Now! Yeshua’s Cats’ Advent Puzzles are back!
24 days of amazingly detailed masterworks of Christmas art
each hiding its own tiny cat! Find Mari (or Miw)!
In a A Cat Out of Egypt, Miw, the Egyptian temple cat who narrates the story, is in danger of becoming a cat mummy–and not as a result of a natural death. Several readers have asked whether such a thing could have been based in reality. This week’s blog is my answer.
How were cat mummies created in ancient Egypt? What significance did they have? What kind of process led to the creation of the vast cat cemeteries that archaeologists have discovered among Egyptian ruins? As with most historical questions, the answers are complex.
Cat Mummies as Votive Offerings
Cat mummies discovered in early excavations at Bubastis were probably the first to be seen by Western explorers/archaeologists, but the cat cemetery unearthed at Beni Hasan (a site roughly 100 miles south of Cairo and known for its beautiful tombs), was carefully described by a Western observer. In 1888, near the rock-cut temple dedicated to the lion goddess Pakhet, a huge cat cemetery was discovered. A lengthy description of the discovery follows, as recorded by British professor W. M Conway:
An Egyptian fellah from a neighboring village . . . dug a hole, somewhere in the level floor of the desert, and struck–cats! Not one or two, here and there, but dozens, hundreds, hundreds of thousands, a layer of them, a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep, mummy squeezed against mummy tight as herrings in a barrel . . . A systematic exploration of the seam was undertaken. The surface sand was stripped off and the cats laid bare. All sorts and conditions of them appeared–the commoner sort caked together in black lumps, out of which here a grinning face, there a furry paw, there a backbone or row of ribs of some ancient puss, stood prominently forth. The better cats and kittens appeared in astonishing numbers, with all their wrappings as fresh as if they had been put into the ground a week, and not 30 centuries, before. Now and again an elaborately plaited mummy turned up; still more rarely one with a gilded face . . . only three cat statues have as yet been found. Two are small bronze figures. The third is a life-size bronze, a hollow casting, inside which the actual cat was buried . . . The plundering of the site was a sight to see, but one had to stand well to windward. All of the village children came and provided themselves with the most attractive mummies they could find. These they took down to the river to sell for the smallest coin . . . The path became strewn with mummy cloth and bits of cats’ skulls and bones and fur in horrid profusion, and the wind blew the fragments about and carried the stink afar . . . .
But most of the Egyptian cat mummies discovered in this and other such cemeteries in the late 19th century–nineteen tons of them–were bought in bulk and shipped to Europe to be sold at auction as fertilizer.
Who were these cats, and where did they come from? How did such huge numbers come to be packed into common graves–and sometimes even burned? Contemporary scholars agree that these cemeteries, always found in the immediate area of a temple dedicated to one of Egypt’s feline goddesses (such as Pahket at Beni Hasan, Bast at Bubastis, and numerous other sites as well), were filled with the mummies of cats purchased by pilgrims and given as votive gifts to the goddess. They had to be put somewhere.
The cats discovered inside these mummy wrappings were the ancestors of today’s Egyptian Mau cats. Some are clearly identifiable as one of the two wildcat sub-species thought to have interbred to eventually produce Egypt’s domestic cats: the jungle cat, Felis chaus, and the African wild cat, Felis silvestris libyca.
What is a votive gift? We don’t see them much in Western Christianity today. The candles bought and lit alongside the altars in some churches are as close as most of us ever come to this ancient practice. The word “votive” here refers to something given or dedicated as an expression of a wish or desire. In Roman Egypt (which is when ACOOE takes place) the people believed that if they bought a mummified cat and presented it to the temple of a goddess like Bast/Bastet, or Pakhet, the cat’s spirit would join the goddess in the afterlife, where it would continually urge her to bless the giver and answer their prayer, whatever it might be. Of course millions of other animal mummies were given in the same way to their respective gods–snakes, fish, mice, gazelles, ibis, crocodiles, sheep, cattle, falcons, dogs, and even beetles.
