The Obsequities of an Egyptian Cat
– John Weguelin (1849–1927)
|Guardian of the Granary
“Danger! Stay away! The trouble has returned!” shouted a young attendant as he ran across the temple courtyard. White-robed priests and their helpers raised their heads in alarm and looked toward the courtyard wall that housed a small group of earthen silos.
“Is it the grain bins again?” the overseer asked, a spry older priest with a shaven head and tall staff that he leaned on, rocking to and fro.
“Oh yes,” the young attendant answered, “it’s the one at the far end. Even though we’ve put spells and charms around it, the trouble is still there.”
It had been a calm, balmy afternoon at the little country temple in the Egyptian province of the “Two Pillars” and the daily chores had been winding to a close. The priests and their helpers had been carefully sweeping up the last bits of loose grain scattered in the great enclosure, hoping for a break from their task and the heat of the day.
And so the group sat in the shade of the tall columns to rest and drink from their water jars. But their boss shook his head with worry. “We’ll have to be very careful going into the granary from now on,” he advised. “until maybe his lordship, the temple cat, wakes up and decides to rid us of the trouble.”
Within earshot of the conversation but well-insulated in the dim light of a temple storeroom, Senur the temple cat raised his ears at the words. He stretched to an even more comfortable pose and heaved a soft sigh. “There they go again, carrying on about the trouble,” he said to himself. “They forget that the granary is getting low and won’t be filled with corn and barley again for awhile. Then the trouble will go away and there won’t be anything more to complain about.”
| Senur had been brought as a kitten
from the House of the Great Cat in Bubastis, a gift to
the priests to be a guard for the temple granary.
Though not often, the place could be overrun by locusts
and vipers, a most unwelcome intrusion in the food
stores of the god’s house. In exchange for chasing these
trespassers away, Senur received fresh meals twice a day
and the run of the little temple. It wasn’t a
grand place like the House of the Great Cat, but it
suited him, the only feline allowed inside the halls and
“I wished they’d just move the silos out of the courtyard,” Senur grumbled on, “then everything wouldn’t look so shabby and invite trouble in the first place.”
In a small tunnel beneath the temple floor, the faint voices of the attendants were also heard, though they didn’t create the same disapproval. Instead, a little shrew mouse poked his head out of the opening and looked about the dim room.
“It’s almost dark,” the little creature noted in his squeaky voice, “time soon to look for something to eat.”
“Hey, who’s there?” Senur said severely, on hearing the faint little voice. “Identify yourself, quickly!” He bent his head down to the floor and peered at the tunnel opening.
“Oh, it’s just me your lordship,” the mouse answered in a quivering voice. “I’ve been in this tunnel for ages and didn’t think anyone else lived here.”
“Well I don’t live here, I’m just taking a nap,” the cat answered sternly, as the mouse timidly emerged from the tunnel. “Are you the trouble they’re talking about out there? The one who’s stealing the temple grain from the cooks and scaring everybody?”
“Oh no,” the mouse answered. “I’m Penui, ("little shrew mouse"). I don’t bother the grain, I’d rather eat bugs and worms and such.”
“Ah, a shrew mouse!” Senur exclaimed. “You’re sacred like me. Well, I guess you have as much a right to be here as I do.”
“Yes, the priests say I belong to the Sun-god,” Penui explained. “Something about banishing the serpent of darkness.”
“Oh, the stories!” Senur exclaimed, “They go on like that with their stories and chants. And the grain – that’s all they care about. They make bread from it, lots and lots of loaves. Every morning the priests bring trays of them into the temple. It’s quite an event.”
“Yes, I hear them,” Penui said. “It’s the morning offering but I’ve never seen it. I like to come out at night when it’s quiet, and I see better in the dark.”
“Well, I can see very well in the dark, too,” Senur asserted, “I patrol the chambers every night to make sure all is well in the temple.”
“Oh, then I don’t mean to keep you,” Penui said apologetically. “I can go back to my tunnel and leave you to your business,” and he began scurrying toward his home.
