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Egyptologist Meets a Cat Goddess October 13, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

***Dedicated to Silvia***

Today a cat, a goddess and the great Egyptologist Arthur Weigall (obit 1934). For those who don’t know the name, AW was a British national who got involved in the race for knowledge and treasure in the Nile Delta in the early part of the twentieth century. He worked as an archaeologist and later an inspector and a journalist, in which role he covered Carnavon’s descent into Tutankhamen’s tomb. Unusually, among the greats of this phase of Egyptology, Weigall had a sympathy for the Egyptian culture of his contemporaries. This respect for his adopted land meant not only that he worked for the interests of Egypt as opposed to the European and North American vultures who were despoiling it. But also that he took local beliefs more seriously than the Germans, Americans and Britons he commonly rubbed shoulders with. He famously said, for example, of Lord Carnarvon’s decision to hold a lunch party in Tutankhamen’s tomb: ‘If that is the spirit in which he is going down, he will not live for six weeks.’ Clearly, Weigall found Carnarvon’s whole attitude sacrilegious, which suggests he had, at least to some extent, gone native.

In any case, what of Weigall’s own act of sacrilege? The following tale was recorded in 1964 by Nandor Fodor. Probably Fodor picked it up from somewhere in Weigall’s immense corpus of written work and paraphrased it. Certainly, there was a Weigall family legend about ‘mummified cats, ghostly goings on and so on’ [scroll down to comments in link].  Weigall, Fodor explains, found a:

porcelain cat, a fresh find which, he thought, probably contained the mummy of the actual animal – sacred to Bubastis, the cat-headed god of Love.

Now Bubastis was actually the city of the god Bastet or Bast, the cat goddess, (by all accounts, a sexy little minx as long as you didn’t tread on her tail) where some half million cats were buried: Fodor has made an uncharacteristic mistake here. We wonder what other details he got wrong?

Dr Weigall took [the porcelain cat] home for an examination, but was unable to discover the joint between the two halves. That night he found himself unable to go to sleep. This sudden attack of insomnia is one of the common features connected with Egyptian relics. The excitement of his unconscious was indicated by strange fancies. The cat seemed to move and glare at him. After tossing about for hours, he fell asleep, only to be awakened by a tremendous report – a second common feature in these mystery stories [Fodor gives two others]. He jumped out of bed and found himself attacked by a huge grey cat which clawed his face and hands, and then flew out through the window. Dr Weigall rushed to the window in time to see his own cat in the garden bristling at an intruder that had disappeared in the bushes. The attacker must have been objective enough to be seen by another cat, and so were the claw marks. On turning to the porcelain cat, he found the casing split wide open. Exposed and standing perfectly upright, a mummified cat was staring at him.

Weigall sometimes refers in his published work to the idea still current in Egypt that certain men – particularly male twins – were capable of turning into cats. For example:

An Egyptian gentleman holding an important administrative post, told me the other day how his cousin was wont to change himself into a cat at night time, and to prowl about the town. When a boy, his father noticed this peculiarity, and on one occasion chased and beat the cat, with the result that the boy’s body next morning was found to be covered with stripes and bruises.

Weigall also had for some years in the 1910s or 1920s a cat named Basta, essentially the name of cat goddess that stands at the head of this post. Was this the cat who met the clawing demon in Weigall’s, presumably, waking dream? Or perhaps Fodor got this story at third-hand and somehow confused a cat ghost with Basta? Weigall believed, he explained in an article from 1933, that Basta had psychic gifts of its own.

I think she must have been clairvoyant, for she often seemed to be seeing things not visible to me. Sometimes, perhaps when she was cleaning fish or mouse from her face, she would pause with one foot off the ground and stare in front of her, and then back away with bristling hair or go forward with friendly little mewing noises; and sometimes she would leap off a chair or sofa, her tail lashing and her green eyes dilated. But it may have been worms. Once I saw her standing absolutely rigid and tense on the lawn, staring at the rising moon; and then all of a sudden she did a sort of dance such as cats sometimes do when they are playing with other cats. But there was no other cat, and, anyway, Basta never played; she never forgot that she was a holy cat.

