A luminous tale drawn from the missing years of Jesus’ childhood, A Cat Out of Egypt joins the child Yeshua, with Maryam and Yosef, as they flee Egypt in the company of an escaped cat from the great temple of Bast at Bubastis.
While I was writing Yeshua’s Cat, I watched with interest as Nazareth Village took shape both on the internet and in the town of Nazareth. In case you’ve never heard of it, it’s now an amazing non-profit tourist attraction in Israel, based (as far as I can tell) on careful archaeological and scholarly research. Because their research into 1st century architecture and culture was helpful to me in my writing, I decided that this might be a good time to return the favor.
Finding the kind of everyday details about ancient Israel that I needed was difficult without access to a university research library–and I did my writing miles away from anywhere in the Rocky Mountains. So when I stumbled on a small website documenting the process of reconstructing a small 1st C village near Nazareth, I was delighted. I’m grateful to have discovered Nazareth Village during its formative years, when they were actively struggling with bringing a dream to birth, just as I was.
I’m a visual person, and it helps me enormously if I can really visualize the places I’m writing about–and as a retired professor, I have to be sure it’s accurate! Floor plans and ruins will work in a pinch, but accurate reconstructions are by far the best. If you look carefully through The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, you can see the influence of Nazareth Village’s architectural research in three different areas: Yeshua’s skills at home repair, the structure of Keturah’s house in Capernaum, and some of the structural details of the Capernaum synagogue.
Yeshua’s house repairs
“Then without waiting for a response he bent to his task, tearing away the rotted cane and broken plaster until he could test the strength of the exposed beam underneath. I lay in the sun and thought my own thoughts while he came and went at his work, weaving cane mats to patch the holes, and mixing the first batches of mud to seal them in place. His strong hands were quick and neat at their work, and I guessed that I was watching him at one of the skills he shared with his family.” The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, Chap. 5
The photos above show the construction techniques that resulted in the kind of roof Yeshua was working to repair for Keturah: support beams, covered by woven cane, and various layers of mud and plaster. To the right is Mari’s view of the interior ceiling before it fell on her head. This was also the roof the four friends tore apart to lower the paralyzed young man.
Below you can see a plastered room similar to the one Yeshua was repairing in the following text:
“It was the morning after I had followed him to the spring, and he was chipping the crumbling plaster and mud from Keturah’s kitchen walls. He was slow to answer me, but I recognized the signs of a lengthy response in the making. I sighed. After all, I’d asked the question. He paused and looked at me where I sat across the room, out of reach of his dust.” The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, Chap. 6
Nazareth Village’s basic house plan (right) was similar to the one I used for Keturah’s house. You can see the entrance into the courtyard, with Keturah’s main room and bedroom. The stairs to the roof would have been at the north end of the courtyard–with the goat.
Below are a couple of pictures illustrating the cistern and the runoff channels that carried rainwater to it. The runoff channel on the roof is mentioned in the text:
“I took refuge on the roof and watched as people craned their necks for a glimpse of his face. From where I sat I couldn’t see much, although I did notice that the crowd parted when several elders, dressed in fine linen turbans and fringed shawls, pushed their way from the street into Keturah’s house. But my curiosity about them died abruptly at the noisy approach of several humans across the roof beyond ours. With a growl, I flattened myself into the cistern’s channel.” The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, Chap. 8
At last we come to the synagogue. There are numerous synagogue ruins in and around Israel, many dating from near the early first century, and their floor plans are very similar.
Gamla . . .
Capernaum . . .
Masada . . .
But Nazareth Village created a reconstruction in three dimensions, and in full scale. Fantastic!
This was the synagogue I was imagining in the scene below:
“As he and his followers disappeared into the house of prayer on that Shabbat morning, I ran up the smooth bark of a great tree and jumped down onto the stone lip of the mud roof. Rising from the roof’s center were smaller stone walls with cat-sized windows all around. I leapt carefully into a window and crept through to the inside.
Far too much air hung between my feet and the floor to jump through the window. Flattening myself on the sill like a mouse in a crack, I inched my head over the inner edge and crouched there to see what I could see. Many men and women sat on stone steps around the sides of a large room, and directly below my window I could just glimpse ben Adamah’s head where he stood speaking.” The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, Chap. 6
To the right is an image of Mari in the synagogue that never made it to the map, probably because I couldn’t quite get past the fact that she didn’t really go in!
From what I can tell, Nazareth Village is a great success, and visitors love it. Maybe some day I’ll visit it first hand, but for now, I’m grateful for its presence online.