But as Penui tried to return, Senur spoke to divert him. “Wait, wait! Maybe you could come with me on my patrol. I could use your company, four eyes that see in the dark are much better than two.”
“Really, me? Patrol the temple? Why, I would be honored your lordship.”
“Stop calling me that,” his new acquaintance advised, “The priests say that just to annoy me. You can call me Senur ("big brother").
As darkness descended, the two odd companions padded slowly past the tall columns of the Great Hall in the temple. “It’s really nice and quiet here at night,” Penui observed, “No one is about and we really do have the whole place to ourselves.”
“Well, not quite,” Senur responded. “There’s been trouble out in the courtyard that I haven’t been able to get rid of, even though I’m pretty quick. The priests complain about it but I can’t do everything by myself. Like you said, no one else is about!”
“But I’m here now,” Penui said, “maybe I could help you get rid of the trouble.”
The temple cat stopped at the thought and flicked his long, striped tail back and forth. “Thanks, but... you’re just a shrew mouse and the trouble is pretty big and scary.”
“I’m not scared,” Penui assured him. “I can see in the dark and I’m pretty quick myself.”
“I’ll think about it,” his new friend said, “but you’ll have to go on a few more patrols before we can do anything. In the meantime, if you see anything strange promise me you’ll just call out, ‘Where is my friend Senur?’ ”
The Sun god as a great cat beheading the serpent of darkness.
– Papyrus Hunefer, British Museum (Photo courtesy of Jon Bodsworth)
And so a few days went by, then a few weeks. Most evenings when Senur wasn’t sleeping late, Penui met the temple cat in the courtyard, and together they patrolled the corridors and chambers of the temple, four eyes searching the dark for trouble. Then, the season changed from growing to harvest, and the granary in the courtyard was full of corn and barley again.
One moonless night Penui scurried out to the courtyard to meet his friend, but the vast space was quiet and dark. Thinking that he was sleeping late again, the little mouse waited patiently next to one of the grain bins. “Maybe Senur really is lazy,” he said to himself, “and maybe that’s why the House of the Great Cat sent him here.”
Suddenly he heard it – a slow, slithering whoosh, and his ears perked. “What could Senur be doing behind the grain bin?” he thought, listening carefully. The sound stopped, but then it started up again. Penui turned and looked into the darkness, waiting for his friend to appear. And then he saw it.
The serpent of darkness.
Glowing eyes, a long, shimmering body without end, a hypnotic gaze that struck Penui with great fear. “Oh please,” he said desperately to the darkness, “Where is my friend Senur?” Silence. Then whoosh, and – whack!
“Run Penui, run back into the temple!” Senur shouted, but his little friend was frozen, watching in amazement as the temple cat dispatched the trouble – a large serpent that flailed in the dust as his adversary sunk his teeth and claws into him.
___________________The cooks laughed with the overseer as they filled their baskets with grain for the morning bread. “Looks like you have a proper guardian after all,” one of them said to his boss. “It took long enough, but he sure got rid of the trouble!”
In the dim light of the temple storeroom, Senur stretched to an even more comfortable pose. “There they go again, carrying on about the trouble,” he said to Penui, also stretched out at the entry of his little tunnel. “They forget that only the sacred cat and mouse can banish the serpent of darkness.”
More info on the Egyptian shrew mouse
Pharaonic Dog – Howard Carter
| Pharaoh’s Friend
by Rosemary Clark
I was born in the season of Inundation, when the river Nile floods the lowlands and brings rich silt from the southern land of Kush to mingle with the black soil of Egypt. It was just before the thirtieth year of His Majesty Intef II, known to me and his kin as Wa-Ankh, "enduring of life.”
As firstborn and strongest of my siblings, I drew much attention in the household of Thethi, chief treasurer of the king and overseer of the vast temple estates in Thebes. Being a very wise man, he held me up before my eyes had even opened, pronouncing me of fit and noble appearance, enough to deserve special consideration.
