My favorite thing about beginning a new book is all the new research required. It’s like being turned loose in an exotic new universe with an unlimited railpass–but, unfortunately, no maps. The internet can be as irritating as a poorly drawn subway map with half the lines left out or mislabeled, but once I stumble onto the right line, I hardly stop to eat or sleep! If I didn’t go half blind and start hitting dead ends and duplications I might never stop to write. I share T. H. White’s feelings about learning:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
― T.H. White, The Once and Future King
Among the many things I’ve explored in my research for the 5th Yeshua’s Cats’ book, the details of Pompeii’s houses may be the most intriguing–perhaps because I knew absolutely nothing about Roman houses! So, on the chance that you may find the subject engaging too, I thought I’d do a post about them.
Here is the clearest plan I could find of the basic Roman house, or domus. Unfortunately, although it comes from Wikipedia, the original source is not given. A more detailed description of the separate rooms is available here.
The difference between an moderately wealthy city house and the seaside villas of the obscenely wealthy is clear from the plans below (Villa of Mysteries and moderate city house).
Most Roman houses–modest or palatial–were lined up on a visual axis from the main entrance, through the large public room, or atrium, and eventually out through the courtyard and garden. If you look at the house plan above, you can see this. The view below, of the House of Menander, is typical of a wealthy home. The photo was taken near the entrance, looking through the tablinum, toward the courtyard.
Apart from ventilation, this axis seems intended to give visitors the most impressive view possible of a home when they first entered. After all, status and wealth made the Roman world go round. In the words of the mosaic in the entryway of the merchant’s house below, SALVE LVCRVM, “Welcome (hail) profit!”
If you refer to the house plan above you can follow me as I explore the layout, with examples of the different types of rooms found in Pompeii. BTW, most photos, if not labeled otherwise, came from an amazingly helpful site on Pompeii, https://sites.google.com/site/ad79eruption/pompeii/
Even the wealthiest homes in Pompeii opened directly onto the street and shared walls with the houses on each side–unless the owners were wealthy enough to own the entire city block (insula). A back entrance for servants and tradespeople usually opened off a narrow corridor on the side or rear. The street front of the Menander House (above) was slightly set back from the sidewalk by a raised bench, possibly for people to sit upon while waiting to see the master of the house. The metal gate is positioned where the wooden door stood.
Once inside the house, the visitor finds herself in an entry hall called the fauces, #2 on the plan. The fauces below leads into the House of the Ceii. Like almost all the houses in Pompeii, the walls were frescoed in fairly standard styles. Archaeologists now classify early Roman wall paintings as Pompeiian styles 1-4. The style below is #4. If you look at the plan, you can see that the fauces runs between shops that open onto the street.
At the inner end of the narrow fauces the visitor emerges into the large main room, or atrium. Most atria had openings in the center ceiling to let in light and collect water for the cisterns, which were buried in the floor. The opening in the ceiling was called the compluvium. The pool that collected the water below and drained it into the cisterns was the impluvium. You can see both clearly in the photo below from the House of the Lararium. Also below is a cut-away diagram showing the location of the cistern, and a closeup of rain spouts from the House of Casca Longus.
From the look of the modern photo below by Roger Ulrich, the atrium isn’t an ideal place to sit on a rainy day! I assume that the rain spouts and guttering in the diagram following would have prevented such drenching rain-spatter.
The atrium was the main public room of the house, and opened onto a room called the tablinum, where the master of the house did business and kept accounts. The tablinum was at least partially open on both the front and back sides to allow for airflow, light, and a clear view into the colonnade and garden. Draperies provided privacy when necessary. Below is Lund University’s virtual image of the tablinum (right) in the House of the Ceii, with the typical hallway or andron on the side (left). An identical andron ran along each side of the tablinum.
Often in Pompeii the rooms directly on the street were rented out to businesses, or used as shopfronts by the family living in the house. If they were rented shops, there was no access to the house itself. As shown on the house plan, these rooms were called tabernae. They could be rented apartments, living quarters for family servants, storerooms, or shops. As shops,they were often thermopolia, or cafes (below), where hot and cold food was served from deep dishes set into marble counters. Businesses like bakeries and laundries usually occupied whole buildings. Craftsmen used such rooms for selling their own goods, while using the house behind as their home and shop.