Recent research has shown that the popularity of votive mummies increased dramatically after 1000 BCE, when temples’ strict formality relaxed, and common people began to express their own personal piety. As the demand for votive mummies increased, priestly corruption and greed set in, resulting in “mummies” containing no animal at all, only a few bones, or parts of common animals substituted for the bodies of rare ones. In time, some animals came to be bred solely for the mummy trade.
Particularly among the cat mummies from Bubastis, archaeologists have discovered a large proportion of young kittens, strangled or with broken necks, placed in adult-size wrappings. Cat remains from Bubastis that were apparently burned rather than mummified are still a mystery. (One tidbit of feline tradition in A Cat Out of Egypt explains such a fictional burning at Leontopolis).
As the description of Beni Hasan makes clear, the mummies in these cemeteries ranged from the ornate and artistically sophisticated to the very simple and carelessly made. The odor described at Beni Hasan certainly would have come from the less carefully-made mummies. Animals mummified as carefully as wealthy humans would have had little or no such odor. (In A Cat Out of Egypt, reference is made to the slip-shod embalming methods used in the production of some votive mummies)
A number of the mummies found in Egypt’s cat cemeteries were more carefully constructed. Many were beautifully painted and expensively wrapped. Some were enclosed in wooden caskets, often shaped as cats. Others were placed inside hollow-cast bronze cat figures. With these more complex figures we may be straying into the category of household pets embalmed and presented to the temple as votive offerings by their owners after death, although the presence of kitten mummies in some of these bronze figures (see above) may indicate their origin in the cat mummy trade. So in conclusion, we need to examine the different relationships that existed between cats and humans in early Roman Egypt, and how cat burials reflected those relationships.
Cats and their Egyptian Humans
Two early Greek historians are often quoted in discussions of ancient Egyptian cats: Herodotus (484-425 BCE) and Diodorus Siculus (1st C BCE), although their accounts should probably be approached with some caution. For instance, Herodotus states that it was the established habit of Egyptian cats to run into burning buildings; clearly his reports were not entirely accurate. Similar questions remain in his report of the battle of Pelusium, which, according to Herodotus, the Egyptians conceded to the Persians rather than risk killing the animals the Persians had staked out in their front ranks. How can the contradiction between the respect for ancient cats that both men reported, and the evidence of large-scale cat slaughter in the votive mummy industry be resolved?
Perhaps this discrepancy can be explained by suggesting a kind of class distinction among Egyptian cats, at least as far as humans perceived them. The wild or feral cats who lived on the fringes of society would have been lowest in this order, little different from any other wild or domestic animal routinely hunted or raised for food, and probably bred for use in mummies. Second would have been the domestic cats kept as pets and mousers and generally respected as members of a species ennobled by the gods. Third were the sacred cats, whose status might have been determined either by specific markings–as in the case of the Apis bulls–or by their temple lineage. These cats were not worshiped, but held as sacred because in some way they were embodiments of the goddess. However they were identified, it was probably these cats who were so highly respected in Egypt that, according to Diodorus, a visiting Roman was lynched after accidentally killing a cat. Questions remain as to whether temple priests were permitted to kill cats considered to be sacred. Whatever the truth may be, Weguelin’s “Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat” (below) is likely to be a romantic over-statement.
We do know that cats were treasured pets among the ancient Egyptians, and were frequently depicted in their owners’ tombs, as well as being buried with them. They were grieved by their humans as family members when they died. Perhaps the best known of all Egyptian pet cats is Tai Miuwette, “Little Mewer,” the cat beloved of crown prince Thutmose, brother of Akhenaten, whose stone sarcophagus has come down to us. We also know that sometimes these treasured pets were brought to the temples to be embalmed, and sometimes left as votive offerings–but only after natural deaths following long and pampered lives.
A number of early readers of A Cat Out of Egypt have expressed an interest in learning more about the ancient temple of Bast/Bastet at Bubastis. These are readers after my own heart! If you don’t try to understand the world a character lives in, you have little chance of understanding who that person is. Ancient Egypt is a truly an alien land for English-speaking people of the contemporary Western world, even moreso than ancient Israel–thus ACOOE’s many detailed descriptions of ancient Egyptian customs. I hope you’ll find their culture as fascinating as I did.