Doubt can save your sanity. In a world where reality is determined by consensus, doubt can open unsuspected windows onto new landscapes. Doubt offers us a key to our psychological cages. It can be our first step toward making truly independent and informed decisions. But first we need to realize that doubt is a valid alternative to belief. And here we find the tangle: many things that we accept as fact—things beyond all possibility of doubting—are true for us only because we have never questioned them. Yet we have been taught that to doubt them is either absurd or forbidden.
If we do decide to question our comfortable, or crippling, assumptions, we will always do it alone. No one else can do it for us. We each venture out across the apparent bedrock of our lives to discover, like Indiana Jones, which stones rest on solid support, and which drop away beneath our feet, leaving us flailing for balance.
Mistaken beliefs from distant history are always easier to see than those closer to our own lives. Regardless of how unfounded our assumptions may be, if we have never questioned them they can carry the force of divine law. Consider these examples of “exploded facts” from human history, distant and contemporary:
* The world is flat, and the oceans pour off the edges into infinity.
* Time is a single line with a beginning and an end.
* The earth is the center of the universe.
* A woman’s place is in the home.
* Epilepsy is caused by demon possession.
* Without the gods to hold it up, the sky will collapse.
* The universe was created in six twenty-four-hour periods.
* Dinosaurs never cared for their young.
* Attaching leeches to a patient drains the illness.
* The Earth and all its creatures exist solely for human use.
* Lobotomy is a cure for mental illness.
* Cats climb into babies’ cradles to steal their souls.
* Good people prosper and evil ones suffer.
* Father knows best.
* Christians in the first centuries all believed the same things.
* History is objective facts about the past.
* Women with healing skills fly on brooms at night.
* Human beings are disposable goods.
Chances are good that you experienced a gut reaction to at least one of these examples, because for you it remains a fact—and not exploded at all.
How do such assumptions come into being? Some, like the flat earth theory, are primarily attempts to make sense of the world as human beings have experienced it. Some are rooted in the hunger for power and control, others in ignorance, or in fear. Most have far too many interwoven layers to examine thoroughly. But even the simplest is difficult to unmask and release.
Allowing ourselves to doubt the fundamental ways in which we understand reality can be terrifying. Most people won’t even consider doing it unless they find themselves in so much pain—psychological, physical, or situational—that the risks of doubt begin to look better than the pain they are living in.
When a person–or a whole culture–begins to doubt the truth of their basic ideas of reality, discards old ways of thinking, and goes on to embrace alternate understandings, we call it a paradigm shift. The period in which these changes swell and grow is always chaotic. Sometimes, if the pain is overwhelming, we reject the changes and retreat to the old ways. But once we glimpse the shortcomings of a vision of reality, we are never truly comfortable there again—although we may fight to the death to deny it. And even if we don’t die in the battle, we close ourselves off to all new life in our effort to preserve the old.
So someone who can’t get past the sense of being boxed-in, caged, or trapped might do well to engage in a little therapeutic doubt. Why should a certain standard of living be essential? Why should many possessions be better than few? Why should science be more important than art? Should we believe a thing just because everyone else does—or because no one else does? Why is a job we hate the only choice we have?
If I sound like a toddler pestering a parent with “why’s,” I do it with intent. What are children doing when they ask “why” a hundred times a day? They are beginning to structure their reality, and adults are teaching them how. Many of the world’s faiths talk about the wisdom of little children, but too often that wisdom is replaced with blind cultural assumptions. What might happen if every time a child asked us why, we paused and really tried to give a thoughtful answer? Some things would remain true (at least in most cases): “If you touch the fire you will be burned”; “If you pull the cat’s tail she will scratch you.” Other things might not hold up so well: “Because I told you so”; “Because you can’t, that’s why”; “Because that’s how it is.”
Perhaps if we searched our hearts in response to their questions, we would raise children who know how to doubt, and how to keep asking questions. Perhaps our children’s simple demand to know why could reveal to us the inadequacies of our own beliefs. Then we might learn how to doubt while we encouraged our children to question. Paradigms might shift more gently when motivated by love. But as it is, most of us only learn to doubt when our backs are against the wall, faced with what feels like annihilation—which it is in a way. But on the other side of that little death is new life and the possibility of creative solutions to old problems.
Moving: nobody likes it. It’s unsettling, disorienting, chaotic. Every stress scale includes it. If you live within a tight budget it’s also appallingly hard work. And the older you get, the greater the possibilities of personal disaster. The specters of back injury and clinical exhaustion pile onto the routine risks of things broken or left behind, toes smashed, muscles strained, and near-death experiences driving top-heavy, tank-like vehicles. And I speak from a continent of experience.