Atria sometimes had an open alcove to one side, perhaps where guests might be seated, called an ala, (#10 in the domus plan above). The photo of the atrium in the House of the Vetti (below) shows an ala on the left. The entrance is to the right.
Atria also commonly housed household shrines (lararia) as well as elaborate strongboxes intended to demonstrate the family’s wealth. (below)
The small closed rooms called cubiculae on each side of the atrium are bedrooms, either for guests or family. The House of the Orchards had two bedrooms lavished painted with gardens (below). Bedrooms were also located upstairs, and sometimes opened off the courtyards.
Bedrooms rarely had windows. For that matter, neither did the rest of the rooms in the house. Except for rare windows in rooms facing into the peristyle, the only windows in Pompeiian houses tended to be tiny and set high up on the walls. The exception to this rule were in very wealthy homes on the coast itself, where windows with sea views might be found in any room of the house.
Of all the cultural differences between ancient Roman houses and modern American ones, the thing that surprised me most was the placement of family bedrooms around the main room in the house–the one most frequently visited by strangers. Although this arrangement was the result of older housing patterns built around a courtyard as a common living space, nothing else quite communicated to me the vast difference between “personal space” or privacy as I understand it and the ancient Roman one.
Here is a virtual reconstruction of a bedroom from the House of the Tragic Poet:
Immediately past the atrium and the tablinum with their adjoining rooms, was the courtyard, or peristyle, a colonnaded garden space with rooms around its side. Larger, wealthier homes often had more than one courtyard, as well as a large open garden. The rooms around the peristyle were usually used for dining and entertaining: the triclinia, or dining chambers, and the excedra, or banqueting room. Wealthy homes often had several triclinia. The kitchen (culina, #12), latrines, and baths (in very wealthy homes) were in this back area as well. Oddly enough, the latrines were often located in a corner of the kitchen, perhaps because of the easy access to water.
Upper Floors, Fountains, Paintings, and Mosaics
Because most of the upper floors of Pompeii’s houses were destroyed, piecing together a lifestyle that includes them has been difficult. A few still stand, and virtual reconstructions have been attempted:
The multiple stories of some cliff-side villas withstood the eruption better– for instance, the House of the Relief of Telephus at Herculaneum:
The larger mansions often had multiple pools and fountains in the peristyles and gardens. One house in particular, the House of Octavius Quartio, has an extravagant series of fountains and canals. The House of the Large Fountain has a particularly fine fountain (below).
Below is a selection of Pompeiian wall paintings and mosaics. I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour!
Readers are always asking me how I get the ideas for my books, and I’m usually at a loss for answers. So with Cat Born to the Purple, I tried to notice right along how the ideas developed. Now I offer you a small window into the earliest beginnings of Purple.
When I introduced Purple’s main character, Eliana, in The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, I hadn’t planned on writing anything else about her, much less a continuing series of Yeshua’s Cats books! But I did write more books, and Eliana turned out to be one of those characters who set up shop in the back of my mind, insistently hammering at my dreams and thoughts until I allowed her to tell her story: Cat Born to the Purple is her tale.
But before I could tell her story, I had to figure out what her family history might have been, and what circumstances could possibly have left her, a young woman barely more than a child, stoned and near death in the hills of Galilee near Sepphoris. I knew that she was going to be an exceptionally fine weaver and embroiderer, which meant that she probably came from a family that worked with textiles, most likely from one of the semi-professional family workshops found in sizeable towns like Sepphoris.
But her wrongful stoning suggested that she’d had no real family to protect her. How could that have happened? Jewish women of merchant status always had male relatives from their birth-families hovering in the background somewhere, prepared to protect them from abuse. I started reading everything I could find about the area around Sepphoris during the time of Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas, since Eliana would have been born around 12 CE.
Scholars have been wrangling for years over whether the Sepphoris of Yeshua’s youth and adult years was primarily Jewish, Greco-Roman, or a mixture of the two. The dust is finally beginning to settle in that argument, leaving what seems to be a clear picture of Sepphoris—along with most of the rest of the Galilee—as predominantly Jewish in population and culture during the early-to-middle 1st C CE. The recently discovered Greco-Roman palaces of Sepphoris came considerably later.
