Author’s note: On this day, two years ago, I lost my best friend. I’m not sure what it says about me, or him, that my best friend was a cat. My friend deserves to be remembered. His story should be told and libations poured in his honor. Consider this an inadequate, but heartfelt, act of devotional offering from me to him.
Before Zack’s death, I didn’t understand the deep connection between flowers and souls. So when I celebrated the Anthesteria, a festival of flowers celebrated by Hellenic Pagans, I wasn’t able to fully comprehend it. I enjoyed having the first taste of the wines that we made last Fall at the Oskophoria. Sometimes my wine making results have been tasty. Other times, not so much. Yet it is always a satisfying adventure. The marriage of Dionysos and the Basilinna goes so well with the fertility and joy that is Spring. But death and souls rising up from the underworld, how did this fit in? How can death be such a prominent part of a Flower Festival?
I could intellectually understand it, but couldn’t make the emotional and spiritual connection.
Anthesteria derives its name from the Greek word anthes meaning “blossoming” or “flowering” and thus is a festival of new beginnings, of rebirth and vegetation. It was a time when the impulse of life was felt to stir throughout all of nature, when the ripe buds began to unfold on the branch and the shoots were springing up from the barren earth after the long, cold winter months. But there is no life without death. The earth from which the plants arise is nourished by the dead bodies placed into it; the souls of the deceased dwell under the earth, thirsty and bitter over their loss. The passages by which life flows into our world, once opened, could also permit other things to escape, and during this festival they did.
So Anthesteria is a strange festival, one of many conflicting layers that flow into each other. It is a time of joy, when we celebrate life triumphant and broach the casks of new wine, letting children get their first taste of the sweet vintage; it is also a time of gloom and pollution, when the dead walk the sunlit paths of the upper world and strange, unnatural things are observed; uniting these two poles, life and death which are really just two sides of the same coin, there is also a stream of sensuality, sex as a primal, liberating force at once the ultimate affirmation of animal existence and the closest we can come to obliteration while still breathing. In this single festival lies the essence of the mysteries of Dionysos.
Zack’s death, and what happened at this year’s Anthesteria, finally immersed me in the mystery of this complex festival. In order for me to relate how Zack helped me understand something that isn’t easy to put into words, you need to know a bit about him.
Zack was anywhere between 17 and 20 years old when he died. A very old cat. I adopted him after someone found him in a ditch – beaten, broken bones, and burns over his body. He had been left for dead. When I saw him at the Humane Society shelter, curled up tight, scared, hiding his face – I knew I had to take him home. He had been there for months after his recovery. He was older, male, a feral, and his fur looked bad from his wounds and scars. No one wanted him.
I wanted him. I took him home and he lived in a closet for over year, too scared to come out. I would sit and talk to him for hours and pet him and he would purr every once in a while for a just a few seconds. We decided to get a female kitten to keep him company and so Willow came into our lives. Yes, I got my pet a pet. It worked. Zack loved Willow and wanted to stay by her.
It took 2 years of care before he would come to me at night to be petted. He would still hide from everyone else, including my husband and son. By then we had moved into a house and he seemed to like it much better than the apartment. Sometimes, during the day, I would see him outside the bedroom. He would sit on the back of the couch with Willow when I was the only one awake or present in the house. We had a fenced in backyard, and he started to go outside with me. I planted catnip for him. He loved it.
The years went by and Zack remained a shy, fearful, hiding cat. Very, very few people ever saw Zack – and if they did it was as he was running away to hide.
Zack understood what a kiss was and would kiss me – pressing his lips to mine. He was able to catch and kill moles even in old age. When Willow started peeing outside the litter box, Zack would escort her to the box and make sure she used it right. Or he would bite her. He didn’t allow such unacceptable behavior!
Even though Zack suffered such trauma in life, he did what he could to live a joyful life. To find love and friendship. He never gave up. To teach and assist others when they needed it. When I had times of deep distress, I would look into his eyes and see his calm determination to keep going no matter what and it would give me the strength to do the same. If that tortured, scarred up cat could make it, so could I.
May 2008 my son found him behind his bed, curled up like he was asleep. But he was cold and didn’t move. I wrapped his body in my best silk cloth and placed him in a box. Poured myrrh, amber, frankincense and catnip in with him and buried him.
Which brings me to this year’s Anthesteria. On the third day of the festival, I went out to the garden where Zack is buried. Directly on his grave is a catnip plant, but next to his mound I had planted black tulips. As I was sitting there, pouring milk sweetened with honey into his offering bowl, one of the black tulips opened with an almost audible sound. A breeze blew around me and I felt Zack rising up from the center of the flower. His soul was as loving and protective of me as it always was, but the fear that was his constant companion was gone. What I felt was too personal to describe and have it make any sense. I guess that’s why they call these types of experiences “Mysteries.”
I’ll do my best to piece together what I can from that instant of revelation in a coherent manner. Bulbs, like onions and garlic, are traditionally offered as food for the dead. This flower, a tulip, grows from a bulb nestled in the earth. It had lain there all winter, dormant, fully in the underworld. Static, unchanging, hidden from my sight. Then, as the ground thawed, it changed, became more than a plant. The gates of the Underworld had opened and the bulb drew in what it found. It pulled nourishment from the soil around it. Soil that Zack was decomposing in. Inside the bulb, the essence of death was changing to life. Next, the bulb created a bridge to our existence in the form of a stem, pushing it’s way to the surface. Zack’s essence was traveling through the bridge, but was stopped. He could not reach the sunlight. He could not reach me. Not until the gateway opened. The opening of the gateway is not dictated by a date on the calendar, or a festival. It isn’t opened by invocation. The opening of the gateway was the opening of the bloom. That is why the festival where the dead walk the world once again is a Festival of Flowers. Early Spring flowers. Flowers that come from bulbs.
Which I witnessed, on my knees in the cool dirt, at Zack’s grave site during the Anthesteria celebration. For an entire day I was able to again walk the gardens with my best friend. I made a wreath out of catnip and wore it. I’m sure my neighbors thought I was insane. That night, when I went to bed, I could have sworn I felt a paw slip into my hand. I’m not going to question it or examine it to pieces, I’m just going to be thankful for it.
The next day the Anthesteria was over and Zack was gone. I won’t lie. I cried. I cried almost as hard as the day he died 2 years ago. He’s still my best friend and I miss him dearly. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s still offering love, support and guidance to his family. What does surprise me is that a cat could teach a human about the Mystery of the Anthesteria. Just another example of how he is wiser than I am.
Thank you, Zack.