The History, People and Culture of the Nile Valley
Ancient Egypt Magazine
Volume 8 issue 2 October 2007
Per Mesut - for younger readers
A Mouse’s Tale
Everyone knows that the ancient Egyptians loved cats. A ginger-brown tabby cat is shown accompanying his master, Nebamun, in one of the best known of all tomb paintings, which will be back on display in the British Museum when the new galleries open.
Almost every Egyptian collection includes a cat statue, representing the goddess Bastet, or an intricately bandaged cat mummy. Prince Thutmose, son of Amenhotep III, provided a very special coffin so that his favourite cat could be buried with him. But what about the cat’s traditional rival, the mouse?
A drawing on papyrus, showing a mouse seated on a fine chair and being waited on by cats, one with a fan and one offering food.British Museum.Photo: RP.
Mice and rats are always a problem wherever grain is stored. Since grain was so important to the Egyptians (see Per Mesut in AE41), keeping these vermin under control was crucial to the success of the harvest. In a book written to encourage students to stick to their studies, the author compares the life of a scribe with other occupations.
He says, “Consider how the farmer suffers when the harvest is counted. Pests have taken half the grain. Mice abound in the fields and the sparrows steal. Woe to the farmer!” Cats must have played a big part in keeping the house free of mice. The author of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus composed a riddle similar to the rhyme “As I was going to St Ives” (see Per Mesut in AE33), which gives an idea of how much grain could be saved by having cats to catch the mice that would eat the corn.
The Egyptians used the names of animals as nicknames that were often kept well beyond childhood. A boy might be called Pamiu, ‘Tomcat’, and a girl would be Tamiu, ‘Pusscat’ or ‘Kitten’. The Egyptian word for mouse, penu, was also used as a childish nickname. The Egyptians had a sense of humour, which you can see from the sketches or doodles on scraps of limestone, called ostraca, or on papyrus. These pictures were rather like cartoons in which animals take the place of humans. Many of them show the traditional roles reversed, just like a Tom and Jerry cartoon where the mouse always gets the better of the cat.
Though none of these pictures has a caption, some Egyptologists think it possible that these cartoons were illustrations for well-known tales or fables that were passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, but were never written down (see Per Mesut in AE37). These might have been moralistic, allegorical stories like Aesop’s Fables, or they could have been children’s stories like Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.
Stories of wars between cats and mice appear in many cultures, especially in the Near East. Did they all, perhaps, originate from an ancient Egyptian humorous tale? Most of the ostraca showing cats and mice come from the New Kingdom period, and almost certainly from the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina. A more elaborate version of these pictures is on a papyrus, now in the Turin Egyptian Museum, which shows a complete battle scene. The King Mouse, in his chariot, leads his army of mice, armed with spears and bows, as they attack a fortress defended by cats.
The soldier mice climb scaling ladders to reach the top of the walls, and they are so ferocious that the cats beg for mercy. This was a warning about what happens when the balance of the universe, which the Egyptians called Maat, is upset. The papyrus picture is similar to the battle scenes that you can see on the walls of temples built by Rameses II, like Karnak, Luxor and Abu Simbel, where the King defends the rule of Maat by conquering Egypt’s enemies.
A cat, wearing a fine linen robe, is being offered a drink by one catattendant,whilst another adjusts her elaborate wig. A drawing on papyrus,now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo: RP.
But the other pictures could just as easily be seen as illustrations for a children’s story. One shows a cat nursemaid carrying a baby mouse in a shawl or sling. Another shows an elegant lady mouse having her hair done by a cat maid while other cat servants offer food and drink. I particularly like an ostracon from Stockholm, which shows a well-to-do mouse (or possibly a rat), who is juggling, dressed in a finely-pleated linen kilt. Mice are occasionally portrayed as officials ordering cats around and witnessing punishments. Perhaps these are the equivalent of political cartoons representing popular feelings about the ruling classes, the government and officialdom in general.
Cat and mouse images continued to appear throughout the Late Period. The most surprising is a relief carved in the Temple of Medamud, where a female mouse is enjoying a feast, served by cats, while being entertained by a crocodile playing a lute. This scene is much more formal than the quick sketches of the royal workmen or the doodles of a bored scribe. No one has yet explained why it was included in a temple where you would expect to see more conventional religious scenes. It is possible that it relates to a myth, or divine story, that was never recorded in written form.
Some years ago I found a modern Egyptian Mouse’s Tale in a bookshop in Luxor. It is called The Secret of Thutmouse III or Basil Beaudesert’s Revenge by Mansfield Kirby. Set in an American museum, it tells the story of how the museum mice get their own back on the curator’s snooty Siamese cat, Pa-Ti-Paw, by showing that ancient Egyptian cats did not always have things their own way. The story includes a lot of very interesting information about the making of fake antiquities, but what I like best about it is the illustrations by Mance Post. They show the usual order of things being upset: winners become losers and the weak triumph over the strong. The artists of Deir el- Medina would understand.
If you want to see some of the cat and mouse pictures, you can find some of them in The Cat in Ancient Egypt by Jaromir Malek, and in Patrick Houlihan’s The Animal World of the Pharaohs.
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