“Ah yes,” he said. “This one is worthy to be the gift to my lord in honour of his thirtieth jubilee, an offering that none could possibly rival.”
My master was speaking of the coming festivities that would honour the king’s anniversary. They would be celebrated throughout the country, from the great temple cities to the smallest towns along the river. No one alive could remember Pharaoh presiding over the Two Lands for such an extended time, and a mostly peaceful term at that. Though before my birth there had occasionally been rebellious factions from Herakleopolis. The rebels had created skirmishes with Pharaoh’s guard, who had always dealt with them quickly and effectively. That was because Wa-Ankh was a brave and just ruler, one who inspired his subjects yet drew awe from his enemies.
| Thus, from a pup I was singled out to
enter the Royal House and
qualify to the rank of
Hunting Companion , devoted for life to the service
of His Majesty. But that was to come. At just two
weeks old, I had already ventured out of my soft bed
of rushes to explore the courtyard of my master and
pull at the woven ropes his children teased me with.
I ran, jumped, and retrieved the throw sticks they
passed through the air, distinguishing myself in
Then after three months, the coat of my youth had sloughed off, revealing numerous bright spots of white on my sable torso to match my white feet. One day after I had fetched dozens of hand balls and throw sticks from the children of the house, Thethi stood before me with satisfaction.
“So far you have proven my high estimation of you to be correct,” he said with his hands on his hips. “But it is time for you to become accustomed to the duties I have chosen for you.”
A linen cord was then placed around my neck and I was taken with my master in his chair to the palace kennel in Thebes. Such a fine place it was! My new home was a stone brick enclosure under a grove of shady Persea trees, bordered by a canal flowing with Nile water.
I was not alone. My new family included other hunting companions, some young like me and others of advanced age. And we were as different as the birds that nested in the Persea trees above, of many colours and sizes, some shy and others proud.
On my first day I was washed and anointed, my ears pierced with small gold rings. Every day after that the routine hardly varied; a morning run along the canal, breakfast of bread soaked in sour milk, exercise of jumping and retrieving followed by a big meal from a catch the fowlers brought at midday. In the heat of the afternoon, rest under the shade of the trees and at sunset, a stew of ox followed by brisk play and a coat brushing. By the time I was nine months of age, the kennel grooms hailed my swiftness and strength.
Some of the companions were regularly brought to the Royal House, to spend time with His Majesty and learn his commands. I remember the first time I was taken to Pharaoh¹s quarters, because that was when I received my name. In the early evening we entered the palace, ablaze with colour from hundreds of lamps. Light reflected from the vast golden floor, which I crossed with awe and expectation, my ears alert to new sounds; music, laughter, the querulous speech of cats.
It was my former master Thethi who spoke when I entered the royal chamber. “I am honoured to present you with the noblest of companions Majesty,” he said as he spread his hands, palms down, before him. “He is matchless in every way, as your groomsmen will attest. Let him prove his worth throughout the long years the gods have conferred upon you.”
The cord upon my neck was loosed, and I stepped upon the platform before the king. In imitation of my former master who remained bowed, I also extended my paws and lowered my head.
“Such a beauty!” Wa-Ankh exclaimed. “Come friend, let me see your coat.” I obeyed, but gulped nervously as the royal hand brushed over my back and rump.
“I shall call you Abutiyu (the speckled one)," he continued, “because your coat looks like the night sky, covered with stars.” He eyed me carefully for a moment. “Now show me, catch this!” he shouted, as he threw a baton from his lap into the air.
Two steps, a leap, an easy catch. I returned to His Majesty with the baton, dropping it back into his lap.
“Bring him to me tomorrow,” he said to one of the grooms. “I want him to accompany the next hunt.” He touched my head lightly, then rose and left the chamber.
I cannot describe all the things that transpired after that day. I was taken to the Royal House and took part in Pharaoh’s routine. Instead of running along the canal with the other companions, I chased and caught throw sticks hurled by the king. He allowed me to sit at his feet as he dictated letters and conferred with his counsellors. After a year I was even given a special friend, a lovely runner like myself named Mahedj, "the gazelle."
