Thanksgiving’s closest parallel in Israel’s year is the Festival of Sukkot, or Booths/Tabernacles, one of the three great Jerusalem pilgrimage festivals. Because of Israel’s lunar calendar, Sukkot, like Passover, falls on different days and even different months each year in our solar calendar, but generally it comes in mid-October.
In the story of Yeshua’s Cat, Sukkot is the time Yeshua and his disciples spend at Bethany, when Lazarus attacks Mari, and Mary of Magdala is healed.
Sukkot has its roots in Israel’s celebration of the harvest, when they gathered in the fruit of their labors from the fields and vineyards, and celebrated the beginning of the rainy season.
Throughout the week, four species of plants were ceremonially waved (citron fruit, the closed frond of a date palm, and leafy boughs of the myrtle and willow trees) in recognition of the green trees of the land. Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates represented their harvested crops. Above all, the week was a time of rejoicing, and of remembering God’s care for Israel during the years of her wandering in the wilderness and living in tents, or booths.
Before the first and holiest day of Sukkot, which came five days after Yom Kippur, each family built a small booth, where they lived together during the festival.
On the day itself, sacrifices of animals and grain began and continued throughout the week. The Illumination of the Temple came at the end of the first day, when four seventy-five-foot candelabras were lit in the Women’s Court of the Temple to remind the people of the pillar of fire that had guided them in the wilderness. Dancing and rejoicing continued through that night, and the whole city was lit by the brilliance of the lamps.
The Pouring of the Water was observed each morning when a priest drew water from the pool of Siloam and poured it on the great altar, as both prayer and thanks for the coming of the rains. Each evening the devout men of Israel gathered at the pool to dance and rejoice with music and torches.
Not only did Sukkot celebrate the gathering in of the crops before the heavy rains and the memory of Israel’s wilderness journey, but also the beginning of the New Year, when the past year’s mistakes had been wiped away, and all the world was new.
What are Egyptian Mau cats? I guess there are a good many people out there who know as little about the Mau as I did before I did a little digging, so I’ll offer a brief history (apart from the fact that these are the cats from whom Mari is descended).
“Mau” is the Middle Egyptian word miw for “cat,” or “one who mews” (coming into use somewhere in the period from 2000 – 1300 BCE)–a great example of onomatopoeia in human language development. At the left is the hieroglyph “miw,” according to Alan Henderson Gardiner’s sign list. The Egyptian Mau appears in numerous papyri, tomb paintings, and carvings from about 2000 BCE onward, including the sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose’s cat (right). Thutmose was Akhenaten’s elder brother, who died before ascending the throne.
Most scholars agree that the Mau is descended from the African wildcat common to north Africa (felis sylvestris lybica) and the Egyptian jungle cat (felis chaus nilotica). But these wildcats as we know them are not spotted like the Egyptian Mau. It’s hard to say when the early Egyptian Mau replaced its body stripes with spots. As late as 1350 BCE, the Tomb of Nebamun depicted a striped tabby cat helping Nebamun hunt birds. But we do know from the evidence of thousands of cat mummies that today’s spotted Mau were common before the Common Era.
Somewhere around 1500 BCE the sun god Ra took on the characteristics of a spotted male cat and, according to the myths of the time, journeyed to the underworld every night, where he killed the snake demon Apophis, who nightly tried to prevent the sun’s rising.
Bast was a cat/lion goddess who served as protector and defender of the Pharaoh and later of the sun god Ra in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE. She was eventually eclipsed by the goddess Sekhmet, also a warlike lion goddess. The changes in Bast’s significance, title, and even name were complex and confusing, all morphing as dynasties changed and regional beliefs merged over time. Near the beginning of the first millennium BCE she became known as Bastet, and was identified almost solely with the Egyptian domestic cat. She retained her protective role, influenced by the domestic cat’s skill in dealing with cobras and rodents, and also became associated with fertility and motherhood. Bubastis , or Pe-Bast, was established as the temple center of the cat goddess’s worship early in the 1st millenium BCE. The temple was famous for its beauty, although its significance declined after the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 BCE. Worship of Bastet was finally outlawed in 390 CE, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
During its most active years, the temple at Bubastis was renowned throughout the ancient world for the ecstatic revelry of its festivals, it oracle, and its innumerable domestic cats and cat mummies, many buried with grave goods for the afterlife (milk, mice, and other edibles). In fact, the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 30:17) mentions the city of Bubastis, and by implication its temple to Bastet with its famous revels, when he makes his prophecies concerning the downfall of Egypt.