Almost nothing remains of the mid-1st C city, which would have been almost entirely Jewish. During Yeshua’s lifetime Sepphoris was a regional market and civic center—Herod Antipas’ Galilean capital until he built a new capital at Tiberius around 20 CE. Sepphoris was a large Jewish town for its time and place, but neither Roman in culture, nor heavily gentile.
The most dramatic event in Sepphoris’ history during that early period came soon after Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE, when a band of Jewish dissidents and townspeople overwhelmed the city guard and raided the treasury. Rome’s reprisal was swift and cruel. The rebels were crucified along the highways, and most of Sepphoris’ citizens were sold into slavery at Acco. Herod Antipas rebuilt and fortified the city to some extent before moving on to Tiberius, but he didn’t create the wealthy Greco-Roman Sepphoris whose ruins have been excavated in recent years.
So with this regional history in mind, Eliana’s own family history began to fall into place for me. The timing of Eliana’s birth could easily have placed her grandparents in Sepphoris as weavers and merchants when the city’s residents were sold into slavery by the Romans in 4 BCE. Only their young daughter Sarah—Eliana’s mother—perhaps eight years old at the time, managed to escape. Terrified and confused, the homeless child was taken in by a kindly woman from Shikhin, a neighboring village of about 500 people. Archaeologists recently discovered the ruins of Shikhin only a mile northwest of Sepphoris, just off the main highway connecting Acco and Sepphoris. The Via Maris, the major Roman road that followed Israel’s coastal plain along the Mediterranean Sea, intersected the Acco-Sepphoris road nearby, placing both Sepphoris and Shikhin at a major crossroads.
Archaeologists had long searched for the location of Shikhin, known by reputation as a village that manufactured everyday pottery found in archaeological sites all across Israel. Rabbis of the early Roman period even used Shikhin storage jars as their standard for liquid measure. Shikhin’s period of greatest productivity probably began sometime in the late 1st C BCE and increased through the early Roman period. They were known for strong, fire resistant pottery made from black clay: particularly amphorae (storage jars) and small clay lamps, but also jugs, kraters, cooking pots, and bowls. Archaeologists guess that Shikhin’s potters may have made common cause with wine and oil merchants and sold their pots already filled.
Recent excavations at Shikhin have uncovered cisterns, pits, potters’ wheels, kilns, and large numbers of discarded pieces of pottery damaged in firing, indicating a significant manufacturing area. The site was abandoned around the time of the great earthquake of 363 CE.
Now the story was beginning to take shape in my mind. As a refugee child in a time of chaos, Sarah’s unofficial adoption by a family working at a craft totally unlike her family’s own guaranteed her separation from any extended family who might have survived the upheavals at Sepphoris. She was simply a child working beside her adopted family making pots. Sarah eventually married the potters’ only son and taught her daughter Eliana the skills of a potter. But even though Sarah had lost her parents at a young age, I imagined that she would never have forgotten the weaving and embroidery skills she must have learned at her mother’s knee–which would probably have been valued by her adopted family. These skills she passed on to Eliana as well, along with an innate gift for working with textiles.
But for Eliana to be without family when Yeshua found her, both her parents must have been dead already. After learning what I could about the manufacture of ancient Palestinian pottery, I decided that her parents might have died together in a fire caused by a collapsing kiln during a minor earthquake (more on that in another post). So Eliana was indeed left alone in the world, a young bride without anyone but treacherous and greedy in-laws to care for her. The complex system of Jewish kin relationships protecting vulnerable women had failed her. Yeshua’s assumption of just such a situation led him to place Eliana with his friend Eli in Cana—which is where Cat Born to the Purple truly begins.
In the end, the unique possibilities presented by 1st C Israel’s culture came together to create the backstory of Eliana’s life, thus laying the groundwork for the rest of the book. Research can be a wonderful thing!
Before discussing the Murex dye, I’m delighted to announce the 3rd of the 3 reviews received for Cat Born to the Purple: another 5 stars ★★★★★ — this time from Self-Publishing Review! Go here to read the entire review.
The term “royal purple” originated in the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East, particularly during the days of the Roman Empire, when the wearing of a specific color–royal purple–was a privilege restricted to the aristocracy, if not the emperor alone. Royal purple was not the color we think of today when we speak of purple. Apparently it was an almost black violet-red color, said to resemble the color of heart’s blood/clots of heart’s blood. The word “purple” in Greco-Roman times, however, was used to refer to a whole range of colors, from pale blue to red to violet to the true royal purple. Deciding which of these many colors was intended in a given passage can be difficult.
