Cats: on Christmas cards, but not in the Bible

Each year a special Christmas animal
Whose turn is it this year?

Every year there’s a noticeable particular animal trend in Christmas card pictures.   One year it was penguins, and they were everywhere. It’s been horses (often attached to stagecoaches),

decorated mediaeval hedghog
another festive Christmas hedgehog….nothing new under the sun

occasionally stags, or even hedgehogs in recent years.  Sheep and donkeys often get a look in, but at least they are there in the Gospel narrative. Cutesy polar bears were around last year (nothing to do with the Nativity, and quite a strain. A less cutesy animal is hard to imagine, possibly only the giant squid).  Sometimes the animals are natural(istic), sometimes completely anthropomorphised (e.g. robins with waistcoats).  This year, one Hampshire council has opted for a sixteen-foot neon marmot as its main Christmas display, baffling at least some of its residents (and I have to say I don’t warm to the rodent-type animals, however Christmassily dressed).  I am still working from a very small sample, but I think this year’s animal may turn out to be a reindeer (again).  Maybe there’s a cycle, like Chinese astrological animals, though evidently a different selection (I’ve never seen a Christmas ox, or heard of a Chinese Year of the hedgehog).

lots of animals at once, all celebrating Christmas together as they do
Cats and Christmas

Cats nearly always feature among the Christmas cards, even if they aren’t the main animal that year.   A cosy scene with a fire, a chair, holly round the hearth and a cat curled up on a cushion : this seems to be an irresistible Christmas trope.  Cats represent comfort and cosiness, practically a personification of hygge.  You don’t even have to have a cat to understand the message here, and celebrating warmth and comfort in the middle of a dark winter antedates the Christian era.  So there are lots of cats on Christmas cards; but (except for much later, especially twentieth-century versions) they are not present in the Bethlehem scene.  (Someone actually said that about the marmot, and one can only agree.  They aren’t native to Britain …. or Palestine.)

Nearly everything else, but no cats!
Cats are uncanonical

When I wrote a blog on animals in the psalms, I was slightly surprised to find there were no cats in the psalms at all.  I was even more surprised, on extending my research, to find there were no cats in the Bible (this is making me feel like Edna Mode and ‘no capes’ in The Incredibles).  There are obvious reasons for this.  For a long time the Israelites were in Egypt as slaves.  They preserved their difference and resisted integration by defining themselves against the Egyptians, in various ways.  The Egyptians had a very striking cat-god; the Jews avoided cats, and did not have them in their houses.

The great Egyptian cat at the British Museum,
The animals which are in the Bible

There are big cats in the Bible : mountain lions and proper lions, among the wild beasts and dwellers on the mountains.  They are creatures which the psalmist prays to be delivered from.  But he doesn’t mention domestic animals much.  There are the ones which represent your wealth (sheep, cattle, goats), and there are the wild ones which are a threat to them (lions, wolves, packs of dogs).  There are the (mostly) harmless and beautiful ones whose function is to demonstrate God’s beauty and power (everything else, including birds, fish monsters and hyraxes), but the fireside cat does not feature.

Adam with assorted beasts
Here are the animals waiting to be named, including mediaeval (but not Biblical) cats, bottom left
Putting the feline back into festive

Cat lovers are not to be thwarted, though.  There are lots of books for children which tell the story of the Nativity from the point of view of the stable cat.  There are books about adopting a kitten for Christmas, Christmas carols for cats and even a cat version of The Night Before ChristmasHere is a link to such things if you don’t believe me, and that is only one of many.  That one actually says, disarmingly, ‘It is truly amazing how many great Cat Christmas books are available for the holidays’.  Indeed it is.

a musical cat preparing to join in with the carols
Cats who walk by themselves

These are all fairly gentle and domesticated cats, though, and I have to say that I find the ‘otherness’ of cats is the main part of their charm.  I like the way they leave you alone and have a certain aloofness, more like the Egyptian statues than the ones that look like a version of a teddy (I can feel myself shedding readers as I pursue this!).

Holy Family plus John the Baptist and his cat (Barocci)
A special cat in a special poem

I was lucky enough to read Christopher Smart’s lines on his cat Jeoffry when I was quite little.  I didn’t understand them very well, but I was charmed, and the lines stuck in my mind.   (I came across them in a wonderfully imaginative anthology of children’s verse edited by Louis Untermeyer.)   Smart was a strange man who lived in the eighteenth century and spent a lot of time in an institution for the insane (I’m not calling it a ‘mental hospital’ at this date, as I suspect it was horrific), wrote various books and died eventually in a debtors’ prison.  The lines on Jeoffry are from Jubilate Agno  (Rejoice in the Lamb), which he wrote while in the madhouse, though it wasn’t published until 1939.  Benjamin Britten set some of it to music (here’s a link).

the Minister’s cat is a musical cat
Jubilate Agno, not quite like anything else

It’s a weird work, almost like a compendium.  There are whole sections where each line starts with ‘Let’, and others where the first word is ‘For’, there are alphabetical sections, there are parts which are funny and other parts where it’s unbearably poignant.  Each line is a single sentence, which lends the whole work a sort of declamatory character, despite its being so personal.   Smart is a polymath.  He knows a  lot, but the charm is in how he puts it together.  He is a most precise observer of the natural world, with plenty of time to observe it, and he sees references to God in everything.   He is fascinated by language and music; he loves to make lists; he creates odd correspondences; he is a synaesthetic.   He is completely original and uncompromising.  Some of the time you can’t work out what he is talking about, but you feel that there is a key if only you could find it.

