Mau of the Pharaohs

by Robin Praytor

The Egyptian Mau is perhaps the oldest of all domestic
cat breeds, dating back 3000 years. Cats were a
sacred animal of the goddess Bastet (who was represented
as having the head of a cat) and were a symbol of fertility
to Egyptian women.

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

I am Mau. I have no other name, or I do not remember it. The Nile has flooded twenty times since I was a kitten attending to the amusement of the little princesses. As I am at your service, I am also honored to have served three Pharaohs, although one I attended unwillingly, for I believe him to be a usurper and a murderer. As I sit now at your feet Goddess Bastet, in your temple in Bubastis, I pray you will find my story worthy. The journey was long and needs be my last, and this is all in the world I have to offer you.

I was not yet full grown when I killed the cobra. To be true, it was a small cobra. But, the Royal Princess (and soon to be Great Royal Wife and Queen) Ankhesenamun, made much of my heroic deed. In the retelling, the cobra grew large—so large and so fierce that I must also be made large and fierce to have defeated it. In this way, I acquired great importance in my mind and in that of Princess Ankhesenamun, and in the minds of all who resided in the palace. No male of my kind dared approach me without invitation. So exalted did I become that, having placed gold rings in my ears and a gold amulet around my neck, declaring me the Royal Mau, Ankhesenamun offered me as a wedding gift to the young Pharaoh.

Thus, from the day of their wedding, I served the Pharaoh, Rathotis, as He was born and known by those closest to Him. To all others, He was Tutankhamun, Son of Ra, King of Upper and Lower Egypt. By any name, no one, not even the Queen, presumed to lounge at his feet as I did, for the young Pharaoh prized me above all others. There was no doubt in my mind of this, and I was proud and emboldened.

To be fair, I was diligent in keeping Pharaoh’s rooms free of snakes and vermin (though I have seen no other cobra to this day). As well, I observed closely those who appeared before the Pharaoh, for I have talents beyond assassin of cobras. I can discern falseness. It was known to me when any in His service was deceitful. So it was I came to distrust Horemheb, the commander in chief of Rathotis’ army, of whom I will soon speak.

Rathotis was not well. He suffered from the shaking disease, as was the curse of many of the Royal Family. When He was young, the shaking was frequent, though it lessened somewhat as He grew older. The throne room being in a distant corner of the palace, a separate room was prepared nearer His quarters for His comfort in receiving His education, meeting with advisers, and welcoming worshipers. As the Royal Mau, I was in attendance on these occasions. Oftentimes, He would hold me in His lap as He ruled—a prodigious honor granted to no other adviser.

Frequently Pharaoh was visited by His tutor, Sennedjem, who instructed Him in the history of those who ruled before and that of the two lands, Upper and Lower Egypt. On these occasions I slept. The past was of little interest to me, and I knew Sennedjem to be harmless.

More often, however, it was Ay, the Grand Vizier, who was with Pharaoh. Of his many titles, Ay was Fan-bearer on the Right Side of the King, Scribe of the King, and Overseer of the King’s Horses. I would have willingly died for Ay as for Pharaoh Himself, for we loved our Pharaoh equally, and collaborated to protect Him. To seal our alliance, Ay would frequently bring me tidbits from the kitchens, and in return I would allow him to stroke my belly; an honor permitted no others but Pharaoh and His Queen.

In those early years of Tutankhamun’s reign, much good occurred. The God Amun was reaffirmed as King of Gods, and the effigies and writings of all pretenders were expunged. It also came that the first harvest upon Amun’s return to prominence was plentiful, and so the devoted followers of Amun were rewarded. Much prosperity followed.

While the peoples of Egypt relaxed in the bounty of Amun, the threat of war with Nubia persisted, and the Kingdom of Amurru was lost to the Hittites. Horemheb traveled Egypt and its colonies often during these years, seeing to matters of war and foreign diplomacy in the name of Pharaoh.

