Ostracon of a Cat Minding Geese
Ostracon of a cat, standing on its hind legs, acts as guide and protector to a flock of six ducks or geese, arranged in two registers, or sections. This ostracon shows a cheerful episode from an Egyptian folktale. In this tale the roles of the natural world are reversed.
Above the birds is a nest filled with eggs. The cat is equipped with a small bag of provisions suspended from the end of a long crook, which is carried over its shoulder. The sketch comes from a town known today as Deir el-Medina which was, in ancient times, the village of the tomb builders in Thebes. The comedic scene may illustrate a fable or may just be something fun an artist drew in his spare time.
Animals imitating human behavior were well-known in Egyptian art. Yet their meaning is uncertain. Ostraca are limestone fragments used as “notebooks” for private letters, laundry lists, reminders and purchases, and copies of literary texts. This in the photo is an example of the “illustrated” ostracon (ostraca singular), where images reign. Several scholars have speculated that these fragments can be interpreted as visual parodies of Egyptian hierarchical society. These images depict animals behaving like human beings, in a “reversed” world where everything is opposite to what happens in nature.
New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1550-1292 BC. Painted limestone, from Deir el-Medina, West Thebes. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 63801