Why do they need so many cats in the Egyptian afterlife, anyway? Is it just filled to the brim with afterlife rats? It’s probably better if we don’t know the answer to that particular mystery.
One of the many interesting things about studying mythology and comparative religion is looking at the common traits of what would appear to be disparate cultures, particularly the major cultures that have helped to shape world history. The belief that one might bury the deceased with physical items and that these items would travel with the soul of the dead to the afterlife is a very widespread one, not just in terms of cultures around the globe, but also through time. The afterlife, for many millions and probably billions of people, throughout history has been both a reflection of the physical life lead by people belonging to a culture as well as a reflection of the spiritual desires of that group. While people in Ancient Greece and places as far away as China or Polynesia all possessed well developed ideas about the nature of a life after death, they had very different ideas about what that afterlife might be like. It’s hard to say which came first. Did a well developed narrative about life after death help shape growing civilizations or did growing civilizations’ ideals about this life shape the concept of an afterlife? Like many situations, it’s probably a little of both.
Take a look at ancient Greece. Here you’ve got a civilization with a profound sense of respect for life and almost a lust for living. Almost everything about ancient Greek culture is a study on life. Their heroes are extra heroic, their art and writing were intensely focused on living humans, even their gods and goddesses were larger than life versions of their living selves. Their god of death, however, was little more than a sketch, their afterlife, a dreary, messy affair. The ghost of Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld. Though they believed that goods could pass on with the dead, the most common grave goods were just two coins laid over the eyes of the deceased for their passage over the River Styx.
Meanwhile, another great civilization across the Mediterranean took things in a different direction. The ancient Egyptians produced amazing works of art, literature, and had just as well developed stories about their gods and goddesses as the Greeks but the most impressive reminders of their civilization tend to have one thing in common: a focus on the afterlife. The Egyptian afterlife was much like the one we experience every day, but just a little bit better. Appropriate offerings for the deceased were whatever you could afford to leave with them, everything buried with a body could be taken with them into the afterlife. The afterlife was, in many ways, more important than the current one. The Egyptians buried jewels, money, clothing, furniture, and sometimes even the living with the dead so that they might bring aid and comfort to the deceased in their new existence.
They even buried sacred animals, thought to possess ka like humans. Cats, especially, were a popular animal to sacrifice and mummify or to bury with the dead.
Judging by the amount of cat remains found buried in this way, it seems pretty likely that the Egyptian afterlife is probably not a good place to visit if you’ve got a cat allergy.
At the same time, it would probably be every crazy cat lady’s dream come true.