When I decided to feature an Egyptian temple cat as Yeshua’s childhood companion, I chose Bubastis for three reasons: first, because it was a temple dedicated to the cat goddess Bast/Bastet; second, because descriptions of the temple in the mid 5th C BCE have come down to us in the writings of the historian Herodotus; and third, because Bubastis lies in the general area of the Nile delta where many Jewish settlements existed in the 1st C CE, which made it a likely location for Yeshua’s family.
I decided to refer to the Egyptian goddess Bast/Bastet as “Bast,” rather than “Bastet,” because I wanted to call to mind her earlier persona as a lion goddess. She was usually called “Bastet” by Yeshua’s time, a diminutive form of her original name “Bast,” emphasizing her less threatening aspect as a domestic cat. But she never lost the connection to her earlier self–a self capable of terrifying rage, who stood between the forces of chaos and the sun’s daily rising, as well representing the more fertile and nurturing aspects of a lioness.
The major construction periods archaeologists have been able to identify at Bubastis begin in the Middle Kingdom (roughly 2000 BCE) and continue through the Hyksos dynasty in the mid-to-late second millennium BCE. The entrance hall, festival hall, and hypostyle hall were all likely to have been built during those years, although they probably replaced earlier structures which can’t be identified. Invading Persian forces in the 6th C BCE inflicted heavy damage on many Egyptian temples, including Bubastis. The repairs and new construction undertaken during the 30th Dynasty (Nectanebo and others, 4th C BCE) were probably made necessary by this period of warfare.
Here is a passage describing the temple at Bubastis as Herodotus experienced it around 450 BCE, a hundred years before the addition of the sanctuary hall by Pharaoh Nectanebo:
Save for the entrance, it stands on an island; two separate channels approach it from the Nile, running in contrary directions as far as the entry of the temple; each of them is a hundred feet wide and overshadowed by trees.
The outer court has a height of 60 feet, and is adorned with notable tall figures. The temple is in the midst of the city, the whole circuit of which commands a view down into it; for the city’s level has been raised, but that of the temple has been left as it was, so that it can be seen into from without.
A stone wall runs around it; within it is a grove of very tall trees growing around a great shrine wherein is the image of the goddess; the temple is a square, each side measuring an eighth of a mile. A paved road of almost a half mile’s length leads to the entrance, running eastwards toward the marketplace; this road is about 400 feet wide, and bordered by trees reaching to heaven.
Below you can see a 19th C artist’s rendition of the hypostyle hall at the temple of Hathor at Dendera, which was roughly contemporary with Bubastis.
Like many 19th C efforts, the first major excavation at Bubastis by Edouard Naville was not systematically done–although even then the temple was little more than a field of uneven ground, suggesting the scattered and fallen remains buried beneath the surface. In the photo below you can see clearly the raised ground of the city surrounding the temple area, just as Herodotus described it. The people of the Nile delta made a habit of building up the mounds upon which their towns and cities were built to keep them above the level of the Nile floods, but the monumental nature of their stone temples made such mound-building nearly impossible for them.
Unfortunately, major artifacts from Bubastis were carried away to Western museums with little regard for their original placement, although, as ongoing arguments continue to point out, their removal may have preserved them from exposure and vandalism. Many lesser objects were simply cast aside, leaving them vulnerable to theft and weathering. Recent scholars have struggled to piece together the temple’s appearance, both before and after Nectanebo’s changes (350 BCE). Most agree that his major contribution was a new sanctuary area, probably replacing an old one, at the western end of the temple.
The map below reflects a possible plan of the temple area at the time of the Roman conquest of Egypt (30 BCE):
The festival road, probably lined with sphinxes, approached the temple from east, where it entered the towering pylons that formed the temple’s main gate.
