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Still, the curators have taken pains to erase some popular misconceptions. The ancient Egyptians did not worship entire species — not even their splendid cats, whose mummies, well represented in the exhibition, sometimes appear in casings bearing traces of their original gilding.
“These weren’t your run-of-the-mill New York City cat that would sleep by the window,” said Dr. Anthony Fischetti, a staff doctor and the head of diagnostic imaging and radiology at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, who helped identify the mummified remains. “Ancient cats tended to have a longer nose and greater length to their skull.”
Nor did the Egyptians believe that their gods actually took animal, or half-animal, form, Dr. Barbash said. Art depicting the deities as creatures is more metaphorical, illustrating qualities they were thought to have.
Because, for instance, jackals and wild dogs roamed near desert burial grounds, “they were seen as protectors of the deceased,” Dr. Barbash said. Their keen senses also led them to be represented as Anubis, the deity who guides the dead into the underworld. (Appropriately, a grand painted wooden Anubis, from the first millennium B.C., stands sentinel at the entrance to “Soulful Creatures.”)
Although such animals enjoyed spiritual equality with humans, ancient Egyptians still ate meat and put domestic beasts to work. Most animal mummies buried with people, like those of ducks and geese, were intended as food for the departed; a smaller number were royal pets. Those interred separately, however, had religious significance, and no creature was considered too small: The show, running through Jan. 21, includes mummified scarab beetles, associated with creation mythology, and even tiny shrews.
“Shrews are actually capable of killing snakes,” Dr. Bleiberg said, “and because snakes threatened the sun god, Re, any animal that killed snakes was seen as a protector.”
The ancient Egyptians also regarded certain individual animals, especially cattle with specific markings, as incarnations of particular gods. After death, these were mummified and buried with great pomp. Egyptologists have interpreted the more ordinary animal mummies, however, as divine offerings, gifts of gratitude. But because all creatures were believed to have souls that could merge with the deities’ souls after death, Dr. Bleiberg proposes a different view: The mummies were pleas for help rather than thank yous.
“We think that if you had a particular request,” he said, “you would arrange with the priests to have an animal mummy made of the proper type to approach the god you wanted to approach.” Inscriptions and ancient letters in animal tombs, asking for favors ranging from good health to revenge, bolster his theory. Dr. Bleiberg asserts that this mummification became an industry, with temples devoted to the animals’ breeding, nurturing and ultimate sacrifice. Wealthy customers could afford bronze mummy fittings and elaborate coffins like some of those in the show.
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Analyses of the cases’ interiors, however, sometimes astonished the curators. “We could really compare different mummies,” said Tina March, an associate conservator who worked on the exhibition with Dr. Fischetti and Lisa Bruno, the museum’s chief conservator.
She pointed to a mummified ibis, a bird associated with Thoth, god of magic and wisdom. While the mummy has a human shape and a detailed wooden bird’s head attached, a CT scan reveals “just a bundle of feathers” inside. Other scans show partial remains or two mummies in a single case; one cat mummy contains only sand and pebbles. The curators don’t know if these versions were created for less affluent customers or indicated that Egyptian priests weren’t always honest with their clientele.
Other mummies, though, offer glorious secrets. One of the most impressive in “Soulful Creatures” is a huge cat, probably wild, with an elegantly painted cartonnage, or plaster case, circa 750-390 B.C. The case is inscribed with a title that translates as “Osiris — the Cat,” linking the animal’s soul with Osiris, the powerful god ruling the afterlife.
But what really struck the curators showed up on a scan: “The front paws are crossed as a human mummy’s hands would have been placed,” Dr. Barbash said. “This animal was really embalmed very much like the humans.”
No one knows, however, if the animal’s position was a matter of reverence or convenience. Like so much of ancient Egypt, this cat retains its mystery.