Who is Bastet in Egyptian Mythology?
Bastet was the local goddess of Cats and Bubastis, or “House of Bastet”, the capital of a province of Lower Egypt. She was usually regarded as the daughter of the sun god RA, although she was sometimes said to be his sister and consort. Later, she became the wife of the creator god Ptah. According to some accounts, it was Bastet, rather than NEPHTHYS, who was the mother of the Jackal-headed god ANUBIS.
Originally a lioness goddess symbolizing both the warmth of the sun and the rage of the sun god’s eye, from about 1000BC, Bastet came to be represented as a cat, or a cat-headed woman. However, in some stories, she continued to possess the quality of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess.
Usually a benevolent goddess, Bastet protected humanity from diseases and evil spirits. Most importantly, she was a goddess of fertility, sex and love, and enjoyed music and dancing. In the fourth century BC, fertility festivals were held in her honour at her temple at Bubastis. Cats were revered as Bastet’s sacred animals, and their mummified bodies were buried at her sanctuary.
Mistress of the oracle, divine queen of cats and lady of ointment and perfume, may your greatness hear these loving prayers and grant them long lives, prosperity and health every single day throughout this mortal existence.Prayer to Bastet (Origin unknown)
As a member of those who formed the eye of Ra, she was the manifestation of the solar eye which protected the supreme sun god of the Egyptian pantheon. Just like the jackal god Anubis, she was a deity whose head was that of a cat, conveying her reputation far beyond the borders of the land of Egypt.
The goddess Bast, commonly known today as Bastet, was fierce and a benevolent goddess worshipped throughout ancient Egyptian history. A protective and nurturing deity easily recognizable in a cat-headed female appearance, goddess of fertility and protector of homes.
Some believe that she was the consort of Ptah, with whom she had a son called Maahes, the lion-headed god of Egyptian mythology
The Role of Bastet in Ancient Egypt
As the protector of Lower Egypt, her role was to ensure the safety of Egyptian kings and, alternatively, to the supreme god.
History of Bastet
Bastet was the goddess of domesticated cats, and therefore, Cats were considered sacred for worshipping the deity. In ancient Egypt, it was common practice that when a pet cat dies, the whole household will shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning and respect.
In the early pictogram’s records of the Egyptian goddess, she used to be referred to as Bast. It’s only in later eras that her name changed when a feminine suffix was added, creating a never pronounced tone.
As Bastet, the perception of the deity turned into a more female-like figure, emphasized by the pronunciation of the ending ‘T’ sound of her name, which has often been left silent.
The term Bastet has been interpreted to mean “she has bast” or “she of the ointment jar”, which often makes her the goddess of perfume and protective ointments.
A bond was created by observing her name written with similar hieroglyphic signs for the ointment jar, subsequently referring to a sealed material known as the alabaster pot that contained perfume.
Depiction of Bastet
In her cat-headed form, she was also known as Posht. The cat-headed woman’s appearance of the goddess is the form in which she is commonly depicted, which has not always been the case.
In the earliest representations of Bastet dating thousand years back in Egypt, the goddess herself was generally shown as a woman with the head of a lioness. A depiction established upon the deity because lioness inspired fear and was respected through their bold ferocity and authority.
But it only lasted until the end of the second millennium when her cat-headed forms became more prominent. Transforming from a lioness into a predominantly major cat goddess, the domestic cat replaced the wild animal as the manifestation of the goddess.
The Symbols of Bastet
The Egyptian deity is usually represented holding a variety of items; a ceremonial sistrum, which is a kind of musical instrument mainly associated with the sky goddess Hathor. At the same time, the other hand holds the admired ankh, a majestic symbol representing the key to eternal life.
Bastet was also regarded as a good mother. It was sometimes shown with numerous kittens at her feet, depicting the impressive fertility of female cats—a trait respected by most Egyptians who wanted to have as many children as possible. Therefore, they started to ascribe the goddess with fertility and motherhood.
Differences Between Bastet and Sekhmet
Bastet was one of the daughters of the god Amun-Ra, and sometimes too, she would be regarded as the instrument of his vengeance. However, she served as a counterpoint to the other eye of Ra, the violent warrior Sekhmet, who was also a lioness-headed woman, the goddess associated with war and divine retribution.
