nigeria) combines bold contrasts with soft patterns to capture the complexity of feminine strength.

jiggy puzzle bathing with flowers
"Bathing with Flowers" by Alja Horvat.
JIGGY

JIGGY puzzle “BerlinMagalog” by Diana Ejaita
“BerlinMagalog” by Diana Ejaita.
JIGGY

In Australia-based Karen Lynch’s “Flamingo Playground,” a building-sized flamingo innocuously stalks across a picturesque, populated beach. And then there’s “The Astronaut” by Seattle’s Emma Repp, a whimsical, vibrant illustration of outer space that brilliantly contrasts the bleak and sometimes terrifying abyss we’re so used to seeing in movies like Gravity (2013) or First Man (2018).

JIGGY puzzle “Flamingo Playground,”
"Flamingo Playground" by Karen Lynch.
JIGGY

JIGGY puzzle “The Astronaut”
“The Astronaut” by Emma Repp.
JIGGY

The full collection comprises three 450-piece puzzles for $40 each, and three 800-piece puzzles for $48 each—you can find out more about the artists and shop for your favorite puzzle here.

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This Massachusetts Home Painted by Norman Rockwell Just Hit the Market

Wayne Tremblay
Wayne Tremblay

Norman Rockwell is considered one of the 20th century’s great American artists. Using his keen eye for capturing domestic America, his work—which often appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post—has become instantly recognizable, and his originals sell for millions.

If you can’t afford a Rockwell, perhaps you might be able to move into one of his inspirations. A home featured in his 1967 painting Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas has come up for sale in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

A home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts painted by Norman Rockwell is pictured
Wayne Tremblay

The three-story, 8770-square foot Victorian has an entry-level storefront, one depicted as an antiques shop in the painting and currently being occupied by a real estate office and gift shop. The second floor is spaced for residence, and a third floor can be rented out, as well.

The entire street has echoes of Rockwell. He once had a studio a few doors down. Every Christmas, the town tries to harken back to the painting by parking vintage cars along the road.

Listed by William Pitt Sotheby's International Reality, it can be yours for $1,795,000. The painting has not come up for sale—it resides in the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum—but if it did, you could expect to pay substantially more. Another Rockwell, Saving Grace, sold for a record $46 million in 2013.

[h/t Boston.com]

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