In front of the pylons, two matching granite statues of a Hyksos king (1500 BCE, below) guarded the approach to the temple. Two columns with palm-leaf capitals stood within the gate, which opened into the entrance hall. The entrance hall itself apparently had no columns, much of its space being filled with statues of various pharaohs, including two monumental statues of Ramesses II standing against the inner wall of the pylons. Both the entrance hall, and the festival hall, an enclosure honoring Osorkon II (9th C BCE), were probably built by Osorkon I and/or Osorkon II.
Beyond the festival hall was the great hall of columns, or hypostyle hall. The hypostyle hall may have been partially divided into two different segments, but the chaos of the fallen columns makes it difficult to say with any certainty.
Scholars also disagree as to whether the hall of columns had a ceiling or only epistyles connecting and securing the columns along their tops. There were certainly two types of granite columns discovered–a smaller set with Hathor-head capitals, and a larger set with palm leaf and lotus bud/papyrus capitals. You can see both types of shattered capitals in Naville’s photo above. Below are two intact capitals now in museums.
At the very western end of the temple stood Nectanebo’s 4th C BCE sanctuary hall, entered through a second pair of pylons. The sanctuary hall contained the large central shrine of the goddess Bastet, as well as 7 – 12 smaller shrines along the side and back walls, dedicated to other deities. Most of the sanctuary hall was built of red granite, with floors of basalt. The walls, doors, and ceilings were ornately carved, as was the shrine of the goddess. Stars covered the ceilings.
The goddess’ shrine, or naos, was carved from a single piece of red granite, approximately 12 feet high and 5 feet wide, with gilded wooden doors opening inward. Based on its available interior space, the goddess’ statue within the naos would have been 4 – 4 ½ feet high. The image would certainly have been overlaid with gold, if not cast of solid gold, and decorated with precious stones, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. Priests dressed her daily in rich clothing.
Since the temple map above was created to illustrate the temple as it is described in A Cat Out of Egypt, the chamber of the Great Cat is shown on the map. In reality, there was no such chamber, so far as anyone knows, just as there was probably no Great Cat. But there was a House of Life, as well as gardens, pools, and probably small free-standing temple buildings. Every temple also had its practical buildings, including housing, kitchens, laundries, animal areas, and temple workshops. Bubastis was known for the ointments and perfumes created by its staff as an expression of the goddess’ reputation as Lady of the Ointment Jar, and Mistress of the Embalming House, as well as being renowned for its oracle. There was also an apparently thriving trade in cat mummies at the time ACOOE took place.
Bubastis even appears in the writings of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 30:17), when he warns various nations of the wrath to come : “The young men of On and Pi-beseth (Bubastis) shall fall by the sword, and the cities themselves shall go into captivity.” Scholars have speculated that the revels accompanying the annual temple festival at Bubastis may have been responsible for Bubastis’ licentious reputation. Herodotus describes the festival briefly below:
The manner observed in the festival of Bubastis is this: men and women embark promiscuously in great numbers, and during the voyage, some of the women beat upon a tabor, while part of the men play on the pipe, the rest of both sexes singing and striking their hands together at the same time. At every city they find in their passage they bring the boat to land, and some of the women continue their music, but some of the others either provoke the women of the place with opprobrious language, or dance, or draw up their garments; and they do this at every town that stands by the shore. When they arrive at Bubastis, they celebrate the festival with numerous sacrifices, and consume more wine than in all the rest of the year. For the inhabitants say this assembly usually consists of about 700,000 men and women, besides children.
The feline narrator of A Cat Out of Egypt has her own ideas about the festival.
To get a more detailed–and accurate–view of the discoveries at Bubastis, I recommend the ongoing blog of the Tell Basta excavation team.
Click on the following link for a downloadable pdf of the British Museum’s publication, A Naos of Nekhthorheb from Bubastis.
Instead of the estimated 3-5 day lag between submission and appearance, it popped up immediately! So check out the paperback today at:
and the Kindle edition (available October 15) at:
When I decided to write a prequel to The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat focused on Yeshua’s childhood years in Egypt, I let myself in for a crash refresher course in Egyptology. Not that I regretted it—it was a many-months’ voyage into a fascinating culture that has been opening itself up in amazing new ways over the past few years. But one of my most striking discoveries was the art of a 19th C Scottish painter named David Roberts, who toured Egypt and the Near East with his watercolors, copying the ruins just emerging from Egypt’s sand. This is a brief introduction to Roberts’ work and world, and (very briefly) to Egyptian archaeology. All art is by David Roberts unless otherwise noted.
Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1798 – 1801), although largely military in purpose, included more than 150 scholars from various fields. These scholars—and the French enlisted men—began the first European excavations of ancient Egyptian sites. Napoleon’s soldiers gave the name cartouche (French for “gun cartridge”) to the elongated ovals carved into the ruins containing inscriptions with the throne names of the great pharaohs—because they resembled the shape of their cartridges.
It was also one of Napoleon’s men who unearthed the Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the later Egyptian demotic script, by preserving inscriptions of an identical text in ancient Greek alongside the two Egyptian languages. “Rosetta Stone” has since entered popular culture as a term for any key unlocking a previously unbroken code.
Napoleon’s disorganized and careless excavations of ancient Egyptian sites inadvertently gave birth to the field of Egyptology, as well as to the European fascination with ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, the goal then—and for many years to follow—was merely the finding of valuable artifacts and the discovery of impressive ruins. Most artifacts disappeared into European museums and collections without any attention paid to their place of discovery or context. No one addressed the possibility of protecting the sites so haphazardly unearthed. Europe’s resulting mania for things Egyptian led to the rapid increase in Egyptian travel and brought in the age of the amateur archaeological enthusiast, who often merely added to the confusion. It was into this context that David Roberts stepped in 1938.
David Roberts’ lithographs (produced from watercolor sketches he made in Egypt during the late 1830’s) were the inspiration of many of the visual details in A Cat Out of Egypt. A Scottish painter born in 1796, Roberts spent his early career years as a scene painter for various theatres in Scotland and England. Thanks to the encouragement of J.M.W. Turner, the well-known “painter of light,” Roberts eventually abandoned scene-painting entirely and turned to fine art. Hoping to capitalize on the current popularity of all things ancient Egyptian, he toured Egypt, Nubia, and what is now Israel, Syria, and Jordan, from 1838 – 1840, sketching archaeological and contemporary scenes.
With lithographer Louis Haghe’s assistance, he turned these sketches into lithographs after his return to Britain, which he sold in a series of 6 illustrated volumes, including 248 separate plates, each colored by hand. Queen Victoria was his first subscriber.
Even without scholarly familiarity with ancient Egypt, anyone who has read Elizabeth Peters’ popular Amelia Peabody mysteries is familiar with the chaos of greed, graft and thievery that stamped Egyptian excavations from the mid-19th C until the middle years of the 20th C and even beyond. But David Roberts’ lithographs preserve the appearance of Egypt’s great temples and tombs as they looked before the ravages of exposure and abuse took their toll. I think you’ll agree that they have a magic all their own.
Finally, here is one of the Roberts paintings that inspired the cover of A Cat Out of Egypt:
~ D. Donovan, Reviewer for Midwest Book Review
Here’s the review in its entirety:
A Cat Out of Egypt is billed as a prequel to Yeshua’s Cat (…not seen by this reviewer), and opens with a prologue that deftly sets the first-person character as cat Miw, called ‘Daughter of Fire’ among her people. Born with the rare ability to communicate with humans, Miw is growing old and thus is motivated to share her story about her encounters with humans she normally eschews and one special human in particular. A Cat Out of Egypt is her story and will attract a range of readers from young adult through adults.
But if you think you’re getting the typical cat’s-eye view of a cat’s life, think again: this story begins with the birth of a baby in a manger, where the magi aren’t the only ones to see a strange star in the sky and wonder. So does the Great Cat Who is Bast, as she gives birth to kittens – and thus begins a journey of transformation and fear: one in which vipers and sacred dancers mingle and portents spark an ancient cat culture to view human events with a new perspective.