Jeoffry, a religious cat

Jeoffry is out of one of the ‘For’ sections, and the advantage of coming to this strange poem via Jeoffry is that it is such an acute and exact portrayal of a real, beloved cat.  And of course he is a religious cat; the second line of this section is ‘For he is the servant of the living God, duly and daily serving him’.  Smart describes him so vividly that you can see him ‘wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness’.  It’s really difficult to quote from Smart because a lot of the effect is in the accumulation, and I would want to go on for too long, so I recommend looking it up (full text here), and I will just mention a couple more lines : ‘For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him. /For he is of the tribe of Tiger.’  Indeed he is, and William Blake would recognise him.

Leonardo could do cats as well
Putting cats back into the Bible

Smart thought that there should be cats in the Bible.  Indeed, he tells us that they are there, brought out of Egypt where they were numerous and plentiful (sorry, Smart’s style is catching!) : ‘For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. /For every family had one cat at least in the bag.’   You will search for this in the book of Exodus totally in vain; it’s not Moses, it’s Smart.  Smart feels that every home should have a cat because of its services in dealing with pests, but also ‘For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit’, which is exactly what my eldest son would say of his cat today.

Cats packed for travelling
Pest control

The practical point of cats is that they deter rats and mice, though Smart mentions this almost in passing, because he enjoys so many other aspects of Jeoffry.  He does say though that the cat ‘made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services. /For he killed the Icneumon-rat very pernicious by land’, and in the mighty granaries of Egypt the cats must have been very useful.  What did the Israelites do without cats, to protect their stores?

Dealing very efficiently with the Icneumon-rat

Apparently you can also use ferrets or weasels as pest-control, so one suggestion is that the Israelites had ‘house weasels’.  I think these are, however, unlikely ever to figure as Christmas animals. Ferrets and weasels are always baddies (witness The Wind in the Willows), and fairly rat- and mouse-like themselves.   Their size, their type of fur, and their faces are against them.  (I cannot resist making another reference to the marmot.)

Felix feliciter

Christmas cats are here to stay.  They mean comfort and luxuriating in it, which is what we all enjoy at Christmas (after singing our hearts out earlier, of course).  We can only aspire to their total relaxation and satisfaction. I shall leave the last word to Smart and Jeoffry : ‘For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good cat.’

Gainsborough cats

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Animals in the Psalms

The animals went in two by two

Ever since we had the psalm with the seas and whatever moves in them in the last line (Ps 68/69), I have been thinking about the animals in the psalms, so I went back and had a systematic look; and it’s amazing how many there are. They fall into three main categories : creepy-crawlies, birds, and beasts, which is what you would expect.

Beasts, raging and otherwise

The beasts are the most frequent characters on the scene, and they range from sheep and goats to raging beasts. To be specific, we see bulls, cattle, beasts of the field, calves, the young wild ox, mules, wild asses, oxen and deer. We have boars, lions, rabbits (possibly rock hyraxes, in one translation.  I like hyraxes, we came across them in Africa, and they are like overgrown guinea pigs or small wombats), horses and dogs.  At the exciting end of the spectrum we have lions and raging beasts (as a category in their own right), we have monsters in the sea (Ps 73/74) and monsters to play with (Ps 103/104, clearly my kind of psalmist there), we have a dragon (Ps 90/91) and we have Leviathan .  I’ve included sea creatures here, as there are also unspecified fish and the creatures moving in the deep, who set off this line of inquiry in the first place. Interestingly, we do not have any cats in the Psalms, and I think this is more likely to be a reaction against the importance of cats in Egyptian religion than anything else.

Insects and things that sting

I am also using creepy-crawly as a general term, and including not just gnats, dogflies, worms, moths, good bees and bad bees (interesting), grubs, locusts,  but also frogs, adders and vipers.  I suppose you could make out a case for the fish, dragon and Leviathan fitting better into this category (dragons are loathly worms in Malory and old ballads), but I think scale means they fit better among the beasts.

Feathered creatures

In my third category :  apart from the generic ‘birds of the air’, we have sparrows, swallows, hawks and doves, pelicans (very glad to see them.  I have always had a soft spot for that verse in the Adoro te devote which addresses the Lord as a pelican), storks, owls, young ravens, quail (sadly, only in there for meat, and I think God could have given the Israelites something a little less labour-intensive), eagles and another generic, the ‘birds of heaven’, which is the same thing but in a different translation.

