Monday, 3 July 2017


“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” - Terry Pratchett 

Bastet was a goddess in ancient Egyptian religion, worshiped as early as the 2nd Dynasty (2890 BCE). As Bast, she was the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt, the Nile River delta region, before the unification of the cultures of ancient Egypt. Her name is also translated as Baast, Ubaste, and Baset. In Greek mythology, she is also known as Ailuros (Greek for “cat”, αἴλουρος). The uniting Egyptian cultures had deities that shared similar roles and usually the same imagery.

In Upper Egypt, Sekhmet was the parallel warrior lioness deity. Often similar deities merged into one with the unification, but that did not occur with these deities having such strong roots in their cultures. Instead, these goddesses began to diverge. During the 22nd Dynasty (c. 945–715 BCE), Bast had transformed from a lioness warrior deity into a major protector deity represented as a cat. Bastet, the name associated with this later identity, is the name commonly used by scholars today to refer to this deity.

What the name of the goddess means remains uncertain. One recent suggestion by Stephen Quirke (Ancient Egyptian Religion) explains it as meaning “She of the ointment jar”. This ties in with the observation that her name was written with the hieroglyph for ointment jar (bas) and that she was associated with protective ointments, among other things. The name of the material known as “alabaster” might, through Greek, come from the name of the goddess.

Bastet was originally a lioness warrior goddess of the sun throughout most of ancient Egyptian history, but later she was changed into the cat goddess, which is familiar today. Greeks occupying ancient Egypt toward the end of its civilisation changed her into a goddess of the moon. As protector of Lower Egypt, she was seen as defender of the pharaoh, and consequently of the later chief male deity, Ra. Along with the other lioness goddesses, she would occasionally be depicted as the embodiment of the Eye of Ra. She has been depicted as fighting the evil snake named Apep, an enemy of Ra.

Images of Bastet were often created from alabaster. The goddess was sometimes depicted holding a ceremonial sistrum in one hand and an aegis in the other (the aegis usually resembling a collar or gorget embellished with a lioness head). Her name was associated with the lavish jars in which Egyptians stored their ointment used as perfume. Bastet thus gradually became regarded as the goddess of perfumes, earning the title of perfumed protector. In connection with this, when Anubis became the god of embalming, Bastet came to be regarded as his wife for a short period of time. Bastet was also depicted as the goddess of protection against contagious diseases and evil spirits.

Bastet was a local deity whose religious sect was centered in the city of Bubastis, which lay in the Nile Delta near what is known as Zagazig today. The town, known in Egyptian as pr-bastt (also transliterated as Per-Bast), carries her name, literally meaning House of Bast. It was known in Greek as Boubastis (Βούβαστις) and translated into Hebrew as Pî-beset, spelled without the initial ‘t’ sound of the last syllable. In the biblical Book of Ezekiel 30:17, the town appears in the Hebrew form Pibeseth.

More than 300,000 mummified cats were discovered when Bastet’s temple was excavated. Some mummies of people have been found to have their pet cats mummified and placed in their tombs with them. The main source of information about the Bastet cult comes from Herodotus who visited Bubastis around 450 BCE after the changes in the religious sect. He equated Bastet with the Greek Goddess Artemis. He wrote extensively about the religious sect. Turner and Bateson suggest that the status of the cat was roughly equivalent to that of the cow in modern India. The death of a cat might leave a family in great mourning and those who could would have them embalmed or buried in cat cemeteries—pointing to the great prevalence of the cult of Bastet. Extensive burials of cat remains were found not only at Bubastis, but also at Beni Hasan and Saqqara. In 1888, a farmer uncovered a plot of many hundreds of thousands of cats in Beni Hasan.

Cats in ancient Egypt were revered highly, partly due to their ability to combat vermin such as mice, rats (which threatened key food supplies), and snakes, especially cobras. Cats of royalty were, in some instances, known to be dressed in golden jewelry and were allowed to eat from their owners’ plates. Because domestic cats tend to be tender and protective of their offspring, Bastet was also regarded as a good mother, and she was sometimes depicted with numerous kittens. Consequently, a woman who wanted children sometimes wore an amulet showing the goddess with kittens, the number of which indicated her own desired number of children.

1 comment:

  1. I like alabaster stone (close to soap stone, which I purchased to make some small statues). No linky this week?