When humans move, we understand why we do it, although it’s never easy, and seldom without pain. But what about the animals who share our lives, who go because we go? No, let’s be more specific: what about our cats?
We had finally been forced to leave our fire-scarred land for a new home, and the year was turning toward the 2nd anniversary of my cat Morgan’s death, which had resulted from the stress of our original flight from the wildfire. And that meant I was also approaching the 2nd anniversary of my mother’s death (she died a week after Morgan).
Trauma makes tracks in our memories, links among synapses like connections in a railroad switching yard: a mental switch is thrown, direction changes imperceptibly, and we find ourselves traveling a road wearing the smooth semblance of the here and now, but invisibly cracked and pitted with old emotion. The unseen past trips us with its rubbled pain and creates new trauma where none need be: a trick of the mind, and one that caught me off-guard.
I had adopted a pair of kittens from a local shelter not long after Morgan’s death. From his earliest days, the male, Bacchus, had a sweetness I’d rarely encountered in a cat before, and I loved him beyond reason. When we moved to Colorado, he developed a urinary infection in the first weeks. I watched him closely, and began to see symptoms like Morgan’s appearing. When he strained to urinate for over a minute with no success I packed him into his carrying case and took him to the vet. Probably stress-related from the move, the vet said, and my heart quaked.
Stress. We talk about it all the time. Most of us are sure we have too much of it. We assume we understand what it is, but the word can mean at least four different things:
in physics, force per unit area;
in language, emphasis on a word;
in psychology, emotional discomfort produced by external and/or internal circumstances;
in biology, a stimulus that generates a state of heightened physiological response, and the physiological and anatomical consequences of that response.
The familiar buzzword is #3. Most people are aware of #2, some are superficially familiar with #1 from news reports on structural collapses after earthquakes, but I doubt that many people without biological or medical training are aware of #4.
The vets I consulted about Morgan and Bacchus almost certainly spoke in biological terms—but what I heard was pop psychology. I went away believing that the emotional terrors of moving were direct causes of both infections. We were speaking subtly different languages.
There are two basic scenarios for biological stress: the perceived threat can be real, or it can be imagined. If the threat in the stimulus is real, then running away or fighting will relieve the stress, and the body can return to normal. But when the threat is imagined, the situation is more complex. If, as in Bacchus’ case, a cat perceives a threat in a new environment, but neither fight nor flight is possible, his body is unable to relax from the heightened response, and the stress is prolonged and unresolved. So he remains in a state of inappropriate physiological alert to the stimulus of this new environment for days and weeks. Such stress has an exhausting effect over time.
Apparently, Bacchus’ response to feeling lousy from the extended time on high alert was to stop drinking water. An unfortunate choice, since he then started building up uric acid in his system, which caused bladder inflammation and pain, making him think he needed to urinate when he didn’t—with the result that he felt worse and even less inclined to drink anything, and became dehydrated.
By the time I packed Bacchus into his carrying case, my emotional train had already switched tracks without my awareness: I was sure I was rushing to save his life, but in fact I was caught up in a replay of the trauma of the wildfire and Morgan’s illness and death. Judgment and clear-sightedness had fallen away. As for Bacchus, taking him to the vet was probably the worst thing I could have done. Already suffering from the effects of physiological stress because of our move, he found himself suddenly moved again, but this time abandoned in a strange vet’s kennel, with neither his human nor his sister for comfort. Suddenly his life had gotten much worse.
Bacchus stayed overnight at the clinic, but by midmorning the next day he had produced no urine sample, so the vet used a needle to draw urine from his bladder. It hurt, and Bacchus vomited. Concerned that shock was a possibility, the vet hydrated him, analyzed the urine, and sent him back home with some antibiotics. At 2 AM Bacchus began to stagger and vomit. He was going into shock.
Shock is a sudden and drastic drop in blood pressure that is usually fatal if not reversed quickly. It is commonly caused by an extreme reaction to threatening stimuli, great blood loss, or pain—any of which will have greater impact if the animal is already dehydrated. Immediate intravenous fluids are the only effective treatment for a cat in shock, so I rushed Bacchus to an emergency clinic twenty miles away. He barely made it, but they saved his life.
If I had responded to Bacchus’ symptoms with a little thought and research instead of recycled panic, I could have taken special care to be sure he drank enough water and watched him closely for a couple of days. Perhaps he never had an infection—just inflammation. By taking him to the vet, I subjected him to greatly increased stress and dehydration, and when the vet drew urine, Bacchus was frightened by the pain. I might as well have been setting him up to go into shock.