Positive and negative

That’s quite a line-up.  I’m sticking rigidly to the Psalms, because if I try and take in a wider part of the Bible, this would be a book rather than a blog;  but even so, that’s quite a lot of variety and differentiation.  The creatures are all real ones (I include the dragon here, as so many animals have been discovered that the psalmist would not have known about that I think it’s only fair to allow him all the ones he names).  What are they there for?  The birds are usually there as an example of praising God, but also the psalmist describes himself as clamouring and moaning like a dove.  The insects are usually there as a bad thing, reminiscences of the plagues of Egypt; the bees are ambiguous because they produce honey from the comb, which is the sweetest thing that the psalmist can think of to compare to the sweetness of God’s law and the joy of obeying it, so they have a good side, as well as being a stinging danger.

Good and bad animals

The beasts fall into two camps.  Like the birds, they can rejoice in creation and give thanks to God.  Beasts of the field are usually entirely positive, because they are there ‘to serve man’s need’, very much according to the original model at creation.  Horses are usually creatures of war.  A horse in war array was the nearest ancient equivalent to the modern tank, and equally devastating if you were a humble foot-soldier, but the psalmist warns that even if it is on your side,’ a vain hope…is the horse, despite its power it cannot save’, and God is the only real source of victory.

Dogs tend to move in packs (sometimes they are even translated as jackals), and they are a threat to a wounded man or a lone traveller.  This reflects reality even today, particularly in mountainous lonely areas.  Raging beasts are obviously a challenge, but they are often generalised because they are metaphorical.

Men more dangerous than animals

One of the striking things about looking at the animals in the psalms is that it is clear the main threat to the good man is from evil men, and they are the problem that he most often calls to God to help with.  The lion roams about roaring and seeking whom he may devour, but it’s just dangerous, it’s not personal spite (unless it’s a metaphor for the devil).  Evil men lurk and prowl like the lion, but without any metaphor they seek your life, take away your good name, deprive you of any pleasure in life so that you might as well be dead, make plots against you;  and God does not move to protect the victim as quickly or completely as he would like.   This is the free will problem.  People cause trouble, and God can help you to deal with the consequences, but he can’t (unlike Superman) change the fact once happened that a wicked person has done something wicked.  Salvation history in a nutshell.

Animal metaphors

One interesting reference to sheep and goats, since herds were usually mixed, is in Psalm 22/23, where they represent us (also in Ps 73, where we are only sheep with no ambiguity).  Usually they are just there as a sort of chorus line or part of the scenery to show peace and tranquillity.  Lambs are emblems of innocence, sometimes joy,  and patient suffering.  They gambol in the fields or they are sacrificed.  It’s very unsentimental.   On the whole though, the animals in the psalms are there as animals, not as representations of something else.  They reflect real observation and experience.  The psalmists are all observant people, and they see all creation as part of God’s plan, either praising him directly  (even inanimate mountains clapping their hands) or just witnessing to him by existing, like the stars.  The lion stands in for the devil, but then it’s difficult to talk about supernatural beings without metaphor (look at what we do when talking about God).  Mostly, evil men are referred to as precisely that, because they can choose to be evil; the animals are all behaving according to their nature, so they can be dangerous but not sinful.

God the ruler over all

God is described as a ‘mighty man’, a ‘man of war’ (I’m accepting the Canticles as part of my psalm corpus again here).   As they say, God made man in his own image and man has been returning the compliment ever since.  He would not be described as any sort of animal (exceptionally he is ‘like a moth’ in Ps 38/39) because I think that would be regarded as disrespectful, with man seen as so clearly the top of the tree.  (I think the moth simile is allowed because the scale makes it so clear that it is indeed merely a simile, not a real comparison.)  C.S.Lewis embodies Christ as a lion, because he’s thinking in more African terms about the lion as the king of beasts (with the mane like an aureole around his face), but God the Father never actually appears in the Narnia universe; he is a shadowy off-stage figure like the point at which parallel lines meet.  The psalmists’ lion is more of a mountain lion, a big and fearsome lynx-like creature, dangerous but not so impressive, not kingly.  In the psalms, where obviously the emphasis is on the Father rather than the Son, we don’t talk about what he looks like, except in human terms of role (the shepherd, the King, the warrior, the judge).  After all, in Jewish tradition, you never try to portray the Almighty.  He’s always modestly wrapped in a cloud, even in the text.

God’s mighty wings

There is one exception to this though:  the Lord has pinions, has mighty wings, (in some translations, feathers, which is a bit too concrete) with which he shelters and rescues us.  (I think this is why it is always the eagles who sort things out at the end of Tolkien’s stories.) God is never described directly as an eagle in the Psalms.  The eagles are one of the parts of creation that do his bidding, sailing in with supplies for the starving prophet  (sorry, that’s not in Psalms, I’m cheating) or being a metaphor for deliverance.   God has pinions.  ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ is a most comforting verse for many.  But I love the dynamism of ‘he will conceal you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Ps 90/91).  You don’t need the wings of a dove (Ps 54/55) for yourself, if the Lord is there to enfold you in soft warmth and carry you to safety.  But imagine how wonderfully exciting it would be.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.