Tell me more.
These cat coffins added value to the mummified cats, that were wrapped in linen and placed inside. These animal mummies were seen as messengers to the gods. Some animals were associated with specific gods and when they died, were mummified, and buried, their souls would travel to the realm of the gods with the ability to convey a request on behalf of the living human. Cats like these were usually an offering to Bastet.
Adding elaborate wooden or bronze coffins, gold gilding, and decoration could make the god you were sending a message to, more inclined to grant your request.
What role did cats play in ancient Egypt?
Both domesticated and wild cats lived amongst the ancient Egyptians. Cats were associated with good night vision and with catching mice and snakes, traits that led to association with certain gods.
Cats were also associated with lions, and both animals were identified for their motherly instincts. For instance, the protective mother goddess Bastet was often depicted as a cat or with the head of a cat.
There were several lion-headed or lioness goddesses as well, including Wadjet, Mut, Shesemtet, Pakhet, and Tefnut.
Because of cats' mythological associations, cat fur, feces, and fat was used in medicine or in magic, while small cats were also used as symbols of fertility and sexuality. They had a lot of roles and associations in Ancient Egypt!
Were these coffins covered with plaster and then painted over that?
Yes! This particular coffin was carved with wood and then covered with gesso and painted.
What is gesso?
Gesso is a plaster-like, water based substance that is used to prepare surfaces for paint. After the sculpture was covered with gesso, the paint could be added over the top. There are other cat mummies and coffins in the exhibition that were decorated in slightly different ways, for instance with gold instead of pigment.
While the chemicals are probably slightly different, painters today still use gesso to prepare canvases and other surfaces for paintings!
What does the gesso do exactly?
It is white, so it creates an evenly colored surface to receive paint, adds a smooth surface that accepts pigment more reliably than whatever material is underneath,and it protects materials like wood and fabric so the work lasts longer. Generally gesso is made of some sort of chalk or gypsum and a binder (some sort of glue), and can be diluted with water.
If you've ever painted a wall, you might know you have to prime the wall with a white primer paint first. Gesso works very much the same way.
Were the cats sacrificed? Or did they just die?
Both. Most cats that were mummified to be offered to Bastet and other feline deities were sacrificed for the occasion. Some cats, especially family pets, would have been mummified after they died of some other cause.
What are the eyes made of and what is “gesso”?
The eyes may have been inlaid with glass or stone that is no longer present. Gesso is similar to plaster and is used to smooth out surfaces to paint on. In the case of this coffin, the whole wooden surface is covered in gesso and that is what is painted.
Were the cats dead prior to mummification or sacrificed for entrance into the afterlife?
The simple answer is, it depends. Many cats and other animals were sacrificed in order to send their souls to the afterlife. This likely represents a larger proportion of cat mummies.
There is also evidence that pet cats were mummified after having died of natural causes.