Beach would love either to track down through the Weigall family (see link above) or through any Egyptologist the original version of Nandor’s ghost story. Can anyone help? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


13 October 2012:  Southern Man writes in having kindly excerpted the relevant 1933 article, not all is history, but it is entertaining. Thanks SM! ‘One summer during a heat wave, when the temperature in the shade of my veranda in Luxor was a hundred and twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, I went down to cooler Lower Egypt to pay a visit to an English friend of mine stationed at Zagazig, the native city which stands beside the ruins of ancient Bubastis. He was about to leave Egypt, and asked me whether I would like to have his cat, a dignified, mystical-minded, long-legged, small-headed, green-eyed female, whose orange-yellow hair, marked with grayish-black stripes in tabby pattern, was so short that she gave the impression of being naked – an impression, however, which did not in any way detract from her air of virginal chastity. Her name was Basta, and though her more recent ancestors had lived wild amongst the ruins, she was so obviously a descendant of the holy cats of ancient times, who were incarnations of the goddess Basta, that I thought it only right to accept the offer and take her up to Luxor to live with me. To be the expert in charge of Egyptian antiquities and not have an ancient Egyptian cat to give an air of mystery to my headquarters had, indeed, always seemed to me to be somewhat wanting in showmanship on my part. Thus it came about that on my departure I drove off to the railroad station with the usually dignified Basta bumping around and uttering unearthly howls inside a cardboard hatbox, in the side of which I had cut a small round hole for ventilation. The people in the streets and on the station platform seemed to be under the impression that the noises were digestive and that I was in dire need of a doctor; and it was a great relief to my embarrassment when the hot and panting train steamed into Luxor. Fortunately I found myself alone in the compartment, and the hatbox on the seat at my side had begun to cause me less anxiety, when suddenly Basta was seized with a sort of religious frenzy. The box rocked about, and presently out through the air-hole came a long, snake-like paw which waved weirdly to and fro in space for a moment, and then was withdrawn, its place being taken by a pink nose which pushed itself outward with such frantic force that the sides of the hole gave way, and out burst the entire sandy, sacred head. She then began to choke, for the cardboard was pressing tightly around her neck; and to save her from strangulation I was obliged to tear the aperture open, whereupon she wriggled out leaped in divine frenzy up the side of the carriage, and prostrated herself on the network of the baggage rack, where her hysteria caused her to lose all control of her internal arrangements, and if I say modestly that she was overcome with nausea I shall be telling but a part of the dreadful tale. The rest of the journey was like a bad dream; but at the Cairo terminus, where I had to change into the night express for Luxor, I got the help of a native policeman who secured a large laundry basket from the sleeping-car department, and after a prolonged struggle, during which the train was shunted into a distant siding, we imprisoned the struggling Basta again. The perspiring policeman and I then carried the basket at a run along the tracks back to the station in the sweltering heat of the late afternoon, and 1 just managed to catch my train; but during this second part of my journey Basta traveled in the baggage van, whence, in the hot and silent night, whenever we were at a standstill, her appalling incantations came drifting to my ears. I opened the basket in an unfurnished spare room in my house, and like a flash Basta was up the bare wall and onto the curtain pole above the window. There she remained all day, in a sort of mystic trance; but at sunset the saucer of milk and plate of fish which I had provided for her at last enticed her down, and in the end she reconciled herself to her new surroundings, and indicated by her behavior that she was willing to accept my house as her earthly temple. With Pedro, my pariah dog, there was not the slightest trouble; he had no strong feelings about cats, and she on her part graciously deigned to acknowledge his status as, I believe, is generally the case in native households. She sometimes condescended to visit my horse and donkey in their stalls; and for Laura, my camel, she quickly developed a real regard, often sleeping for hours in her stable. I was not worried as to how she would treat the chickens and pigeons, because her former owner at Zagazig had insisted upon her respecting his hen-coop and pigeon-cote; but I was a little anxious about the ducks, for she had not previously known any, and in ancient times her ancestors used to be trained to hunt wild geese and ducks and were fed with pute de foie gras, or whatever it was called then, on holy days and anniversaries. In a corner of the garden I had made a miniature duck pond which was sunk rather