Bastet and Other Bewitchers

The goddess Bastet
A happy aspect of studying cats is that when I see the same book or story referenced repeatedly, I seek it out, my favorite fictional cat thus far being Paul Gallico's Jennie. Yet Jennie didn't exist even in the context of the book, but was rather an injured boy's hallucination. I went from not liking Gallico when I first encountered him, to liking no one nearly so much when I got to know him. Gallico's enormous respect for cats (one of his books was entitled Honorable Cat), prevented him from using the cat as a literary device, not that there aren’t some very fine stories by cat-anthropomorphizers. Take Saki’s “Tobermory,” which chronicles the life and death of a talking cat who proceeds from charming the guests at a weekend house party to inspiring them to murder when they hear what he has to say. Such is the common fate of truth-tellers. Then there’s Kipling’s, “The Cat That Walked by Himself” with its playful introduction:

“HEAR and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild. The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild--as wild as wild could be--and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.”

Desmond Morris' various works are probably the most comprehensive of the nonfiction books about cats, but Frances and Richard Lockridges' 1950 Cats and People is exemplary for its humor and opinionation, and for something the authors couldn't have foreseen. I refer to the enormous changes that human/cat relationships have experienced in the ensuing 68 years. Then there's Barbara Holland's 1988 Secrets of the Cat: Its Lore, Legend, and Lives. Best known as a crusty advocate of cursing, drinking, eating fatty foods, and chain smoking cigarettes, Holland was a keen observer who filled her book with the immediacy of her personality.

I also enjoy books of cat poetry, cat humor, cat photographs, cat quotations, cat paintings (I have one book entitled Why Paint Cats? and another called Why Cats Paint), or some combination of the above. Few have charmed me more than Lorraine Chittock’s Cats of Cairo: Egypt’s Enduring Legacy, in which she combines seven years of photographs with 4,000 years of Middle Eastern thoughts about cats.

As with my last post, this one is meant to illustrate how very differently—and often contradictorily—different peoples in different times and places have regarded cats. Given that the basic reality of cats is ever the same, and the reality of humans ever changeable, what insanity inspires us to laugh at past generations while maintaining a dogged faith in our advancement no matter how badly we behave? Is it really conceivable that the ancients’ worship of a Great Tomcat is less laughable than humanism’s insistence that “people really are good at heart” (Ann Frank), or Christianity’s belief in a triune god which had one third of itself murdered as a sacrifice to itself? As Whitman wrote concerning our fellow animals:

“I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

The remainder of this post consists of some excerpts from Cats of Cairo.

Who is this Great Tomcat? He is the god Ra himself. —Coffin Text, 2000 B.C.

O peaceful one who returns to peace, you cause me to see the darkness of your making. Lighten me that I can perceive your beauty, turn toward me, O beautiful one when at peace, the peaceful one when at peace, the peaceful one who knows a return to peace.
—prayer to Bastet, 2000 B.C.

The name of the god who guards you is Cat. 

—from the Book of the Dead, 1250 B.C.

She has bewitched me with her darkness and light as she appears to be made of ebony and ivory.
—Ibn Tabataba, died 815 A.D.

My sorrows will be over when I find companionship in a cat. —Ahmad Ibn Faris, 920-1040 A.D.

When a cat dies unexpectedly, the dervishes bury her and say, "Go on my friend, may God give you peace and peace for us." On that grave, they'll put a stone… and cry hot tears. —a Dervish custom

The yellow one from the bakery smelled like a cream puff--she followed us home. We buried our faces in her sweet fur.
One cat hid his head while I practiced violin. But he came out for piano. At night he plays sonatas on my quilt.
One cat built a secret nest in my socks.
One sat in the window staring up at the street all day while we were at school.
One cat loves the radio dial.
One cat almost smiles.

—Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952-

The black cat used to move from one table to the other, looking for crumbs and little pieces of fish, loitering at the customers’ feet and rubbing against their legs, with the idleness of one spoiled by luxury... The customers bandied jokes and anecdotes, and got more intimate by expressing their complaints and grievances to each other. Sometimes, one with a clear voice would start a merry song so that this damp buried place overflowed with happiness. "There is no harm in forgetting for an hour or two the problems of poverty and children." "And forgetting the heat and flies..." "And forgetting there is another world outside these bars..." And enjoying playing with the black cat." —from "The Tavern of the Black Cat" by Naguib Mahfouz 1911-2006


Elephant's Child said...

Lots of familiar work here. Many of which grace our own overflowing shelves.
I am particularly fond of Japanese paintings of cats - often almost haiku-like in their elegant simplicity.

Snowbrush said...

"I am particularly fond of Japanese paintings of cats"

I haven't written about the Far East love of cats, but it was there. So far as I know, only Christian Europe systematically killed them.

All Consuming said...

But do you like cats? It isn't clear from reading the post.

Hahahahahaha. Leg pulling going on of course. How do you feel about the musical CATS? Do you like musicals much?

rhymeswithplague said...

