Cats wander freely through the temple grounds and kittens huddle with their mothers in a large purpose-built shelter near the stables until they grow more adventurous. Only a few cats venture inside the temple itself. Maybe they dislike the smell of incense and other pungent oils that pervade the place.
When I lost Pudge, my companion of many years, I was bereft. So much so, I didn’t think I’d ever form another feline attachment, but Little Lion, as I call her, has proved me wrong. I gave her the name on account of the fur she wears like a mane about her head.
As the High Priest, I’m an important man in this part of Egypt. I never wanted the position, but having come from a long line of distinguished priests, I didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter. I couldn’t dishonour my family by rejecting the position. Many years of training went into the role and I worked hard with the scribes at the temple school, not only learning about religious practice, but maths, astronomy, and a far more complicated subject: matters of state.
Robed in fine white linen, complete with shoulder strap, leather sandals and an emerald and turquoise neckpiece, I stride through the Hypostyle Hall, an enclosed area of the temple with many pillars. As always, I’m transfixed by the cobalt blue ceiling. It represents the endless sky, that portal to the Field of Reeds which is where the dead are believed to go if the final judgement weighs in their favour.
The pitter-patter of Little Lion’s paws along a familiar route warms my stone heart A dainty black cat with the most ravishing amber eyes, she somehow retains a hint of kittenish blue, a rare combination. Inside I’m floundering, but I greet temple workers with a composure I do not feel. Years of practice have honed me into the ‘perfect priest.’ I’ve never put a foot wrong.
Up till now, that is.
The light dims by degrees and by the time I reach the inner sanctum, the most sacred room in the temple, it is faintly lit by three oil lanterns.
Anyone other than myself, the Pharaoh, or another high-ranking priest, is forbidden to pass the threshold to this sacred chamber, but the cat presses against me and purrs demurely. This part of the temple appears to be deserted. Nevertheless, I check again to make sure we are unobserved before slowly opening the heavy wooden door.
The cat enters Bastet’s shrine. As far as I know, she’s the first living animal to do so. At least in my time.
There can’t be any harm in it, can there?
After all, she isn’t human.
BASTET, the Egyptian cat goddess, sits poised between two pillars, in the form of a statue. My hand caresses the pillar’s carved reliefs. The bold Hieroglyphs and depictions of the constellations have a reassuring familiarity. The goddess herself carries the sistrum, a percussion instrument, in one hand; in the other, the ankh, the teardrop loop that is the key to life. Her dress is heavily ornamented with emeralds and garnets and lapis lazuli.
The temple guards who are denied access to this part of the temple, stand some distance away. Here, Bastet resides. Utterly alone. Quite unlike when she is carried out for public display by the priests during festivals. Then, thousands of people gather in the courtyard. When they see her, there’s a guttural cry. The crowd continue with their drinking and revelry, grateful they have a benevolent and beloved Pharaoh.
At least that’s the official version of events, the side the government wants to promote. The reality is a little different. The reality is public finances stretched to the limit. Amongst other things, I’m forced to contend with a temple built centuries ago in need of a costly overhaul. But I try to overlook evidence of deterioration, try to paper over the obvious cracks. The pharaoh does not want to hear about the sagging roof or the crumbling pillars. Not when he has vastly overspent on his latest pyramid. He knows that fixing the problems will mean raising taxes further, an unpopular move for one who needs to curry favour with the people.
Untroubled by such affairs, Little Lion yawns and makes herself at home on a cushion of crushed velvet. I thank my lucky stars I’m the only one present to witness such irreverent behaviour. On the whole, Little Lion seems distinctly underwhelmed by the presence of the great goddess.
Breaking every rule I’ve been taught and risking Bastet’s wrath, I hand Little Lion a treat from one of the votive offerings. After a while she settles down, allowing me to perform the important task of cleaning, dressing and offering the goddess food. I realise the goddess has never actually partaken of the food or drink, but it’s there if she changes her mind.
But here I come to the crux of MY PROBLEM. One I’ve successfully managed to keep under wraps. I’m a secret doubter. I EVEN DOUBT WHETHER LIFE EXISTS AFTER DEATH! Sometimes I suspect Bastet is nothing more than a bronze statue with imaginary powers. Obviously she’s a statue - anyone can see that, but I’m no fool. I’m supposed to believe her spirit exists in the statue, but I remain unconvinced. I’ve never seen any evidence to convince me otherwise. Of course, I cannot admit such doubts. It’s not in my interest to question the divinity of a goddess my whole existence depends on. Such doubts are heresy and punishable by death.
