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