A neighborhood gray adopted my daughter's family and now he is king of the roost. He brings dead mice, chipmunks, birds, bunnies, whatever to them frequently. They named him Smokey but refer to him as Killer Boo-Boo. My son-in-law never wanted an indoor animal in his whole life, but now there are photographs of Killer Boo-Boo on his lap watching television to prove that his mind has been changed.

Snowbrush said...

"But do you like cats? It isn't clear from reading the post."

Since we're on the subject of musicals, I can but say that I've had so many cats before in so many ways, one more's just one more.

"But do you like cats? It isn't clear from reading the post."

Peggy took me to see CATS quite a few years ago, and I enjoyed it well enough, but then I'm more a "watch it on TV" kind of person than a "go to see it" kind of person. I also felt cheated because I naturally assumed that the performers would be actual cats (perhaps I saw a few too many animal acts on Ed Sullivan when I was a boy). As for musicals in general, I like Man of LaMancha, Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, and Paint Your Wagon. Jesus Christ Superstar came out when I was in college and because it was one of my first exposures to a representation of Jesus and the apostles as passionate young men who were often afraid, angry, flawed, and confused, instead of staid old authority figures who had all the answers and went around threatening anyone who disagreed with them with hell, I was thoroughly enchanted and listened to the musical (it was on two 33 rpm records) quite a bit, and later saw the movie. One of the TV networks redid Superstar a few weeks ago, but I didn't care enough to watch it. A few days later, I heard "Jesus" do a portion of one of his songs on the radio, and felt that that I had made the right decision.

Snowbrush said...

"He brings dead mice, chipmunks, birds, bunnies, whatever to them frequently."

I have no words for how callous and unethical I view this, it being only the second time in all these years that you ever truly horrified me (the first was when you expressed doubt about evolution because no one was there to witness it), not just because the cat is allowed to go about the neighborhood killing without restraint, but because calling the cat a cutesy name like Killer Boo-Boo would seem to suggest that the family doesn't take the matter seriously, and might even think it's cute. I don't know. Maybe they hate it terribly but simply don't know what to do about it, it seeming cruel to lock a cat inside an empty house all day (which is a good reason for having multiple cats). Of course, the idea of indoor only cats is relatively new to me (it not being something that I grew up with certainly), and it isn't one that a lot of cat lovers accept (in fact some vigorously oppose it), although ALL of the local shelters require a pledge from cat adoptees to keep their cats indoors, as do many breeders. This isn't just for the sake of wildlife but for the sake of the cat.

Two weeks ago, a neighbor's cat left the uneaten body of a cedar waxwing in my yard (the most recent of many such deaths), but the most amazing thing I witnessed was when a Maine coon cat jumped to the top of the five foot high fence in my backyard with a dead squirrel in his mouth. I remember a time when my neighborhood contained a lot of squirrels, birds, lizards, garter snakes, and king snakes, but thanks to an abundance of people who own a great many cats, all of which are allowed to run free, the population of wildlife has dropped dramatically with some disappearing all together--for instance, lizards, snakes, and, quite naturally, the birds that used to lay their eggs in nests of the ground in the large park across the street.

As for why cats bring dead things to their people, the most prevalent theory is as follows: Cat mothers bring dead and wounded animals to their kittens as a part of an effort to teach them to hunt, ergo, cats regard their human family as hapless hunters, and treat them as if they were kittens. I question this theory since the people who the cat supposedly regards as inept hunters are the same people who eat food that they themselves obtain and prepare, AND who feed the very cat who presumably thinks they can't obtain food. Sometimes indoor only cats will bring their humans household items that come as close to having the qualities of prey animals as they can come up with--things like socks--and outdoor cats that have nothing to hunt will do the best they can even if it means bringing nuts that fall from street trees. Your daughter's cat is clearly an exceptional hunter, not all cats being anywhere near that good or even that interested in hunting. They could try belling the cat, although it's not said to be as good a deterrent as one might hope. In fact, some writers question that it helps at all.

angela said...

I am reading your posts with a kitten in my lap. One who is trying to grab my hand and make me pat him some more lol
I now have four cats and I love each and every one of them
I love my dogs too. But somehow they are not like cats, who make you work for their affection. But once given you are forever bonded.
So m as interesting facts here. Thank you for sharing

Strayer said...

I love these quotes. The Whitman poem makes me smile, so truthful, and hits home in my mind. The Nye poem is beautiful but the Tavern of the Black Cat is my favorite of all. Thank you, Snow, for posting these.

Snowbrush said...

"I love my dogs too. But somehow they are not like cats, who make you work for their affection."

In the Lockridge book, the statement was made that, in maintaining intimacy, a cat will meet a person part way, but it will be less than halfway, yet this was not how they described their actual relationships with their cats. I will suddenly be aware that one of my cats had been crying for affection or asking to play, but I was so distracted that I didn't hear him until the noise stopped, and I turned to see him walking out of the room. So it seems to me that, in matters of affection, cats have more of a need for it than we give them credit for, but that they give up easily. They are much like adult humans ourselves in this regard, whereas dogs are more like children.