It was on the occasions of Horemheb’s return visits to Thebes to record his accomplishments that Rathotis grew besotted of Horemheb and his tales (who knew how great they were embellished?). Rathotis was the living God, but so was He a young boy, admiring of Horemheb’s strength and good health, and covetous of his adventures. As with all males of His age, Pharaoh’s interests were in horses, chariot racing, and hunting ibex, giraffe, and wild boar—all activities at which Horemheb excelled. Upon each return of Horemheb, Pharaoh would order a hunting party formed. These excursions would last several days. I received no invitation to accompany Pharaoh on His hunts, and so He was left undefended in the face of Horemheb’s influence.

Always Horemheb would bring gifts from the border colonies to enchant and flatter Pharaoh. At one such time, he returned accompanied by a Nubian prince bearing gifts of gold, incense, ivory, and praise for Pharaoh. During the prince’s visit, a long desired treaty of peace between Egypt and Nubia was agreed upon, with the mutual promise of military protection for trade routes. Pharaoh was greatly pleased with Horemheb on this occasion. So much so that Horemheb was designated the Hereditary Prince if Pharaoh should die childless—a situation that was unthinkable at the time. Still, I cautioned Rathotis against this action, but He did not listen. As was often the case, Pharaoh silenced me when I endeavored to use my voice in earnest. While tutored in many languages, the subtle language of the maus was difficult for Pharaoh, though I spoke as simply as I could.

If I failed Pharaoh, it was in one thing, oh great Bastet. But this one thing was of such consequence that it provided the means for the impostor to pursue his evil designs. For all other faults but this, I beg your forgiveness.

As Rathotis grew, so grew his desire for Ankhesenamun. In your service, great Bastet, I slept many nights beneath their couch, and twice from thy blessing Ankhesenamun became with child. Alas, as punishment for my pride and notions of grandeur, in both cases, the child was stillborn. History will forever attribute all that occurred thereafter to my failure in procuring your blessing, and thus, a living heir for Pharaoh. Such is the sacred duty of all mau.

Only you can know the truth of this, but on one occasion when Pharaoh was practicing with His chariots, I left His quarters to seek the company of a male. This was a time when Ankhesenamun was heavy with Pharaoh’s child. As I was passing through a common room, I observed Horemheb offering Ankhesenamun a drink from a golden goblet inlaid with colored stones. If it was water or wine, or something else, I cannot say. The following day, the child was lost.

As before, I continued to watch over and protect Ankhesenamun as diligently as my duties allowed. Still, one year and three months later, a second child was born dead (on this I have no suspicions). Thus, Tutankhamun was without sons to succeed Him. And so I failed in my ultimate duty to the Pharaoh and to you, my most cherished Goddess.

Being in Thebes upon the death of His second child, Horemheb organized a hunting expedition as a diversion for the grief-stricken Pharaoh. After only three days, the party returned bearing Rathotis on a length of linen carried between two of the palace guard. Rathotis’ leg had been broken. It was an ugly sight, with the splintered bone jutting from His flesh. The Pharaoh had lost much blood and was fevered. The priests did what they could, which was little but to make Him comfortable. During these days, I lay on Ankhesenamun’s lap and watched over our Pharaoh as she applied linen soaked in kapur to His forehead.

In the Pharaoh’s presence, as He lay on His couch unable to respond, Ay and Horemheb exchanged heavy words and threats. Both asserted their authority to act on Pharaoh’s behalf during His confinement—Ay as Vizier, and Horemheb as Hereditary Prince. I made no attempt to express my opinion in this for Ay’s argument was unassailable, and I was sharpening my claws for attack should matters turn violent. It was rightfully noted by both Ay and Ankhesenamun that Horemheb’s assertion of power could only be honored upon Pharaoh’s death, and Pharaoh was still much alive. With Amun’s blessing, He would soon recover. But, Horemheb did not waiver.

But for a skirmish that occurred in the Asiatic colonies, which soon turned to rebellion, the disagreement may have escalated into something much worse. Horemheb had no choice but to lead the Pharaoh’s army to quell the uprising. Thus, Ay was left to act freely on behalf of Pharaoh during His recovery.

It pains me to recall as if it occurred this day, but Rathotis did not recover. Within ten days of Horemheb’s departure, even as the priests, Ay, and Ankhesenamun administered to Him faithfully, the great Pharaoh Tutankhamun, Son of Ra, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, began His journey in the afterlife.

