The cheetah was a sacred cat to the Egyptians.
Cheetahs were known by our ancestors as “flying cats” because at a sprint they appeared to be soaring over the ground. Airborne over half the time, they could accelerate to 75 km/hr almost immediately and hit a top speed of 110 km/hr. Taller than a leopard, these predators used their tail as a rudder to make turns during a chase.
At the birth of the First Dynasty the Egyptians worshipped the feline goddess Mafdet, who was portrayed as a cheetah. Mafdet was known as “the runner” and represented swift death. The spotted colouring of this sacred killer represented the balance point between light and dark.
In temples like Deer el-Bahari in northern Africa, cheetahs were often depicted with collars and leashes which suggested a place within the household. To some extent cheetahs also displaced hunting dogs in ancient Egypt. Although not necessarily used to obtain food, they were used in coursing by royalty.
Despite their awesome hunting skills, cheetahs were never considered man-eaters and when reared from cubs they displayed strong protective instincts. Due to this trait, it was believed that guardian cheetahs carried away the spirits of the pharaohs when they died.
Above: beware Mafdet’s claw!
Cheetahs wear a “death mask” when they are stalking. This leaves their prey under no illusions about what’s coming. In essence, the cheetah becomes the embodiment of death. This frightening transformation was immortalised by our ancestors in humanity’s oldest monument: the Sphinx.
Indeed, a quick glance at the Sphinx below reminds us of the small, rounded head that the cheetah has relative to its body size. The front feet of this statue once resembled those of a cheetah with permanent, protruding claws. The ocean of sand surrounding the Sphinx reminds us that its enclosure was once filled with actual water: the lotus flowers within were symbols of eternal life.
Today the cheetah’s presence as the body of the Sphinx remains a secret. We have long forgotten that our evolution is tied to this flying killer with a sprinting stride of six metres. Those willing to honour Mafdet will find that the path of death leads to rebirth. With this in mind, we start to see why this powerful goddess was also referred to as the Lady of the House of Life.