"The Nye poem is beautiful but the Tavern of the Black Cat is my favorite of all."

I wish the two of us had such a place to go. Did you know, by the way, that black cats are considered lucky in some cultures?

"Thank you, Snow, for posting these."

rhymeswithplague said...

I never said that Smokey/Kitty Boo-Boo was an indoor-only cat. In fact, he is still mostly an outdoor cat who has merely occasional indoor access for an hour or so each evening to associate with his humans. He sleeps on the screened porch with freedom to go and come as he pleases. He has never been “locked in the house

rhymeswithplague said...

(Continued) all day” — he is very much an outdoor cat, claws and all, for 23 hours every day. He adopted them. They didn’t adopt him. They feed him and he keeps returning. He would like to be more of an indoor cat, I’m sure, but he likes his freedom also.

Snowbrush said...

"I never said that Smokey/Kitty Boo-Boo was an indoor-only cat. In fact, he is still mostly an outdoor cat."

As if I'm gullible enough to believe that he "....brings dead mice, chipmunks, birds, bunnies, whatever..." from outdoors rather than killing them deep inside the couch!

I obviously spoke in haste and with bluntness, and I apologize. I think it unlikely that such a cat could ever be transformed into an indoor cat, but he could at least be neutered if it hasn't already been done, both for his sake and the sake of the unwanted kittens he might father. Since my four cats have never known anything but living indoors, and since they have us and one another for company, they're content. I give slight financial support to Strayer, who has devoted her life to helping cats primarily by trapping ferals, having them spayed or neutered, and then releasing them. I have mixed feelings about this because of the wildlife that such animals kill. If we leave a door wide open for a few minutes, our cats might look out with curiosity, but rarely do any of them go through it, and even when they do, they're easily caught because they just stand there, a few feet from the door, looking as if they don't know what to do next. By the way, I have read, not infrequently, of "traveler" cats who simultaneously "adopted" more than one family, something that sounds likely enough with Smokey since he's obviously not a feral.

rhymeswithplague said...

You will be happy to learn that when my daughter and her husband had to be out of town for a week, her sister-in-law (a true cat lady) agreed t9 feed Smokey twice a day. As a gift to my daughter and son-in-law and all the neighborhood lady cats, she took him to the vet and paid to have him neutered while they were gone.

All's well that ends well, and other Shakespearean expressions.

Snowbrush said...

It would be interesting to know something of Smokey's history and if he does have more than one home. I read of a large family who thought their cat was lost. They looked everywhere, posted signs, etc., but never found the cat. Two years later, the woman of the house was walking down the street two blocks from home and saw her "lost" cat sitting on a porch. She called him, and he came to her and seemed glad to see her, but after a few minutes, he went back to the porch of what she concluded was his new home. She surmised that her growing family had been too noisy and chaotic for him, so he had simply moved. Because Smokey is clearly not feral, he either has or had another home, so what happened?--I wish I knew. Since fertile males not only father a lot of unwanted kittens (females can give birth to three litters a year), they also get in a lot of fights that can leave them seriously injured.

My father (who made the decisions in my family) never took a single animal to the vet to have him (it was always a him) neutered or for any other reason, and he never wanted a female anything because they would get pregnant (he referred to females as gyps). He didn't care that it was his males that were getting them pregnant. There's a deplorable callousness about that way of thinking. I would like to believe that it's dying out, but Strayer runs into it everyday. It is my belief that people who behave callously toward other animals are also callous toward people. I know that this was true in the case of my father. He was a man of unquestioned honesty, yet there was something missing in him and in people who are like him. I was never like he was, yet I can look back and see that I treated the pets of my youth with less consideration than I treat my pets today, and it was a treatment that extended to people. It wasn't that I was "bad" back then, but that I hadn't grown up sufficiently to take notice of what might be going on for them, and thus to feel compassion for them.

rhymeswithplague said...

Smokey started visiting them at their last house and slept on their sun porch every night. After breakfast he was off like a shot and returned for dinner every evening. No idea where he went during the day except to hunt for the gifts he always laid at their back door. When they moved to their present home about ten miles away a year ago, they brought Smokey with them, so he has had to make new alternate homes, if any.

All Consuming said...

'I also felt cheated because I naturally assumed that the performers would be actual cats ' - I do love you Snow. And JCS is my favourite musical of all time. I've seen it five times live, and the original album with Ian Gillan singing the lead is one of the best albums I've ever heard I think. It affected me strongly for similar reasons to yours; it showed the flaws, also I felt it showed Judas to not be an evil man more a practical one who tried to help and then it all went horribly wrong at some point, well he had to 'betray' Jesus, but it wasn't black and white as to why.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

We have a rescue cat that has limited ability to jump. She is not very cuddley but appreciates her comfy surroundings and will briefly allow us to play and per her when shevwants to.
I saw Cats too beck when it first came out. Parts of it seem to show up ar resorts as nightly entertainment .
Your post is so elaborate with much reading reference. Great work!