Ostracon of a Cat Waiting on a Mouse

In this ostracon, a cat funerary priest approaches a mouse with offerings. The mouse wears a lotus flower on its head, sits on a chair, sniffs a flower, and holds out a cup to be filled. The cat, standing on his hind legs, fans the mouse and offers a roasted duck and a piece of linen. Animals imitating human behavior were well-known in Egyptian art. Yet their meaning is uncertain.

People performing these actions in Egyptian art are usually at a banquet. A cat serving a mouse might represent a humorous satire or illustrate a now-lost story. 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.

Ostracon Showing a Cat Waiting on a Mouse
Ostracon Showing a Cat Waiting on a Mouse

Limestone ostracon with ink drawing of a standing tabby cat on the left offering a feather fan and plucked goose to a seated female mouse (right).

The mouse has drooping breasts, wears a long skirt and has a flower on her forehead. She holds a dish in her right hand, and holds a flower? and cloth (often held by kings) in her left hand.

The cat also holds a similar cloth. The mouse is seated on a folding stool with animal legs and covered with an animal hide with the tail hanging over the edge of the stool. It is similar to numerous folding stools in 18th Dynasty painting.

Traces of white paint are on the body of the mouse. It is possibly a caricature or illustration to a current fable or perhaps a satire of the royal family.

“Egyptian artists would be surprised that we consider their work art. Craftsmen toiled in anonymity [with rare exceptions], signed none of their works and attained no fame during their lifetimes.

Their society recognized no difference between fine art forms, such as painting and sculpting, and ‘lesser arts,’ such as pottery or cabinetry. Practitioners of any of these skills were regarded as simple workers on a level with, say, carpenters.”

Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians, by Bob Brier, Hoyt Hobbs

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, Ramesseide Period, 19th Dynasty to 20th Dynasty, ca. 1290-1070 BC. Limestone and ink. Now in the Brooklyn Museum. 37.51E