But historians agree that the priceless near-black “royal purple” dye was made only from a gland of the Murex trunculus (more recently called Hexaplex trunculus) sea snail. Depending on the strength of the dye, the time submerged, the dye process, and the type of fabric dyed, the Murex dye could also yield colors ranging from pale shades of blue, green, pink, and violet, as well as the deeper tones. Other varieties of the Murex, particularly brandaris, were also used for dyes, but were considered inferior.
At present a whole separate debate is ongoing among Jewish traditionalists about whether the blue (tekhelet) tassels required by the Torah on the corners of Jewish garments should be dyed using Murex trunculus. Recent archaeological discoveries of fabric remnants from Israel’s biblical period indicate that the original tekhelet dye was probably made from one of the Murex family, if not the trunculus, but since the source of the original tekhelet has been uncertain for so long, white has become the preferred color for these tassels. Ruscillo’s research (see below) found that immersing wool very briefly in a fresh, unheated Murex dye bath resulted in very attractive blues of varying intensity.
The Murex trunculus sea snail lives in the sublittoral waters of most of the Mediterranean’s coastal areas. The sublittoral zone refers to the area of relatively shallow water permanently covered by seawater that is immediately beyond the intertidal zone (the area between the high and low tidal marks, where the shore is above water at some point in the tidal cycle). The Murex must be constantly submerged to survive, but it prefers shallow water, usually no more than 20 meters deep, in sheltered coves or lagoons. Where the water is calm and protected from waves the Murex may be found at slightly greater depths. It prefers mixed sand and rocky bottoms.
The Murex feeds in two different ways: scavenging and predation. When there isn’t enough dead material in the water, it preys on other sea snails, mussels, barnacles, hermit crabs, etc., by drilling holes and/or chipping their shells and feeding on the living flesh through the holes. Not an appealing creature, as predators go.
The ancients didn’t dive for the purple snails during the months between early spring and the beginning of July, because that was (and is) the Murex spawning season. Murex trunculus was harvested from the Dog Star’s first rising in the dawn sky (early July) through the winter months.
Since the only records we have describing the collecting and processing of “purples” are the writings of Roman essayists like Pliny and Vitruvius (whose reports were often more imaginative than accurate), archaeologists have had difficulty piecing together the details of the royal purple industry. Additionally, the Phoenicians–whose Murex dyes were most highly valued in early Roman times–guarded their dyeing secrets carefully. Only in the early 20th century did scientists begin to experiment with Hexaplex trunculus to try to reproduce the ancient dyeing techniques.
Deborah Ruscillo’s experiment, “Reconstructing Murex Royal Purple and Biblical Blue in the Aegean,” is by far the cleverest, and most innovative approach to this problem that I could find. By grossly simplifying her methodology, I might summarize it like this: locate an ancient Murex dyeing site where the Hexaplex trunculus is still thriving, and duplicate the processes suggested by archeological evidence and ancient texts, using tools as close to the originals as possible; where ancient wisdom fails, experiment with reasonable alternatives.
Most of Cat Born to the Purple‘s technical details of Murex dyeing came from Ruscillo’s work. For instance:
Neither divers nor baited baskets/pots alone could have caught enough purples to supply a dyeing workshop of any size; they must have both been used together.
Adding urine makes the color more vibrant, although the Murex dye is permanent without additives
Boiling the dye mixture ruins the dye
Three days is the ideal amount of time for steeping fabric in the dye
The stench of the Murex, swarming wasps, biting flies, and hatching larvae make the dyers’ lives a misery
Dye on hands and nails takes roughly 6 weeks to disappear
Wool is the only fiber that absorbs the dye to create a deep, dark color
Neither the stink nor the color is reduced by washing; perfume would have been necessary to disguise the smell, even after washing and long periods of airing.
Perhaps her most amusing and understated remark was, “Pliny never made dye himself.”
The dye comes from the hypobranchial gland of the Hexaplex trunculus, which secretes mucus for its mantle. The gland itself is pale, and must be cut out of a living snail (left), since the gland shrivels and dries shortly after death.