As one special cat interacts with young Yeshua and imparts wisdom on what it means to live in a cat’s world, readers are in for a treat that presents Biblical events and times from quite a different (cat-oriented) vantage point wedded to the notion of a Goddess overseeing all, rather than a male God: “The goddess is simply the One who is. And it makes sense. Among cats, mothers feed and care for the young. Fathers go their own ways and care little for their children. If a male cat offers neither love nor sustenance to his kittens, why should a male deity do more?”
Spiritual revolution is in the air and human and cat worlds alike find their focal points in one child who will grow up to change everything: “Who was this child who held the power of life in his hand? Had he spoken truly when he said all gods but the One Creator were lesser gods, unfit to be called by that name? Was her beloved Bast, Flame of the Morning and Mother of Light, no more than a trembling wraith who thinned and vanished before the brilliance of the god Yeshua called the One?”
Sons and mothers, friendships between animal and human, the birthing of kittens and new possibilities, and (most of all) the evolution of a new force in the world saturate a striking blend of spiritual history and feline observation that holds many important spiritual conversations and observations: “I know there was a time when people everywhere knew the face of the Creator. Our scriptures tell us so. But scripture doesn’t explain how they could have forgotten the name of the One who formed them from the dust, and confused him with the small spirits of the Earth. Even the beasts are not so blind. I wonder if the glory of the One was too great? Perhaps the human heart cries out for a god it can see and touch.”
Enchanting, poetic, engrossing, and vivid, A Cat Out of Egypt is simply a delight, and highly recommended for Christian readers who would gain a different, fictional, cat’s-eye perspective on Jesus’ early experiences and his interactions with the world.
~ D. Donovan, Reviewer for Midwest Book Review
A Cat Out of Egypt, magical prequel to Yeshua’s Cat, is scheduled for release October 15th!
Join the child Yeshua and his temple cat Miw
for a breathtaking race across the Egyptian desert,
pitting their faith against a deadly evil of the ancient world!
Editing and formatting of A Cat Out of Egypt are complete, and If all goes well, Egypt will go live on Amazon on October 15th, both in paperback and Kindle formats. The narrative has come in at 70,500 words: approximately 40 pages longer than Yeshua’s Cat (not counting the glossary and explanation of illustrations).
The cover design is the work of the author, based partially on a painting of the temple of Isis at Philae by the 19th C artist David Roberts. The line drawings opening each chapter are sketches of Egyptian artifacts, also by the author.
Take a look at the sample pages for the opening chapters!
My recent immersion in ancient Egyptian art (for A Cat Out of Egypt) has reminded me of the many hours I’ve spent roaming happily through the art of the Ancient Near East–as far back in human history as the Stone Age years (roughly 50,000 to 10,000 BCE). Just in surveying the history of Egypt, I’ve traveled through so many cultures so quickly that thoughts on the nature of cultural change have finally stopped me in my tracks. So today I want to share with you some of my wandering thoughts on time, change, and Western culture, born of encounters with the work of long-dead artists.
Before Einstein turned science on its head, people in Western culture tended to picture time as a single line which connected the beginning and end of all things. This is no longer the case, at least among scientists. The idea of linear time emerged from the early cultures of the Ancient Near East and was essential to Judaism’s understanding of reality. Judeo-Christian culture embraced linear time as its own, and structured history and reality accordingly. Wherever the Church—and later Western culture—extended its influence through colonialism and conversion, linear time was a non-negotiable part of the package.
But many cultures prior to Judeo-Christian contact tended toward circular or spiraling ideas of time. These ideas took various forms, from the cyclical rebirth of the entire universe to models more directly reflecting the turning seasons and skies. Cycles of death and rebirth were generally part of these worldviews, but for those of us firmly planted in a linear model of time appreciating these other models can be difficult.
Oddly enough, I can offer an example of time as a circle/spiral from my own experience. I’ve always thought in images. So if I thought of time, I pictured it, just as I did everything else. For as long as I can remember, at least back into my elementary school years, whenever I’ve tried to recall memories in sequential order, I’ve imagined years as circles in an ascending counterclockwise spiral. Winter begins each new circle at the top, moving into spring on the left, summer at the bottom side, and fall on the right, all rising toward a new winter and a new circle on the upward spiral. The spiral’s circles are formed of rather misty mosaics of memory-images from the seasons and events of the year. I offer this example simply to suggest that if a thoroughly Western child of elementary-school years could spontaneously create such a circular model—one that persists on into adulthood alongside a standard linear model of time—then cyclical time might not be all that alien to any of us.