Beside me, Little Lion opens her lovely eyes and yawns. My thoughts turn to the Pharaoh in his palace. Technically, as a divine being, he reserves the right to visit the temple any time he chooses, but the current ruler of the two lands generally leaves the priests to perform sacred functions on his behalf. He rarely steps foot inside the temple.
So here, the goddess resides in her shrine, only seeing the light of day when, amidst much pomp and fanfare, she’s carried out by a procession of priests. They hold her up from the temple rooftop where the excited throngs gather in the courtyard and raise a cry of guttural joy.
This then is Bastet, my goddess, who was once a fearsome lioness, now transformed into a cat with a woman’s body. She has shaken off her warrior instincts and come to symbolise fertility and protection. With all the perils faced during childbirth, she’s prized by women.
But having lost my wife and daughter in childbirth, the women in my life have long since gone.
THE LION CAT
This is the story of how I got to be a temple cat:
I first heard about the goddess Bastet through Zara. Not only did she possess a small statue of the cat goddess in the main room of her little house along the riverbank, she liked to tell me of the goddesses’ many qualities. Who was I to demur when she decided to call me Little Bastet when I scampered into her arms as a kitten?
All that was some time ago. Currently, I live amongst the priests in Bastet’s great temple in the lower part of the Land of Two Kingdoms, as Egypt is formally known. To live in the temple is considered a blessing bestowed only on those lucky enough to receive it. Either that, or they have to be born into it.
Ironically, in a land where cats are treasured, if not worshipped, living in such a place is not without its perils…
But more about that later.
My origins were humble and began in Zara’s garden shed. It was a great contrast with the temple setting which was an hour’s distance on a donkey from Zara’s house. Zara lovingly tended home and garden, including an area for crops, while her husband and sons who were stonemasons, spent months away building the Pharaoh’s latest Pyramid in the desert. When they weren’t toiling away, they lived on a worker’s compound.
The runt of a litter of three, I have my father’s black furry mane and my mother’s dainty frame. I remember snuggling up to my brothers in the weeks after mother gave birth. Like most kittens, we were soon wandering into the garden and mother gently carried us back and forth in her mouth placing us in a shady spot. We indulged ourselves by scratching the trunk of Zara’s one and only palm tree, rolling in the grass and play fighting. My brothers enjoyed testing me, but I managed to hold my own. Such antics were lovingly witnessed by Zara.
All too soon, mother was expecting again and I was left to my own devices. I hated being neglected and cried pitifully, but she merely blinked at me through sleepy eyes and soaked up more of the sun. While mother’s belly continued to swell, Zara carefully lifted me into her arms and carried me up the staircase to cool off on the rooftop.
“Come and sit with me. You have such fluffy fur,” and other flattering remarks poured forth from her mouth. I enjoyed her warmth and the way she stroked my back. Soon she was greeting me like a cherished baby while I grew accustomed to making a bed in her lap.
“I’m going to call you Little Bastet – you look a bit like her. I’ve only seen the cat goddess from a distance when twelve priests carried her out during a Feast day.” Her face softened at the memory. “That was the first time my husband kissed me. He gave me a little miniature cat charm as a gift.” She held me close. “What pretty blue eyes you have. They melt my heart.”
Well, who was I to disagree with such praise? I soon discovered the more I purred, the more attention I got. Zara was a fine cook and enjoyed spoiling me with tidbits. I was often by her side in the evenings while she pined for her husband and sons.
“I’d be with them if I could, but then who’d look after the chickens and the cow and tend the vegetables?” she asked as if hoping for a reply.
When Zara’s ‘men’ returned from their pyramid project for a well-earned break to take part in temple festivities, there was much merrymaking, I’d never seen her so happy.
But all good things come to an end and before long, husband and sons said their goodbyes and returned to their work. During their absence, Zara discovered she was pregnant. With the help of a midwife, she was safely delivered of a little girl. Her cries of pain were followed by cries of joy. Later, I wandered in to her chamber and she called me her lucky cat.