Prayers were said, hymns were sung, and processions honoring Pharaoh were assembled in Thebes and throughout Egypt. Funeral rituals and spells were observed as befitting the Son of Ra, and Tutankhamun’s earthly body was preserved to sustain His soul in the next realm. For much of this I was not present, but learned of as the ceremonies were recounted in detail by the priests in residence at the palace.

On one occasion, I accompanied Ankhesenamun in her litter to view her husband’s tomb (for I provided solace during her time of mourning). This was done late at night and in great secrecy, as only a few could know the location of the tomb. I was honored to be among them.

This was not the intended burial chamber of Tutankhamun, but a smaller one that Ay had been granted permission to build for himself during his service to Tutankhamun’s father. At His death, Tutankhamun’s great tomb was not yet completed. (The lesser tomb of Ay’s being easier concealed to my mind.) When we entered, we saw a scribe working by lantern light to complete inscriptions on the tomb wall, and something engraved there upset Ankhesenamun greatly. Upon our return to the palace, she sent for Ay though the hour was late.

Unbeknownst to me, Ankhesenamun and Ay were conspiring to destroy all official record of Horemheb’s designation as the Hereditary Prince. I believe this to have been a foolish undertaking, for those in the palace and many elsewhere knew well of Horemheb’s appointment. At learning of their plan, I was at first offended that they had not confided the details to me from the start. However, as I thought about it then, my disapproval of their actions would have been correctly predicted by both. Regardless, it was the title of Hereditary Prince next to the likeness of Horemheb himself that Ankhesenamun had witnessed being engraved upon a wall of Pharaoh’s tomb. Their plan, poorly conceived, was abandoned.

Upon learning of Pharaoh’s death, it was expected Horemheb would immediately return to Thebes to claim the throne. However, it was not to be. Word came to us that the Asiatic uprising had gained strength and more troops were dispatched to aid Horemheb in the fight. It is not to my credit when I say to you that I prayed often for Horemheb to die with honor upon the battlefield, as was his due.

So it transpired, as Rathotis basked in the Realm of Osiris and Horemheb was far from Thebes, Ay succeeded Tutankhamun without contest as the Pharaoh Kheperkhiperure.

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

I had been always loyal to Ay during Tutankhamun’s reign. He did not give me reason to be otherwise, nor ask me to perform a task that would reflect badly upon or cause harm to my beloved Rathotis. Regarding Ay’s reign as Pharaoh, I can neither praise nor condemn. He was a just ruler and dutifully honored the King of Gods, Amun, acting in His stead in all things. His legend, however, does not chronicle great accomplishments or heroic deeds. To his credit, he did not discourage the citizens from continuing to deify and pray to Tutankhamun as another might have. As to Ay’s sanctity as the Son of Ra, I do not know, nor will I speak. Egypt neither prospered nor declined under his rule.

Upon becoming Pharaoh, and having no sons, Ay, well advanced in years, proclaimed his son-in-law, Nakhtmin, as Hereditary Prince. At Ay’s ascension, his wife, Tey, was thus Queen. Tutankhamun’s beloved, Ankhesenamun, no longer Queen, was but a widow with no sons to protect her. She feared for her life. I believe her fear was unjustified, though understandable. The crowning of a new Pharaoh often brought upheaval and danger to members of the Royal Family. This was so even in times when the claim to the throne went unchallenged.

Ankhesenamun, in her despair and acting on her own behalf, wrote to a Hittite Prince with an offer of marriage. While I did not see this letter myself, it was said that she begged the prince to take her in marriage. That she would consider a Hittite, or any man of foreign blood, to be a suitable consort speaks to the extent of her perceived danger. Of course, this prince agreed at once (no doubt he was astounded at the offer) and made haste to Thebes. Upon his arrival, Ay had him put to death. As Ankhesenamun herself was not harmed, her fears were allayed and she retired to her rooms. Except for my visits to console her, she was seen little in the passageways of the palace for many weeks thereafter.

It was during this time, however, that the Queen, Tey, became ill and died. Some whispered she had been poisoned at Ay’s order. Others maintained the order came from Ankhesenamun. Rumors abounded, but I chose to believe Tey died of natural causes in absence of evidence otherwise. So it was that Ay took Ankhesenamun as his Royal Wife and Queen.

