My current work in progress (WIP)is “The Vanguard: The Cats that Conquered Egypt.” This is about the Battle of Pelusium, which took place in 525 BCE between the Ancient Egyptians and Persians. Legend has it that the Persians put cats (and other animals, although this part gets left out of a lot of retellings) on the battlefield before them in order to discourage the Egyptians from attacking; the Egyptians at that time held cats sacred and actually put to death anyone who killed a cat, even if it was by accident.
When Cambyses attacked Pelusium, which guarded the entrance into Egypt, the Egyptians defended it with great resolution. They advanced formidable engines against the besiegers, and hurled missiles, stones, and fire at them from their catapults. To counter this destructive barrage, Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The Egyptians immediately stopped their operations, out of fear of hurting the animals, which they hold in great veneration. Cambyses captured Pelusium, and thereby opened up for himself the route into Egypt.
Polyaenus - Strategems, VII.9 (Published 163 A.D.)
Realistically, this almost certainly didn’t happen and if anything like it DID happen, the Persians probably just painted cats and/or Egyptian gods on their shields. But it’s a great story, and I do love my cat legends.
The story starts about a year or so before the battle and tells the background leading up to the battle from the point of view of two cats. One cat, Bahadur (this is Farsi for “fighter”), lives in the royal palace kitchens in Persepolis, Persia, and ends up befriending an Egyptian woman who is sent to the Persian King as a decoy wife (he had asked for the current pharaoh’s daughter in marriage; he actually sent the PREVIOUS pharoah’s daughter instead, which Cambyses took as a grave insult). The other cat, Nedjem (which actually just means “sweetie” - Egyptian cats weren’t usually given individual names), is the in-house cat in the Department for the Protection of Cats (Upper Egypt branch) in Thebes. This government agency (which actually existed, although we have no idea what it was actually called or how exactly it functioned) existed to prevent the exportation of cats out of Egypt. I’ve also put them in charge of punishing people who hurt or kill cats, as it makes sense to me, but I have no actual evidence that this was the case.
I had planned on publishing this on Amazon in July but it’s actually still not finished, for a few reasons. The primary reason is that my face and head have hurt for most of the last month, which made it harder for me to like, concentrate on anything, and I’ve had to spend a lot more time at various doctors’ offices lately than I’d like. Ends up I have a deviated septum which is causing all the problems and I’m getting a septoplasty next Wednesday for it. Yay. PLUS, this story has honestly just been a lot more complicated and interesting and difficult than I thought it would be. It’s turned from a short story into more of a novella, as it’s over 14,000 words now and I still have a few more chapters to write.
So since the story itself isn’t quite out yet, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite tidbits I’ve learned in my research.
There’s evidence that every cat in Ancient Egypt was considered a demi-god. Mere humans couldn’t own a cat, and all cats were under the guardianship of the pharaoh.
Diodorus Siculus wrote “Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.”
Instructions for the deceased were written on the inside of sarcophagi. These would remind the soul of who they’d been in life and what to do in the afterlife.
Ancient Persians practiced Zoroastrianism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. Zoroastrians consider both water and fire life-sustaining, so they generally pray in the presence of some form of fire. They did not build temples, altars, or statues of their god. As they conquered numerous other countries, they allowed them to keep their temples and practice their religions, but did not build any new ones. It’s believed that the tenets of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) were all shaped by Zoroastrianism, as it established the idea of one god, heaven, hell, and a judgment day. It’s still practiced today, particularly in India.
Oh fun fact - “Magi” literally refers to priests of zoroastrianism. So the three Magi were three…priests of zoroastrianism. I thought all this time it was just a fancy word for “wise men.” That must be a thing they just tell you at church.
Zoroastrians didn’t really like cats - it was sad they were created by an evil spirit and there were numerous supersitions against them- but plenty of ancient Persians kept cats as pets anyway. At one point, there was a prince who loved his cat so much that petitioners would write out their requests and tie them to the cat’s collar so he’d have to see them!