When the live gland is pierced and exposed to air, the mucus rapidly changes from clear to yellow to yellowish green, green, and violet. The photos to the right show a fresh live trunculus gland removed. The gland itself is yellowish, but the liquid is clear.
The photos below show a sequence from Pourpre filmed by pygmeejones. The timing and color may not be exact, since the snail in the sequence appears to be recently dead or the gland already ruptured in opening the shell, based on the green color of the mucus when the gland is first pierced.
Archaeologists have discovered what appear to be holding tanks for snails along the Phoenician coast, where Murex could have been kept alive in seawater until enough snails had accumulated to brew the dye. Since thousands of Murex trunculus would have been needed to dye just one cloak to the deep blackish color of the royal purple–and twice as many if Murex brandaris snails were used–there would have been a definite need for such tanks.
Like most Mediterranean cultures, Phoenicians trafficked in slaves, and may have made a habit of kidnapping unwary women and children in their ports of call. The citizens of Sepphoris rounded up by the Romans after the brief rebellion following Herod the Great’s death were sold to Phoenician slavers in Acco. No doubt because of the extreme unpleasantness of the tasks involved, slaves provided most of the labor in the Phoenician Murex dye industry.
The stench of the opened snails permeated the area of the dye workshops and beyond. Contemporary accounts described Tyre and Sidon as attractive cities, but stinking of the Murex dye. In almost every case where archaeologists have found the huge piles of broken Murex shells that identify a likely dye site, the piles have been well outside the cities.
Finally, Ruscillo asks one question that I never saw raised anywhere else: was ancient fleece stained with Murex dye before before it was woven (dyed in the wool), or was the whole cloth dyed after the fabric was completed? Her experiment showed that dying the unwoven fleece left a powdery residue of purple dye in the wool that filtered out and left stains on workers and work areas. The residue made an extra post-dye washing essential before the wool could be spun and woven, which would have required extra time and labor. Dyeing already woven fabric left no such residue, and also eliminated the problem of different dye lots of thread creating an unevenly-colored weaving.
For more details, imaginative and historical, read Cat Born to the Purple!
“CAT BORN TO THE PURPLEis a poetic tale with a flair for description and a welcoming, hopeful, and loving spiritual heart. Textile work is a common thread (pun intended) through this novel, and everything from the cruelty of the murex-harvesting and dyeing process to the intricacy of the weaving patterns finds deeper meaning in the story and the theology . . . [The kitten named] Purple is an appealing narrator, with a recognizable-yet-alien felinoid point of view, that adds a valuable perspective to the novel . . . [Cat] is full of warmth and deep loving-kindness, and Francisco’s conception of Yeshua shines with the charisma and compassion that explain plausibly why people would willingly drop everything and follow him.”
IndieReader: 5 stars
Read the full review here, on the Purple Reviews page on the drop-down menu.
AND the Kindle version of Cat Born to the Purple is live NOW on Amazon
Here’s an excerpt from Midwest Book Review’s Senior Reviewer Diane Donovan:
“Cat Born to the Purple is one of the most powerful accounts of Biblical times in Christian literature! It’s rare to find the fourth book of a series just as gripping a read as its predecessors, and equally extraordinary to find such an addition both a stand-alone achievement and an impressive expansion of themes presented in prior books. A truly unique ‘voice’!”
Doing the research for The Cats of Rekem was a long and fascinating process. Perhaps the most surprising part of it was discovering how little we really know about those first days after Paul’s vision on the Damascus road. Here are the only biblical verses (from The New English translation) that describe those days:
Acts 9:19-25–[immediately after his conversion] “He spent some time with the disciples in Damascus. Soon he was proclaiming Jesus publicly in the synagogues. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the Son of God.’ All who heard were astounded. ‘Is not this the man,’ they said, ‘who was in Jerusalem trying to destroy those who invoke this name? Did he not come here for the sole purpose of arresting them and taking them to the chief priests?’ But Saul grew more and more forceful and silenced the Jews of Damascus with his cogent proofs that Jesus was the Messiah. As the days mounted up, the Jews hatched a plot against his life; but their plans became known to Saul. They kept close watch on the city gates day and night so that they might murder him; but his converts took him one night and let him down by the wall, lowering him in a basket.”
2 Corinthians 11:32-33–“When I was in Damascus, the commissioner of King Aretas kept the city under observation so as to have me arrested; and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his clutches.”