deeply in the ground and down to which I had cut a narrow, steeply sloping passage, or gangway. During the day, after the ducks had been up and down this slope several times, the surface used to become wet and slippery, and the ducks having waddled down the first few inches, were forced to toboggan down the rest of it on their tails, with their two feet sticking out in front of them and their heads well up. Basta was always fascinated by this slide and by the splash at the bottom, and used to sit and watch it all for hours, which made me think at first that she would one day spring at one of them; but she never did. Field mice, and water rats down by the Nile, were her only prey; and in connection with the former I may mention a curious occurrence. One hot night I was sitting smoking my pipe on the veranda, when my attention was attracted by two mice which had crept into the patch of brilliant moonlight before my feet and were boldly nibbling some crumbs left over from a cracker thrown to Pedro earlier in the evening. I watched them silently for a while and did not notice that Basta had seen them and was preparing to spring, nor did I observe a large white owl sitting aloft amongst the overhanging roses and also preparing to pounce. Suddenly, and precisely at the same moment, the owl shot down on the mice from above and Basta leaped at them from beside me. There was a collision and a wild scuffle; fur and feathers flew; I fell out of my chair; and then the owl made off screeching in one direction and the cat dashed away in the other; while the mice, practically clinging to each other, remained for a moment or so too terrified to move. During the early days of her residence in Luxor, Basta often used to go down to the edge of the Nile to fish with her paw; but she never caught anything, and in the end she got a fright and gave it up. I was sitting by the river watching her trying to catch one of a little shoal of small fish which were sunning themselves in the shallow water when there came swimming into view a twelve- or fourteen-inch fish which I recognized (by its whiskers and the absence of a dorsal fin) as the electric catfish, pretty common in the Nile – a strange creature able to give you an electric shock like hitting your funnybone. These fish obtain their food in a curious way: they hang round any shoal of small fry engaged in feeding, and then glide quietly into their midst and throw out this electric shock, whereupon the little fellows are all sick to the stomach, and the big fellow gets their disgorged dinners. I was just waiting to see this happen with my own eyes –for it had always seemed a bit far-fetched – when Basta made a dart at the intruder with her paw, and got a shock. She uttered a yowl as though somebody had trodden on her, and leaped high in the air; and never again did she put her foot near the water. She was content after that with our daily offering of a fish brought from the market and fried for her like a burnt sacrifice. Basta had a most unearthly voice, and when she was feeling emotional would let out a wail which at first was like the crying of a phantom baby, and then became the tuneless song of a lunatic, and finally developed into the blood-curdling howl of a soul in torment. And when she spat, the percussion was like that of a spring-gun. There were some wild cats, or, rather, domestic cats who, like Basta’s own forbears, had taken to a wild life, living in a grove of trees beside the river just beyond my garden wall; and it was generally the proximity of one of these which started her off; but sometimes the outburst was caused by her own unfathomable thoughts as she went her mysterious ways in the darkness of the night. I think she must have been clairvoyant, for she often seemed to be seeing things not visible to me. Sometimes, perhaps when she was cleaning fish or mouse from her face, she would pause with one foot off the ground and stare in front of her, and then back away with bristling hair or go forward with friendly little mewing noises; and sometimes she would leap off a chair or sofa, her tail lashing and her green eyes dilated. But it may have been worms. Once I saw her standing absolutely rigid and tense on the lawn, staring at the rising moon; and then all of a sudden she did a sort of dance such as cats sometimes do when they are playing with other cats. But there was no other cat, and, anyway, Basta never played; she never forgot that she was a holy cat. Her chaste hauteur was so great that she would not move out of the way when people were walking about, and many a time her demoniacal shriek and perhaps a crash of breaking glass informed the household that somebody had tripped over her. It was astonishing, however, how quickly she recovered her dignity and how well she maintained the pretense that whatever happened to her was at her own celestial wish and was not our doing. If I called her she would pretend not to hear, but would come a few moments later when it could appear that she had thought of doing so first; and if I lifted her off a chair she would jump back onto it and then descend with dignity as though of her own free will. But in this, of course, she was more like a woman than like a divinity. The