I was born into a house of cats. Three of them watched over me in my cradle: Scylla, a Siamese; Charybdis, an Abyssinian; and Vonce, a basic black cat. Growing up I never knew a house without cats. Many of them were strays that my mother rescued -- one, right from the jaws of certain death, when my mother dashed out of our car in the middle of busy intersection and scooped up a scrawny orange tabby, heedless of the traffic speeding around her on all sides.
Even to this day my mother takes care of feral cats. She makes shelters for them out of large plastic bins and folded towels; she puts food out for them, traps them, takes them to the vet to be spayed or neutered, and then houses them in her basement until they can be adopted out to a deserving family.
Sometimes that adoption happens quickly, and sometimes not.
For months now she has been looking after the last two kittens from a litter of four that she caught. My mother spends hours with them down in her basement, and when she's not caring for them -- or for the two older, permanent-resident cats that she keeps upstairs -- she's calling every shelter and sanctuary she can to find them the right home.
I sometimes wonder what these cats make of her: the tall figure who brought them in from the cold, who feeds them, brushes them, plays with them, changes their litter, and who sometimes brings them upstairs in a carrier so that they can see the sunlight and the world outside. I once read that cats regard their owners as surrogate mothers, but in this case I don't think the word mother does justice to the work my mother has done. To me she is more like an earthly aspect of Bastet, the Egyptian cat-goddess. A benevolent yet unfathomable figure to her animal charges, paradoxically acting as both liberator and jailer, master and servant. She conveys them from a hard, hungry existence to one of comfort, shelter, satiety. And really, isn't that the ultimate function of any god?
Yet unbeknownst to them, her domain is not a terminus. It is merely another stop on a longer journey, one whose ends are unknown even to her. Today, as in Shelly's Ozymandius, Bastet's crumbling statues remind us that even gods have limitations. Like us they must bow to the cruelties of circumstance and the tragic brevity of time.
That was my starting point for "Bastet (the mother of all strays)", my 2015 Mother's Day Card.
The card depicts an earthly Bastet cradling the body and spirit of a stray. To the cat, Bastet has the aspect and ultimate freedom of a goddess, represented here by her relative size and her wings (traditional depictions of Bast do not have wings, but it is common practice to use wings as an artistic indication of divinity, as Gustave Moreau did in Hesiod and the Muse). But we the viewer see Bast as mortal, as represented by the skeleton revealed under transparent flesh. Only Bastet's heart is truly divine.
The stray itself is represented in two aspects: the body by a stone statue, and the soul by three symbols above it: an ankh for the life before, a scarab for the rebirth and life to come, and an idealized cat for the memory of the stray that persists -- for even when they pass out of her care, Bast will remember her charges, and nothing can truly die as long as it is remembered.
I used the GIMP for the editing, together with my Wacom digital tablet.
Nearly all of the ingredients were found on the web. Usually I did Google searches on the subject and picked the image(s) I most liked, regardless of where they came from.
I started with a very basic sketch of an idea, just enough so I knew what elements to start pulling in. I knew that I wanted Bast to be posed in the same way that ancient Egyptian figures were often depicted, with a front-facing body but a side-facing head.
My first element was the human skeleton, which I took from a large version of this anatomical illuistration from a Dover CD. I reversed it and removed the "flesh" lines because I wanted to draw my own. The hips weren't broad enough to read as feminine, so I distorted the lower anatomy as needed. I also broke the left (now right) arm at the shoulder and elbow so that I could reposition the bones, making it look like Bast was holding the "soul of the cat".
In place of the human skull I used this cat skull, with some of the original human vertebrae duplicated and shaded to join up seamlessly with the skull. I chose this cat skull in particular because the engraving style perfectly matched that of the human skeleton.
Next came the wings, which I wanted to look stylized like this actual hieroglyphic. I chose the right wing from this Metropolitan Museum illustration of Egyptian bird ornamentation. I was originally going to use both wings as shown, but Deborah convinced me that the perfect mirroring of the right wing was both more realistic and aesthetically pleasing. I did quite a bit of shading and highlighting to get them to come out the way I wanted.
Now it was time for the flesh. For the hips and thighs I started with a random photograph of a woman who was in approximately the right pose, but in the end I realized that I could dress the bones in flesh more accurately if I worked by hand rather than trying to find a suitable model. I probably should have started with the woman and altered the skeleton to fit (as I have done in the past), but since I wanted a ghostly effect anyway the end result was pretty satisfactory. The ethereal flesh is actually composed of several overlapping layers, some light (where the background is dark) and some dark (where the background is light)
The head had to be convincingly feline, though, so I found an actual cat face that had the right angle and used it pretty much as-is (except for the high-contrast filtering). I liked the way the light picked out the tufts of hair in the front of the ears, so I kept that element.
For the heart I used this heart, lifted above the texture layers to look unusually clear. I liked the blue-green tones of Bast's midriff (basically the result of using actual flesh tones in "divide" mode, which gives a "negative image" effect), so I decided that this would be my symbolic color palette. Dull brown would represent the terrestrial/physical, and its color opposite -- a greenish blue -- would represent the celestial/spiritual. So when it came time for accents I gave the heart a deep blue glow.
The theme of combining physical with spiritual forms came into play for the stray cat that Bast is cradling:
The corporeal aspect of the cat I represented by this Egyptian statuette (which itself may be a symbol of Bastet in her later representation as a domestic cat). For the spiritual aspect I overlapped three separate elements, rising like smoke to produce a sort of totem-pole:
- the ankh to represent the life that just ended,
- the scarab to represent rebirth in an afterlife, and,
- this "Dia de los Muertos"-style cat to represent the memory that would remain in the minds of others long after the cat had departed.
Supporting the cat from below is the hand of Bastet, below which I floated her Egyptian name in hieroglyphics.
The overall effect of these visual elements nicely recalls the jangling sistrum which Bast is holding up in the illustration above. I like to think that this became her symbol because it's basically a cat toy.
The background behind Bast and below her wings is a section of the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" of Hunefer. Well, mostly -- I couldn't resist sneaking in this Eveready "9 Lives" ad. If you hunt for it you might find it.
Bast's Egyptian necklace and her upper-arm bracelet were a later addition, made of postage cancellation marks from here and here. I realized that a postal cancellation mark would be the right shape and also be appropriate for the death theme.
Finally, for a more antique feel I overlayed two textures: a bleached surface which introduced some nice darkness in the outer edges, and two layers of soft grunge which provided the "ancient papyrus" foundation.