Galatians 1:16-20–“When that happened [his conversion], without consulting any human being, without going up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, I went off at once to Arabia, and afterwards returned to Damascus. Three years later I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas. I stayed with him for a fortnight, without seeing any other of the apostles, except James, the Lord’s brother. What I write is plain truth; before God I am not lying.”
In the Acts account, in the paragraph following the one above describing Paul’s escape from Damascus, Luke speaks of Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, where he met all the disciples. In light of Paul’s own words in his letter to the Galatians above, I believe Luke must have been describing a later trip to Jerusalem. Paul states clearly that he went immediately to Arabia from Damascus. The three passages above, then, are our only sources for Paul’s departure from Damascus.
So what do we know about Paul’s night at the wall? Let’s look first at the wall itself.
The biblical text in Galatians uses the word θυρίς, thuris, which means a small openingor window. The text in Acts merely says Paul was lowered through the wall; no opening is specified. So, perhaps the word need not be translated “window.”
I had some difficulty imagining a window in the middle of a Decapolis city wall, so I started researching 1st C CE city walls in Roman Syria, specifically at Damascus. I discovered that not much more than a few foundation stones are visible in Damascus, underneath later walls dating mostly to the Middle Ages. But I did discover that Damascus was transformed by its Seleucid (Greek) conquerors somewhere around the 3rd C BCE. The city was then rebuilt along N/S and E/W axes, in much the same pattern that remains today. The city walls were rebuilt as well. When the Romans took over Damascus in the mid-1st C BCE, they set to work rebuilding much of the city again, adding their typical monumental touches. They also strengthened the walls and extended them outward to include an area larger than the earlier Greek walls. The Roman walls stood approximately where the walls stand today.
In the pictures below you can see a reconstruction of the east gate in the Roman wall surrounding the Decapolis city of Hippos, and a model of the Decapolis city of Scythopolis (Bet She’an), with the city wall around it. Notice in both that the only openings/windows are in the actual gate towers, which are guard quarters. The walls themselves are high and smooth, without openings, although the spaces in the crenelations might be called “openings.”
But what exactly did Roman walls look like? How were they constructed? I discovered that there is an amazing amount of research dedicated to the study of Roman walls. As a result we know quite a lot about their internal structure and appearance. By the time of the Roman building projects in Damascus (which were approaching their peak when Paul visited there), Roman walls were often being constructed with a rubble core faced with concrete and tiles. The huge quarried stones of earlier walls were being used only for the foundations.
Hadrian’s Wall is a good example of this style of wall, and has survived well enough to be studied thoroughly. The pictures below are artist’s reconstructions of Hadrian’s Wall.
This rubble-core style of wall-building is described in The Cats of Rekem. Such walls would lend themselves even less easily than ashlar walls to openings/windows, even if windows were considered desirable in defensive walls. Nowhere did I find Roman walls like the early ones pictured in childhood Bible studies, where city walls were made up of the walls of houses haphazardly connected together. So, how could there be an “opening” in the Damascus wall, “through” which Paul might be lowered in a basket? I decided that a collapsed rubble wall might serve the purpose: perhaps poorly made, weakened by earthquake, attack, or collapse of subterranean chamber–any of those would do. The result would be a breach in the wall that might be described as an opening. There you have the basis of Paul’s adventure as I described it in The Cats of Rekem.
I also moved Paul’s escape route to a different part of the wall from the one that Church tradition identifies, in the photo above. I agree with Ross Burns, in his excellent book, Damascus: A History, that a location right over a Roman gate–and in the Jewish quarter, was an unlikely place for a successful escape. You can see that the traditional gate above, Bab Kisan, is #3 on the map of Old Damascus as it is known today (above). That same gate is on the map of Roman Damascus (also above), and located on the south side, near the eastern corner: at the major market thoroughfare and adjoining the Jewish quarter. Paul’s escape in The Cats of Rekem is marked by the words “broken wall,” just north of the gate under construction on the eastern wall.
Anyone who has studied the history of religions is aware of the shift in human consciousness that began sometime in the last millennium BCE and lasted into the early centuries of the Common Era. During those years human religious practice moved dramatically away from old communal forms and took on more personal expression. Individual human beings began to approach their gods in increasingly distinctive ways, and more and more spiritual teachers emphasized the value of individual human lives. Even C. G. Jung tried to explain the phenomenon in his Psychology and Religion West and East.