His status as Pharaoh being thus strengthened, the intrigue of Ay’s court subsided. Short of a year after their marriage, Ankhesenamun choked on an olive pit and she died. As I was a witness to her death, my efforts to save her being in vain, the cause of death was accepted without speculation.

Ay’s reign as Pharaoh was short, a scant four years and one month when, on an early morning, he was found dead on his couch. As Tutankhamun lay in the tomb of Ay, so Ay, upon appropriate ceremony, was to be interred in the tomb once intended for Tutankhamun.

Though I was not among them, many considered it a coincidence upon Ay’s death to learn that Horemheb, returning victorious from the Asiatic colonies (the rebellion having been settled three months earlier) was camped only days from Thebes. The envoy sent ahead to announce Horemheb’s arrival was by chance present when Nakhtmin, son-in-law and successor to Ay, was found floating in the Nile. His servants, assumed to have fled in fear, were not in attendance when he was discovered.

So it was that Horemheb arrived at the palace in Thebes, riding triumphant at the head of Egypt’s army, and declared himself Pharaoh.

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

When Horemheb had departed for the Asiatic colonies, only days before the death of Tutankhamun, he had thought to take with him a papyrus upon which bore the seal of Tutankhamun, naming Horemheb Crown Prince and rightful heir should Tutankhamun die without sons (further proof that Ay and Ankhesenamun’s scheme could never have succeeded). As this was the case, and inasmuch as Ay’s reign as Pharaoh was brief and unremarkable, and the Egyptian people continued to worship Tutankhamun without break, Horemheb’s claim to the throne went unchallenged.

To further secure his claim, Horemheb married Ay’s daughter, Mutnodjimet, thereby fulfilling Ay’s desire to have his son-in-law inherit. Thus the papyrus was neatly wrapped with a string of leather, and a commoner, without even the smallest drop of Royal blood, now rules as Pharaoh, Son of Ra, King of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Assured of his throne, among Horemheb’s first acts as Pharaoh was to wipe the face of Egypt clean of all mention of Tutankhamun and Ay. For Tutankhamun had been, and still was, greatly loved, and Ay had served Tutankhamun, His father, and His grandfather, and had been himself the father of many Queens, most notably the great Nefertiti. Thus, if not worshiped, he was revered.

Although Horemheb meant to be thorough in expunging all reference to Tutankhamun and Ay, including bringing down Ay’s intended tomb and reusing the stones to build edifices to honor himself, he has yet to find the tomb of Tutankhamun. I believe I am the only living soul left to know of its location, and Horemheb would never stoop to ask me.

Horemheb has ever tolerated me underfoot, as by your command, great Bastet, slaying any mau in Egypt remains punishable by death (although perhaps not for the Pharaoh). However, he removed the gold from my ears and neck and degraded my position as Royal Mau, Adviser and Protector to Pharaohs, to that of Royal Rat Killer.

It is now three years into Horemheb’s reign and, barring assassins and cobras, he will stay Pharaoh for many years to come. He is still young and healthy. Being a commoner, he does not suffer the shaking that distinguishes the Royal Family. Though I know him to be a pretender and believe him to have murdered Ay, Ay’s successor, Nakhtmin, and perhaps even an unborn son of Tutankhamun, I do not believe that Egypt will suffer further under his rule. For, as I often lay in the sun these last three years and watched the rats parade by, I sometimes reflected upon the fact that Horemheb chose to forego his earlier claim as Pharaoh, and instead remained willingly in Asia to protect Egypt’s interests. It soothes me to think of this.

So, great Bastet, my story ends. Those whom I loved and served are in another world, and it is my wish to join them. Having expended all that is left of my strength traveling to your temple to prostrate myself before you, I pray you will accept my offering as worthy, and set me on my journey to the next kingdom.

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

The priestess entered the inner temple and slowly approached the small figure lying at the feet of Bastet. Unfurling a length of the Goddess’s finest linen, the priestess bent and tenderly wrapped the cat in its folds. Bowing to Bastet, she raised the body of Mau for the final blessing before carrying her to the mummification chamber to prepare for her journey.



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