Linear time as the Church concretized it in Christian doctrine defined history as the stage upon which God acted to lead Creation to its divinely ordained conclusion–thus contributing, if indirectly, to the Western idea of progress. Also moving onto the stage at some point was the idea of a divinely chosen people whose own culture set the standard for all other peoples. By the 19th C, Western culture was producing theories of cultural evolution with “primitives” on the bottom and privileged Western society on the top. Immeasurable pain and violence were inflicted on other cultures as a result, and the damage is ongoing today. Although most reputable scholars rejected such ideas of cultural evolution by the mid-20th C, similar notions do still linger in the popular mind. Almost any person raised within a Western worldview is, at the very least, a carrier of embryonic presuppositions regarding progress and “primitivism,” whether they wish to carry them or not. It’s in the air, in our mothers’ milk.
So what does all this have to do with my journeys through ancient art? Well, I found myself asking, “Why do cultures change?” When Stone Age humans began domesticating animals, was it “development,” “progress,” or simply change based on circumstances we can’t see clearly today? Cultural change that led to dynastic civilizations and large-scale warfare can only be called progress (with any certainty) if where we stand today is the intended and best possible result in an overall plan of history. When Neolithic groups moved toward urbanization and the beginnings of metallurgy, was it progress, or simply change? What other paths existed in prehistory as possibilities—what waves had not yet collapsed? In Western Asia and Eastern Europe cultures adhering to traditional ways disappeared—or were wiped out by the widespread wars, plagues, and famines of the last half of the Bronze Age. And here a possibility began to grow in my mind.
I considered the course of events in recent centuries when Traditional, or Earth-based, cultures encountered Western civilization. One thing I had never considered before now demanded my full attention: African Traditional peoples, Native Americans, South Sea Islanders, Aborigines—these peoples did not progress, or develop, or evolve—their cultures were annihilated. They were not in the process of change when first contact was made. Change was not offered to them as an option. Whether they were killed with weapons, pestilence, starvation, or all three together, their cultures were extinguished. Greed for land and resources, brutally efficient weaponry with the sense of power born of it, and the tantalizing possibility of “might makes right”—these human factors undergirded the conquest of “new worlds.” Would it be unreasonable to suppose that these same human factors sealed the fate of indigenous peoples whose lands adjoined the Fertile Crescent and the civilization it cradled?
This line of thought led to disturbing questions often debated among academics—but for me, these questions have become personal. What is progress? Does it really exist? Why is change a good thing, if an existing situation is good already? Is it possible that unlovely traits like greed, abusive power, and fear have always been the most common motive forces in human change?
Now that the Western world is beginning to perceive the number and variety of plagues spawned in its long shadow, some people have begun to look with yearning and regret at Earth’s remaining Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, when we look we tend to see through the lenses of our own worldview, darkly. We do not see these fellow-humans as people who belong to themselves, with their own lives and concerns, but as solutions to our problems, romanticized projections of our notions of a paradisal age.
Perhaps wisdom remains for the healing of the Earth. Perhaps sustainability is something we can learn. Perhaps if we ask with respect, elders may share their wisdom. But first we of Western culture need to look to our own house.
Professor and historian E. Glenn Hinson first introduced me to the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest and philosopher of the first half of the 20th century whose reflections on God and history led to repeated censures by the Catholic Church. But the one piece of his thought that burst into my world like a supernova was his assertion that God has given the future of the Earth into human hands: if we don’t take responsibility for our world, God won’t step in with an exasperated sigh and clean up the mess. In the Apostle Paul’s words, we must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). “Progress” does not necessarily reflect God’s will, nor does God necessarily “will” what is happening in our world today. Christ has pointed the way in love, and the Holy Spirit strengthens us as we labor, but if we don’t work for the salvation of all God’s creation, humanity’s end times may be grim indeed.