The odd thing about the whole situation is that neither Bacchus nor I engaged with actual events. Bacchus responded to threat where there was only sudden change, and I was running on fear laid down by a similar trauma in my past. In a sense we were both sleepwalking, moving through self-created dreamspace.
My emotional overreaction to Bacchus’ stress probably added to his difficulties. A cat’s human is rather like a parent, and the cat looks to his human to assess danger and alert him to its presence. My alarm at Bacchus’ health issues and my ongoing anxiety over his well-being undoubtedly communicated their message to him: “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” And his stress increased.
I suspect the vet realized that if the feedback loop of Bacchus’ stress response couldn’t be interrupted, Bacchus would not recover. So after hydrating him for 36 hours he told me to come get him and take him home. When I approached the cage, Bacchus was lying in the back corner, looking much like he looked when he went into shock: almost dead. I knelt down and called his name, and he growled and hissed without even opening his eyes. I unlatched the cage door and called him again, and his eyes flew open as if he really heard me that time. But when I reached in and picked him up, he snarled and spat and tried to scratch me. At last, as I pulled him out and held him close, he relaxed and began to burrow into my neck.
I recognized the pattern and felt sudden shame. By permitting old trauma to derail me from the reality of the present, I had opened a door for Bacchus to do the same. Now we were both sleeping the troubled sleep of past pain reliving itself in the present. Did he hear someone call his name? Terror. Was someone picking him up? Pain soon to come. He was snared by a shock different from what nearly killed him—he was suffering from incipient post-traumatic shock.
Each day after he came home he grew a little stronger. Kitty water bowls bloomed throughout the house, tempting him to drink. He started eating and drinking, and soon he even romped a bit. I worked relentlessly at monitoring and releasing my own anxiety. Now, more than 5 years later, he still flinches at any sudden noise or movement, but otherwise he’s my warm, loveable friend.
Bacchus granted me a rare inside look at the damage we inflict on ourselves and others when the landscape around us is transformed by our own emotions. The animals who share our space mirror more than our care and grooming. They are individuals with interwoven multilevel awareness like ours. But unlike our human relations, they suffer in silence, never accusing us, allowing us to see how we hurt them without triggering our defensiveness and self-justification.
If we let ourselves see them clearly, they can be our counselors, even our guides. But too often they are only our miners’ canaries, dying in vain to warn us of inner toxins we have ignored until escape is impossible.
Thanks to the One, it wasn’t too late for Bacchus or for me.
A number of people have asked me to share more about the wildfire that resulted in the death of the young cat whose memory lies behind Mari in The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat. This is the story of that wildfire.
Killing drought followed years of plentiful rainfall. Temperatures spiked into the 100’s and refused to drop. Creeks ran low. The odor of pine resin hung heavy in the air. A dry lightning strike—and a rancher who didn’t take it seriously enough—provided the critical mass, and two weeks later wildfire had consumed 40,000 acres of forest, pastures, and homes.
We dismissed the first smoke rising behind the buttes as nothing more than a wayward cloud, never imagining that the storm building there would explode into a holocaust. The days that followed dragged by in anxious succession. Winds dropped, and then blew up again out of nowhere. The fire turned back on itself, only to gather strength and roar off in another direction. Waves of rumor obliterated facts.
One night we drove out to watch the fire’s progress from a nearby ridge. News pictures of fire-lit nightscapes are commonplace now, but for us 8 years ago the scene was nothing less than apocalyptic. Small refugee animals fleeing the fire choked the dirt roads as we steered a path among them. I remember the porcupines best, humping their way in unseemly haste through the sullen light. Lines of flame spreading across the black ridges looked like flowing lava. The images presented themselves to our visual processors as nonsense, unreadable data. Nothing in our lives had prepared us for this.
First we evacuated the horses, just in case. We found carriers for the dogs and cats and set them by the doors. When the call came, we were as ready as we could have been, but we had room for little but the animals, basic clothing, toiletries, and our computers. Then for a week of endless days we waited in a small motel on a busy highway 30 miles away.
Why our home didn’t burn will always remain a mystery. The firefighters abandoned their efforts in the face of high winds and encircling fire. We were advised to expect a total loss. But in the end, the flames stopped as if by divine fiat all along the wire pasture fences that enclosed our buildings. Sap melted out of the old redwood paneling in my house from the heat, but only the land burned—the land and something deep in the flesh of my small black cat.