In other accounts, both Sekhmet and Bastet would eventually be characterized elsewhere as the two aspects of the same goddess, especially during a period where Egyptian kings were compared to Sekhmet if they smite wrongdoers to Bastet when they protect their loyal subjects.
The goddess Sekhmet, representing Upper Egypt, was reputed for her violence. She was the punishing eye of Ra, whereas Bastet, who accounted for Lower Egypt, was more of a gentle and passive goddess.
But confusion between these goddesses persisted until the personality of Bastet was made clear from the pyramid texts onward, describing her as a dual nature entity. She was a nurturing mother, a cat goddess who mothered the king and destroyed his enemies and, on the other side, was a terrifying avenger, Sekhmet.
Bastet’s guardian aspect mainly features in the coffin texts and the book of the dead where she is painted in tombs as a cat with bright glowing eyes that conferred protection upon the deceased chasing away evil spirits that might have been lurking within the darkness of tombs.
But the contrast between these two goddesses finally came to be expressed visually by their lioness and cat forms.
There are stories where the goddess manifested to humans, playing her traditional role of punisher of sinners who offended the gods.
Bastet was primarily a ferocious predator; even after becoming a more peaceful character in the guise of a cat, she still retained her fierce lioness instincts and was called the eye of the moon in addition to her solar connections.
She was partly syncretized with the goddess Artemis by the Greeks, who identified the deity with their patron goddess of hunters for her natural excellence.
From their fourth, cats were regarded as skilled hunters and highly revered due to their ability to defend food supplies against rats, slowing the propagation of contagious diseases by killing vermin.
Why Cats Are Strongly Related to Bastet—The Worship of Bastet
Cats were specifically bred in the temples to honour Bastet, as they personified the goddess herself, and mostly because they were great of protection in Egypt for such a long time.
For the ancient Egyptians, snakes were dreadful and serious life-threatening. Thus, encountering a serpent or getting bit by one would instantly mean forthcoming death. But cats were surprisingly ominous, even for the bigger opponent.
This fact nourished the reason why it’s believed that the goddess Bastet owed her cat-like appearance to her father, Ra, who once transformed into a cat to defeat the serpent god of chaos, Apophis.
There is an account identifying Bastet with a certain distant goddess. After quarrelling with her father, she retreats into a desert adopting the manners in the form of a spotted Nubian cat.
But then a god convinced the wandering cat to return to Egypt, where she is transformed into a compliant and fertile divine consort. This story has been interpreted as a myth that explains the taming of female sexuality.
However, women were freed from all constraints during an annual festival dedicated to honouring the goddess, which took place at Bubastis, the city known as the “House of Bastet”—the cult’s centre of her influence.
Festivals in honour of the goddess were popular throughout Egypt. When the land was under Greco-Roman rule, these cults became the focus of Egyptian nationalism. They even reached fanatical heights, at a point that if any harm was ever done to a cat, it would have been seen as a sacrilege towards the goddess.
There’s this story in which a roman visitor angered an Egyptian mob after he inadvertently killed a cat. Unfortunately, death was the only price to pay for killing a cat in ancient Egypt.
Cats in the Ancient Egyptian Homes—The Worship of Bastet
Considered as the goddess protector of homes, it was not uncommon to see images or even a living cat in a household as its presence was meant to bestow fertility upon families, particularly those who have longed for children.
The goddess comforted those in need at the time of distress. She protected Egyptians from diseases, evil spirits, and bad luck, especially towards the end of the year when Egyptians encountered the “demonic days”.
So, little figurines and jewellery pieces of the goddess were distributed as gifts to ward off misfortune. These presents were all symbolic of optimism and good luck as the receiver would have prosperity, success in their pregnancy, and start a new year full of joy and happiness.
The worship of the cat goddess was truly significant in ancient Egypt and even in Greece until the rise of Christianity. Her cult had a huge impact on the relationship shared between humans and domesticated cats up to this date.
So, if you find yourself having a cat in your home, don’t consider it as the product of chance, the goddess Bastet is most likely watching over your family.
Image Sources: GaudiBuendia, Pinterest, Lerno.