The reverence Egyptians felt for their cats is well documented. While cats themselves were not considered divine, they were sacred to the deities who adopted their appearance, and thus were due scrupulous respect and honor.
According to Herodotus (5th C BCE), families grieving for dead cats shaved their eyebrows as an expression of their grief. More curious is his description of the behavior of cats around fires. “When a fire occurs,” he said “the cats seem to be divinely possessed; for while the Egyptians stand at intervals and look after the cats, not taking any care to extinguish the fire, the cats slipping through or leaping over the men, jump into the fire; and when this happens, great mourning comes upon the Egyptians.” Perhaps Herodius was confused; surely cats can’t have changed that much in two thousand years.
Herodius’ account of a battle between Persians and Egyptians near Pelusium may be more accurate. According to Herodotus, the Persians had captured numerous cats before the battle and released them as battle was joined. Rather than risk harming the cats, the Egyptians surrendered. From their point of view, this was probably wise: unless you happened to be a servant of the goddess in the temple of Bastet, killing a cat was a crime punishable by death, not to mention whatever punishment the gods might inflict in the afterlife. Diodorus (1st C. BCE) describes a mob slaying a Roman soldier who accidentally killed a cat, in spite of the pharaoh’s pleas for mercy.
Sadly, in many of Egypt’s cities today, cats are considered pests, and are often abused, neglected and even slaughtered. The recent turmoil in Egypt has only aggravated their situation, adding many abandoned pets to the feral population, and killing uncounted animals in the streets. The Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA) continues to fight an uphill battle for their protection.
For the most part, Egypt’s cats have retained their distinctive appearance through the centuries. Many are identical to the cats of ancient history–and to the breed standards of the Egyptian Mau among cat fanciers. After all, “Egyptian Mau” literally means “Egyptian Cat.” DNA studies of cat mummies show very little difference between the ancient and modern Mau. Cats like the one above could easily be Ptolemaic statues come to life. Modern breeders have even traveled to Egypt to acquire likely cats to expand the genetic pool of the pedigreed Mau.
For an excellent all around presentation of the breed known today as Egyptian Mau, take a look at http://www.isiska.co.uk/ , the website of Isiska Egyptian Maus.
“If the Savior considered her worthy, who are you to reject her?” from The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, trans. Karen L. King
I guess quite a few church leaders over 2 millennia—including Peter, if Mary’s gospel is to be believed—felt comfortable doing just that. Both the Gospel of Mary of Magdala and Mary herself were very nearly buried for two thousand years. Of course she’s practically a cultural icon today, what with her rediscovered gospel, the Da Vinci Code, and even her own opera. If you haven’t kept up with all the brouhaha surrounding her contemporary rehabilitation, try the Smithsonian’s excellent overview, “Who Was Mary Magdalene?” online at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/.
It’s curious that although the gospels’ cast of characters reads like the credits for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (blink and you’ll miss the women) church fathers still conflated most of the few women mentioned into a composite Mary Magdalene. References to Mary Magdalene’s character in the original texts described her only as previously demon-possessed and a follower of Jesus, helping with his support.
As a result of the pronouncements of such men as Pope Gregory the Great, the two most important women in church tradition became the ever-virgin Mary and the Magdalene montage: a woman taken in adultery, demon possessed, and repenting of great sexual sins. In other words, the virgin and the whore: one of the most common and destructive stereotypes ever devised of women. I should mention that this conflation only happened in the Western, or Roman, church. What is now the Eastern Orthodox Church preserved the older, more balanced view of Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles, and companion of Mary the mother of Jesus.
Who was Mary Magdalene really?
I’m staying out of the debate. It’s not my area, and Karen L. King is doing a commendable job of defending my general point of view. But I will say that the now-outdated descriptions of her as a woman with a profligate past should have been buried long before now.
Two major traditions developed around the question of how Mary Magdalene lived her life after the resurrection. According to one, she lived with Mary the mother of Jesus and John in Ephesus, where she eventually died and was buried. According to the other, she went with Lazarus to France, preaching and later living as a penitent hermit wearing only her own hair, and died and was buried there. This latter legend was by far the more popular in Western art, and is the inspiration for Mary Magdalene’s frequent portrayal with long hair and meditating on a skull—as well as the term “maudlin,” derived from “Magdalene” and referring to her constant weeping for her sins.
The evolving legends of Mary Magdalene wove themselves into a fascinating and bizarre bit of history. Among the more macabre elements were the acrimonious claims to what appear to be multiple sets of her earthly remains. Much of the bickering died down after the French Revolution, when many sites claiming to possess her relics were destroyed. Today, in addition to her possible burial places, relics reputed to be hers are still preserved, including a gold-encased skull, a piece of her tibia, a tooth, part of an arm, and a bit of a foot, to name only a few. And that doesn’t begin to account for the second and third class relics.