Egyptian cat is a domesticated species of the African wildcat, and no doubt its strange behavior and its weird voice were the cause of it being regarded as sacred in ancient times; but, although the old gods and their worship have been forgotten these many centuries, the traditional sanctity of the race has survived. Modern Egyptians think it unlucky to hurt a cat, and in the native quarters of Cairo and other cities hundreds of cats are daily fed at the expense of benevolent citizens. They say that they do this because cats are so useful to mankind in killing off mice and other pests; but actually it is an unrecognized survival of the old beliefs. In the days of the Pharaohs, when a cat died the men of the household shaved off their eyebrows and sat around wailing and rocking themselves to and fro in simulated anguish. The body was embalmed and buried with solemn rites in the local cats’ cemetery, or was sent down to Bubastis to rest in the shadow of the temple of their patron goddess. I myself have dug up hundreds of mummified cats; and once when I had a couple of dozen of the best specimens standing on my veranda waiting to be dispatched to the Cairo Museum, Basta was most excited about it, and walked around sniffing at them all day. They certainly smelled awful. On my lawn there was a square slab of stone which had once been the top of an altar dedicated to the sun god, but was now used as a sort of low garden table; and sometimes when she had caught a mouse she used to deposit the chewed corpse upon this slab, nobody could think why, unless, as I always told people, she was really making an offering to the sun. It was most mysterious of her; but it led once to a very unfortunate episode. A famous French antiquarian, who was paying a polite call, was sitting with me beside this sacred stone, drinking afternoon tea and eating fresh dates when Basta appeared on the scene with a small dead mouse in her mouth, which in her usual way she deposited upon the slab, only on this occasion she laid it on my guest’s plate, which was standing on the slab. We were talking at the moment and did not see her do this, and anyhow the Frenchman was as blind as a bat; and, of course, as luck would have it, he immediately picked up the wet, molecolored mouse instead of a ripe brown date, and the thing had almost gone into his mouth before he saw what it was and, with a yell, flung it into the air. It fell into his upturned sun-helmet, which was lying on the grass beside him; but he did not see where it had gone, and jumping angrily to his feet in the momentary belief that I had played a schoolboy joke on him, he snatched up his helmet and was in the act of putting it on his head when the mouse tumbled out onto the front of his shirt and slipped down inside his buttoned jacket. At this he went more or less mad, danced about, shook himself, and finally trod on Basta, who completed his frenzy by uttering a fiendish howl and digging her claws into his leg. The dead mouse, I am glad to say, fell onto the grass during the dance without passing through his roomy trousers as I had feared it might; and Basta, recovering her dignity, picked it up and walked off with it. It is a remarkable fact that during the five or six years she spent with me she showed no desire to be anything but a spinster all her life, and when I arranged a marriage for her she displayed such dignified but violent antipathy toward the bridegroom that the match was a failure. In the end, however, she fell in love with one of the wild cats who lived among the trees beyond my wall, and nothing could prevent her going off to visit him from time to time, generally at dead of night. He did not care a hoot about her sanctity, and she was feminine enough to enjoy the novelty of being roughly treated. I never actually saw him, for he did not venture into the garden, but I used to hear him knocking her about outside my gates; and when she came home, scratched and bitten and muttering something about holy cats, it was plain that she was desperately happy. She licked her wounds, indeed, with deep and voluptuous satisfaction. A dreadful change came over her. She lost her precious dignity, and was restless and inclined to be savage; her digestion played embarrassing tricks on her; and once she mortally offended Laura by clawing her nose. There was a new glint in her green eyes as she watched the ducks sliding into the pond; the pigeons interested her for the first time; and for the first time, too, she ate the mice she had caught. Then she began to disappear for a whole day or night at a time, and once when I went in search of her amongst the trees outside and found her sharpening her claws on a branch above my head, she put her ears back and hissed at me until I could see every one of her teeth and halfway down her pink throat. I tried by every method to keep her at home when she came back, but it was all in vain, and at last she left me forever. Weeks afterward I caught sight of her once again amongst the trees, and it was evident that she was soon to become a mother. She gave me a friendly little mew this time, but she would not let me touch her; and presently she slipped away into the undergrowth. I never knew what became of her.’