But best of all, I accompanied Pharaoh and his retinue across the river in the royal barge, to run after rabbits and antelope in the vast fields beyond the cultivated land. Bowmen from the local villages shouted with excitement when Pharaoh appeared, eager to take part in the hunt. And I, foremost of his hunting companions, often led the chase.
On one of those occasions when we travelled to the western bank of the river, Wa-Ankh stopped to visit a chapel on a hill overlooking the field, allowing me to accompany him into the dim chamber.
“See here, Abutiyu,” he said to me, “The lord of your kind is guardian of this place. He leads the souls of those departed into the Western Land. He is Anubis, the Opener of the Ways.”
I looked upon the image that was majestically elevated behind a stone altar. Indeed, the god of this place was a dark hound with raised ears and piercing eyes. I lowered my head in reverence, but could not help glancing at the king, whose hands rested upon the altar in deep contemplation. After a quiet moment, he struck his breast and then turned to leave. I followed, but of course I was captivated by this visit and looked back at the image. One of my kind among the gods of Egypt ! It was unforgettable.
A few years passed and I was content, living in the house of His Majesty, sometimes standing guard at the chamber where he slept. Then news came that of unrest in some of the villages on the western bank. Pharaoh¹s guard even had to be sent to quiet the disturbances. On those occasions we did not go across the river to hunt, but stayed in Thebes. I sorely missed those excursions, and so did my royal master. He swatted his fly whisk about in the afternoons, grumbling about his restless subjects. One day after doing this, he looked down as I stood at his feet.
| “My friend, tomorrow we shall go to
the western fields and run with the antelope,” he said,
rubbing my uplifted chin. “We will put an end to this
palace boredom and be with our companions once again.”
It was a bright morning when we set out, with Pharaoh¹s guard marching briskly ahead and the bowmen singing songs of valor. Many companions from the royal kennel joined us, Abaqer, the swift one, Kemu the black one, and the twin hounds from Libya, Tekenru and Teqeru. After crossing the river, we jumped with excitement, barely able to restrain ourselves from the woven ropes cinched to our leather collars while the kennel grooms also shouted with joy. Then to the north we journeyed, greeting villagers along the way.
But on entering a dry expanse beyond the Theban plain, a group of royal guards ahead of us turned back and warned that a hostile band had been seen in the hills and a return to the city was advised. His Majesty was much annoyed by this news, but waved at his retinue to reverse course.
It was then that the confusion descended. First with the appearance on the cliffs above of several bowmen, unknown to us. Then a company of soldiers marched swiftly toward us from a cleft in the western hills, carrying the war standards of Herakleopolis. His Majesty was calm, but directed his guard to engage the interlopers rather than flee. The kennel grooms were alarmed though, and let the ropes loose from our collars in fear. I looked to Wa-Ankh, wanting to be with him at this fearful moment.
It was then that I saw the bowman above us, intent on His Majesty. It was the sound of the arrow flying down toward us that caused me to run to my master. Somewhere in the din, I heard him cry out my name.
Two steps, a leap, an easy catch. But this was not the king¹s baton I had retrieved. Instead it was an arrow which had been aimed at the king. His Majesty had seen my action, and on our return to the palace declared that I had saved him from injury. By Royal Decree henceforth I was to be known as Pharaoh’s Friend and be honoured as his personal guard and trusted attendant.
Thus it was that for many years I served His Majesty day and night, always at his side, his loyal and trusted companion wherever he was, whatever he was doing.
In the fullness of time I found myself once again in the chapel of Anubis, above the western cemetery in Thebes, where Wa-Ankh had shown me the sanctuary of the Opener of the Ways years before. This time I was alone. The graven image of the god was no longer silent, but now spoke to me as one familiar companion to another.
“You will open the way for your master, when his day of entering the Western Land comes to pass,” he said to me. “He will know you, and you will know him, and you will both run with the antelope in the Field of Peace."