In case this is alien territory for you, I’ll explain. There are three classes of relics in the Roman Catholic Church: 1st class relics, items relating to Jesus (robe, cross, etc.) or actual bits of saints’ bodies; 2nd class relics, including items used or worn by saints; and 3rd class relics, items that have touched 1st or 2nd class relics. It’s a fascinating subject, spilling into Paul Koudounaris’ amazing newbook, Heavenly Bodies, which documents the discovery of the jeweled skeletons of the “catacomb saints.”
Mary of Magdala is the most important character in Yeshua’s Cat after Yeshua and Mari. And I’ll give you clue: she isn’t a prostitute or a penitent there. But she has always fascinated me in all her incarnations, as you can see below in my digital mosaic, which expresses my own grief over the church’s demonization of Mary.
I’d like to say that Mari emerged fully grown from my brow, like Athena from the brow of Zeus, but it didn’t happen that way. She grew slowly as I wrote, born from the personality of the small black cat under the fir tree in the photo, maturing and growing as the book grew, and I with it. She was the author of the book as much as I.
While I was writing Yeshua’s Cat, I was also lending a hand with my sister-in-law Wendy’s Ragdoll cattery. So not only did I have my three rescue cats dancing in and out of my thoughts and over my computer keys, but I also entertained rolling tides of soft-furred queens, kings, princes and princesses, rising and tumbling over the threshold of my room with the rhythms of the day. (They’re gorgeous, by the way: Treasure Mountain Ragdolls).
And then there was Chami, the elegant Bengal queen who moved in with me for several weeks while she was between homes. Beautiful and sweet-tempered though she was, she left me feeling as if living with her was a bit like inviting a panther into my bed. I slept lightly in her presence. I suppose the movie Cat Woman deserves mention as well, disappointing as it was. It did send me googling off for more data on the Egyptian Mau. Before seeing the movie, I knew little more than rumors of the breed. Afterwards I was curious enough to want to discover how much of the movie’s hype had been based in fact.
What conclusions I drew about the relationships between the movie and the Mau I no longer remember, but I did stumble onto one amazing thing: the Egyptian Mau cats in the photos looked like the Mari in my mind. I had finished the book by the time I made this discovery, but that made no difference to the identification. Mari was darker than most Egyptian Mau, more like a black or smoke Mau, but her build, her markings, and her face were all theirs–not to mention her affectionate nature, her devotion to her human, her protectiveness, and her hunting skills. So her breed was established, at least in my mind.
Since Yeshua discovered Mari on the edges of the barren desert surrounding the Dead Sea, I decided that her feline family might have arrived in the area by way of the Nabataean caravans traveling up from Sinai. Or perhaps they were wandering strays from one of the Nabataean cities to the south, or even escapees from a passing camel train. The Nabataeans had originally been tent-dwelling desert shepherds and traders, a mysterious group related to the Bedouin who amassed great wealth over several centuries from their trading networks, and eventually settled down in desert cities. Rock-cut Petra is their most famous settlement, although they also built cities further west and south along the ancient spice routes.
As far as research can tell us, people of 1st C Israel did not keep pets–even dogs–although there was some limited cooperation between the two species. Perhaps the absence of pets was due to Israel’s concern for ritual purity, particularly relating to the ritual uncleanness of scavengers and predators. In any case, their attitude toward animals seemed largely functional. The prophet Ezekiel singled out Bubastis, city of the temple of the cat goddess Bastet, as one of the cities upon which God would pour out his wrath (Ezek 30:17). His mention of this city suggests that the cat goddess was familiar to the people of Israel. She might even have inspired dislike of cats in general. Wealthy Greeks and Romans, however, frequently kept pets, ranging from snakes, monkeys, and fowl to their favorite pet, the dog. But outside of Egypt cats weren’t often accepted as companions until the Common Era.
Cats almost certainly lived on the fringes of Israelite society, even though they may not have been welcomed into people’s homes. By the 1st C C.E., cats had been semi-domesticated throughout the eastern Mediterranean area for several thousand years. Wherever grain was cultivated, rodent control was essential, and cats filled that ecological niche efficiently. They would have been a long-established part of Israel’s environment.
For Yeshua to have kept company with a cat would certainly have been seen as aberrant behavior, even religiously questionable. But he had his own ways of dealing with such things.