Whatever the real reason for the war, the Battle of Pelusium is noteworthy for being an excellent example of psychological warfare in ancient times—housecats figured prominently in the Persians’ victory. Yep, domesticated felines were on the front lines of battle.
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In 525 BC, Cambyses II (son of the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great) successfully conquered Egypt and annexed it into the Persian Empire. Though Egypt was an obvious target for an invasion as it posed a threat to Persian control of Palestine and Syria, the widely accepted story for the reason Cambyses decided to invade goes like this: Cambyses asked for the Egyptian ruler’s daughter, saying he would make her his wife. Pharaoh Ahmose was sure his daughter would be reduced to the status of concubine. To spare her from such humiliation, Ahmose sent an imposter in his daughter’s place. When the imposter revealed the truth about Ahmose’s deception, Cambyses was infuriated and decided to attack.
So how did cats become involved? Bastet originated as the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt. Long before the Battle of Pelusium, she had evolved from a lioness warrior deity into a major protector deity represented as a cat. She is the Egyptian goddess of the home, fire, sunrise, music, dance, pleasure as well as sexuality, fertility, family, pregnant women and children. Her priests mummified cats when they died. Bastet’s gentle side was displayed in her duties as a protector of the home and pregnant women. Her aggressive and vicious nature was celebrated in her abilities as a huntress and an eliminator of vermin. Bastet is depicted either as a woman with the head of a domesticated cat, a lioness, or as a desert sand-cat.
Cambyses knew how the Egyptians felt about cats and used that knowledge to his advantage. He had his troops paint images of cats on their shields and place various animals sacred to the Egyptians such as cats, dogs, ibises, and sheep in his front lines. The punishment for killing a cat in Egypt was death, so the Egyptian army stopped fighting and were routed, allowing Pelusium to fall to Cambyses. “It is said that Cambyses, after the battle, hurled cats into the faces of the defeated Egyptians in scorn that they would surrender their country and their freedom fearing for the safety of common animals.”
If not for the Egyptians’ love of Bastet, the battle might not have been won by the Persians. For the science-fiction minded, there are probably a few parallel universes where housecats have taken over the earth and humans are their willing slaves. In our reality, the cats are conquering us one household at a time.
How do you feel about cats? Love ’em? Worship them like the ancient Egyptians? Enjoy their funny videos on Facebook but avoid them in person? Leave a comment!