Morgan, cat of quiet pine groves that she was, probably hadn’t ever been in any building other than my house, and certainly never a motel on a busy highway. For a week she hardly came out from under the bed. No matter what I tried, she refused to eat, and she probably didn’t drink. By the time we returned to the still-smoldering ruins of our forest, she had a urinary infection. No medication touched it, and she grew steadily weaker, until at last the vet tested her for feline leukemia. The results were positive: she’d probably been born with it. All options vanished. The vet’s theory, and a sound one from what I’ve heard, was that the physical stress of her changed environment roused the sleeping disease into burning life. She might have stood a better chance if I’d left her behind to survive the wildfire on her own.
Within two months of the fire, Morgan was dead. I buried her in the charred grove where we had planned to build a small chapel. Beneath boughs once sweet with resin, in smoke-filled light and brittle shade, I laid her under the endless sky. And I grieved.
But the grief had really begun when the vet first placed the figurative black cloth on his head and passed sentence of death. A dead forest surrounded me. My gentle cat was fading away in my arms. Eventually I gathered courage and resumed my walks beneath beloved trees, now wasted skeletons streaked with amber tears.
I remember shutting my heart against the echoes of pain that surely must lie in ambush along those charcoaled aisles. But as weeks passed, only woodland stillness reigned. Blowing ash darkened the sun—smoke without fire, forest lives airborne—but already the forest’s heart was turning to the east. Life was emerging from death.
Blasted meadows were greening. Tenacious pines, seared but stubborn, drank deep to gather strength for life. Fire-crimsoned cones dropped seed. Seedlings broke the fragile soil. *
I found comfort in the cycle of life, and even in death..
Somehow over the next five years, Morgan’s death, questions about the Creator’s on-going involvement in non-human nature, the timing of Jesus’ coming in human history, and the redemption of the suffering Earth—all came together into the creation of Yeshua’s Cat. The spiritual doubts that had plagued my heart for years ripened and bore sweet fruit.
I’ll continue the story of this journey in a few weeks. Come back soon!
* To read about the devastating effects of salvage logging on the recovery of burned forests, click here.
My sister-in-law Wendy Francisco (who did the art for Yeshua’s Cat’s front cover) has insisted that I would find myself adding new pages to the Cat from time to time, and I have equally firmly replied that I never would. Well, Wendy won. Over the last two or three weeks that unmistakable nudge (much like a cat butting her head against your chest) has been growing more insistent.
And, Donna West, it was your kind comment on my post about the cat who inspired the book that pushed the nudge into actual words, drawing me out of the busy-ness of publishing concerns and back into Mari’s world.
So, I wish each of you a blessed Christmas, and as a gift from Mari to you, here are a few new words from her, never published before–perhaps for some later edition.
For those of you who have the paperback edition, this would be inserted at the top of page 124, just after “. . . filled with laughter.” For those of you with the Kindle edition, it’s in Chapter 15, Magdala, just after Mari muses about the nature of the festival of lights, and before Yeshua starts speaking on the last night of the feast.
* * *
One night after everyone had gone to bed I finally asked him. “Are your people celebrating the return of the sun’s warmth when they celebrate their festival of lights, son of Earth?”
“Yes and no, little mother,” he replied, turning his head and smiling as he opened his eyes. “We measure the years by the seasons of the moon, not by the sun’s path, so none of our holy days takes note of the sun’s movement, not even this one. No, this week we rejoice in events almost 200 years past, when a great man named Judas Maccabeus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem from the pollution of a pagan altar put there by foreign conquerors. Our many lamps call us to remember that the One’s light can dispel even the deepest darkness.”
He rose to his feet and reached out his arm in invitation, so I leapt to his shoulder, wrapping my tail around his neck. Together we walked out under the winter sky and stood on the hill, watching the stars touch the great sea with their cold fire.
“Yet, little leopard,” he continued as if he had never paused, “you are right when you wonder if we are also welcoming the sun’s return. Just as stars grow brighter in the long nights, each light that burns in winter’s darkness whispers of that hope. Together with all Earth’s children, our hearts grow full when we see the sun begin its long journey back to the heights of heaven. This too reminds us of the One’s faithfulness.”
I curled around his neck more closely to dispel the night’s chill, but I said nothing. I only purred with pleasure at his closeness. I sensed that words still lay unspoken in his heart.
“Sweet Mari, my mother told me that I was born on a night like this, when the stars danced in a black sky, and the breath of humans and beasts alike clouded vision with their brief mist. Joy filled the night and sang in the heavens at the wonder of my coming into the world. All things were made new under that sky, she said.”
I rubbed my whiskers against his cheek, and he continued.
“I can almost hear the heavens singing on such nights. The One’s face shimmers behind the host of stars like a distant oasis in the heat of a desert’s summer day. And yet the chill of a winter night and the searing heat of the desert’s noon both lie quiet in the hollow of his hand.
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.
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.