In India the sage Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, offered seekers a Middle Way to enlightenment between the extremes of asceticism and worldly sensuality. In Persia Zarathustra introduced the idea of the freedom of individual human beings and the importance of their choosing to labor with the God of Light, Ahura Mazda, against the forces of darkness and ignorance.
In Israel the prophets emerged, offering ethical virtues such as compassion and mercy as alternatives to the old sacrificial system; Hillel the Elder followed in the 1st C BCE with his Golden Rule, and his famous statement that “whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world, and whosoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Jesus of Nazareth, born around 4 BCE, brought a unique gospel of love and life to humankind, known for two millennia as Christianity.
All around Jesus, throughout the ever-spreading Roman Empire, Mystery Religions were attracting followers by the tens of thousands. In each of these Mysteries, individual men and women found hope of eternal life through initiation into secret knowledge unavailable to those outside their communities. Dionysian, Eleusinian, Cybeline, Isaic, Mithraic, and Orphic mysteries were but some of them. In many instances the secret knowledge was imparted through the initiate’s participatory experience in the death and rebirth of the god or goddess.
In the process of writing The Cats of Rekem, the third volume in the Yeshua’s Cats series, I wandered into the jungle of Greco-Roman Mystery Religions. I won’t try to offer an explanation of why they exploded into the ancient world, but they were spreading like wildfire across the Mediterranean basin in the years before and after Yeshua’s life. Early Christians were well acquainted with these religions, and in many cases they came to the Church from them.
Numbers of people have written countless volumes of material about the relationship between early Christianity and Mystery Religions, some scholarly and accurate, many biased and inflammatory. As a writer of historical fiction whose characters are rooted in the beliefs of their day, I came up against the question of Mystery Religions in a very personal way. In particular, I found myself needing to understand exactly how Yeshua’s original message differed from the message of the Mysteries. And I didn‘t want to expound the same old Christian apologetics and bland assurances that no overlap ever existed. It obviously did.
So I dusted off my books on Greco-Roman culture and began to refresh my memory. I took notes, and made charts. I even drew up a spreadsheet. I concluded that there were many, many apparent similarities between the practices of the early Church and the Mystery Religions; in fact, there were far more similarities than differences—baptism, equality of men and women, depictions of mother and child, separation of the community from the wider society, hope of immortality through the death and resurrection of a god or founder, ritual commemoration of that same founder’s death and resurrection. The list goes on and on.
But this left me with two troublesome questions. First, did these obvious similarities in the early Church really reflect Yeshua’s message? And second, allowing for the possibility that they might not, how did Yeshua’s message itself differ from the Mysteries? I even went so far as to wonder what he might have said to one of the Mystery devotees that surely crossed his path.
In the end I isolated several radically new ideas in Jesus’ message that found no parallels in the other religions of his day. In some cases these ideas didn’t survive very long in the young Church. Here they are, as I see them:
He preached a loving God who sought reconciliation with humanity—not justice, or retribution, or punishment
He brought this God into direct relationship with human beings, without priests or organized religions between them and the Deity who loved them
He offered his listeners a simple choice: accept God’s love and embrace the freedom growing out of that love, or turn their backs and lose themselves in their own darkness
He preached a peaceful, non-violent approach to life
He didn’t call for a system of initiates vs outsiders: the thrust of his message was always of mysteries revealed, hardened hearts opening to understanding, and truths simple enough for a child to grasp
Perhaps in contrast to the Mysteries, (which were celebrated in darkness) he characterized his message as one of light, revealed in the light of day for all to see
Rather than the emotional frenzy common to the Mysteries, where initiates agonized and suffered, imagining themselves suffering with their dying and rising god, he offered his followers a death accomplished, and new life freely given: where such participatory agonies have entered the Church, I suspect they may have come by way of the Mystery Religions, not Yeshua’s words
The first two hundred years of the Church were violent and chaotic, and the records are conflicting. Many stories lie outside the scope of the Bible. I believe that there’s room to question traditional understandings of the Church’s message–and to question the way the Church has interpreted the words of Christ.
But don’t take my word for it: look for yourself! If there’s a mystery, it’s hiding in plain sight.
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.