Beyond mortal life lies worlds that the ancient Egyptians mapped in great detail – through texts, images, and sacred spaces in temple and tomb. In the same manner that they approached life and the activation of magical powers to enhance it, they also approached death with the goal of using magic once more, to enter the worlds of nature and the gods. In the tomb of Tutankhamun, the young king proceeds on this archetypal journey, and we may follow him to that sublime destination called "eternal life."
The Magic of Tutankhamun
Discovering a Sacred Language
To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.
– Ancient Egyptian inscription
Many of us keenly feel the absence of ritual in modern life, and recognize the emptiness that results from daily routines lacking in color or meaning. It seems to us that in past times, life was more often punctuated by rituals and ceremonies that provided that lack, along with a close familiarity with nature and divine life.
This was a sentiment often expressed to me by students in astrological and meditation groups I conducted over the years, as we sought to re-learn some of the sacred languages of the past. Those ancient mythologies, religions, and occult sciences beckoned to us with a deep resonance and left us with a desire to understand their possible role in our lives.
But it soon became apparent that satisfying our intellectual curiosity about those languages did not wholly resolve the need. They had to be spoken, and expressed in their context, in order to be fully understood and live in our dimension. And it was Egypt that continually arose as the mother lode of of all sacred languages – the cosmology, magic, architecture, and astronomy of the ancient temple. These realms of knowledge were not segregated in past times as they are now, but formed a comprehensive world view that explained the relationship between the cosmic life, nature, and human beings.
Senusert offering to Ra Harakhte
Karnak, Open Air Museum
| This realization resulted in the
re-creation of a temple practicum that became the
directive for my research and retrieval of Egyptian
spirituality. Through this, I understood how the
essential sacred language of ancient Egypt was ritual,
and it was embedded in every aspect of the culture over
several millennia – long enough for other civilizations
in its proximity to acknowledge its antiquity and power.
But how was that language spoken?
Egypt’s divine images provide us with the first key. The cosmic gods and goddesses, spirits of celestial time and geographic place, and even divinized human beings in a vast pantheon reflect an understanding of the spiritual functions of the universe. They are letters in the sacred alphabet, standing for the sounds of creation. And rather than being remote or removed from earthly life, the Egyptians understood those functions as immanent in nature and human beings. Thus, they are not only accessible – they are bonded to our existence as much as we are to theirs. This is the key that provides us with the “what.”
The second key comes from understanding the rhythm of the sacred language – celestial phenomena. Divine beings, the Neteru, were believed to reside in the physical substance of the heavenly bodies – the stars and planets. Thus, we may communicate most effectively when we follow the approach of the ancients by observing the periods and cycles of planets and constellations. For example, the Egyptians observed certain rituals at the New and Full Moons, and the ingresses of the Sun into certain domains in the sky. This is the key that provides us with the “when.”
The third key is provided by the ancient legends. They were not viewed as “myths” by the Egyptians, but were believed to have been actual events that transpired when human and divine beings co-existed. For example, one legend concerns the reanimation of the god Osiris after being slain by his brother, Set. Another tells of the sacred marriage between Hathor and Horus, who by their mating unite the Lunar and Solar lights in the sky.
Temple ritual was intended as the re-creation of those acts that gave life to the universe, so that it could be maintained in its original order and balance. It was endowed to the human race in Sep Tepi, the “first moment” in time, so that the timeless dimension in which gods and humans existed could be realized once more. Thus, the Egyptian ritual of the Opening of the Mouth is a reenactment of restoring the senses of Osiris, and the Festival of the Divine Union is a re-consummation of the divine matrimony that created the luminaries. This is the key that provides us with the “how.”
In the Egyptian approach to spiritual work, speaking the sacred language is not only possible, it is the natural outcome of employing divine images, sacred calendars, and enacting timeless ritual acts. It is a process of speaking once more to the gods, and engaging in a divine conversation that may have begun in the mists of the past, but can continue to enrich us in the present.