The cheetah was a sacred cat to the Egyptians.

Cheetahs were known by our ancestors as “winged cats” because at a sprint they appeared to be flying 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 sharp turns during a chase.

At the birth of the First Dynasty the Egyptians started worshipping 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. The Egyptians also believed that cheetahs could carry away the spirits of the pharaohs when they died.

Above: an execution is announced. Not where you want to be.

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, cheetah’s were never considered man-eaters.

The grandest depiction of this royal cat can be found in the Sphinx and a quick glance at this monument in profile will confirm the small, rounded head that the cheetah has relative to its body size. The front feet of the Sphinx also resemble those of a cheetah with permanent, protruding claws. We are also reminded that Mafdet was the sister of Nut because this cat spent so much of its time in the air.

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. Indeed, it is the path of death that leads to rebirth.

Click here to explore why Mafdet was also referred to as Lady of the House of Life.