One day, a man delivering wares dropped by and exchanged them for some of Zara’s fine bread and cakes. While he tasted her samples, I found refuge from the heat under the covering on his cart. I must have dozed off for when I awoke he was riding off to his next destination. My mewing must have been drowned out by the rumble of horse and cart. When we finally came to a standstill, I scurried off in the direction of a great edifice which turned out to be the temple. The trader did not see me leave and make my way along a glorious palm-lined route that led to the massive entrance.
Once I’d got over the shock of leaving my old home, I became part of the fabric of temple life. There were a great many cats in the precinct and they were treated well. As was customary, the favourites were adorned in bangles and necklaces.
The chance of being singled out by the High Priest himself must have been slim. It’s unlikely such an exalted being would have noticed me had I not saved him from being attacked. One day while he was bathing in the temple pool, a crocodile trespassed into priestly waters. While the man slowly edged his way up the pool’s basin steps, the beast glared at me. However, I felt no fear, staring it firmly in the eye, repeatedly sticking out my paw and loudly hissing. This exchange carried on for some time before we came to an understanding. The creature must have decided I wasn’t worth the bother and slunk off, bored.
When the crocodile left, the priest came and investigated. He gently stroked my neck and chin. “You are a special cat. You saved me life. I won’t forget that in a hurry.”
From then on I become his cat. I followed him everywhere, even the inner sanctum. Although I missed Zara, I adapted quickly. In his own way, the man was just as lonely as Zara had been and my presence offered comfort.
One day, when I rested on a large cushion in Bastet’s shrine, I couldn’t help noticing the High Priest seemed distinctly lacklustre when it came to performing his duties. He’d been in a state of tension for weeks. Now, he was unshaven and disheveled, a state frowned upon by a society which valued cleanliness. It was certainly shocking for an elite member of the priesthood to let himself go. Priests were expected to keep an immaculate appearance and cleanse several times a day. Clearly in a state of mental anguish, he held me close.
Then he lay prostrate before Bastet’s statue.
“Help me,” he pleaded. “There has been a fire at the breeding ground and all the animals have been destroyed. The Pharaoh has ordered the sacrifice of every temple cat with immediate effect. Even the pets! I’ve never asked anything for myself before and I’m not even sure if I believe in you, but please be merciful and find a way to spare my Little Lion.” I trembled at his words. I didn’t understand much about sacrifice, except it didn’t seem pleasant. I tried not to look at the weird shrunken lifeless creatures that were brought in to the temple and regularly offered to Bastet. The goddess was said to return the favour by blessing the land. It meant the Nile flooded every year and the earth was renewed.
However, the priest’s entreaties were met by a stony silence.
A few days after his plea, the statue of Bastet was carried out to the Hypostyle Hall in readiness for the New Year celebrations. The temple’s tranquility was broken when members of the Pharaoh’s private army appeared. They were flanked by the captain of the guard who stepped forward and pressed the Pharaoh’s seal into the High Priest’s hand.
“Sorry, but the Pharaoh has ordered all the temple cats must be sacrificed, there are to be no exemptions. Not even pets.”
The High Priest turned pale and it was horrible seeing him humiliated. When one of the soldiers advanced brandishing a sword, I hissed and spat like a demented thing.
Amidst the tension, no one noticed the goddess. She had transformed from a sleek black cat with the body of a woman into a vengeful lioness. An almighty roar issued from her throat and the ground shifted beneath our feet.
Now it was the turn of the captain to shake with fear.
“An earthquake. It must be a sign from Bastet! We must leave the cat alone. Let’s get out of here before it’s too late!”
The men didn’t need telling twice. Before long, the entire temple had emptied and the High Priest gathered me in his arms. Somehow, we found a safe spot and waited until the tremors subsided.
The temple lies in ruins, its splendour a thing of the past. A neglected monument, harking geese fly overhead and the pool is home to a regiment of crocodiles.
Mystery surrounds the Pharaoh’s sudden demise, with some whispering of family duplicity. Certainly, he has been replaced by his stepson who rules the nation with a rod of iron.
The new Pharaoh immediately set about establishing his own cult religion and Bastet’s temple went into rapid decline. Her statue was removed and stored in some unknown location. The High Priest was summoned and executed for “treachery.” He was said to be unhappy with the new cult of moon worship saying it was disrespectful to Bastet and the old religious practices.
Little Lion missed the High Priest in the same way she missed Zara. She never saw either of them again. It was hard to make sense of what had happened, but in the end it didn’t matter because she was a survivor. She made the most of each day, exploring the temple grounds with the other cats, living the rest of her life in peace..