Bastet: Ancient Egypt’s Most Important Cat Goddess

One of the most popular domestic cat species is the Serengti cat. Despite being a domestic cat breed, they might actually represent something much bigger. Their pointed ears, long bodies, and patterns on their coats resemble a lot the cats that were worshiped in ancient Egypt.

Okay, really any cat was seen as an important creature in Egypt. Cats were worshiped widely, with feline deities seemingly having great importance in the ancient civilizations along the Nile delta. 

Many of their deities actually had a lion head or cat head, which might refer to the importance of loyalty as seen in many cat-like species. But, only one goddess is regarded as the ‘cat goddess’. She is, indeed, one of the most important goddesses and goes by the name of Bastet. 

And, you guessed it, the Serengeti cat is very closely related to Bastet. The species is actually seen as the cousin of the feline goddess. The story of Bastet tells a lot about ancient Egyptian society and Egyptian history.

History and Significance of the Goddess Bastet

So, the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet is probably the most important cat gods from Ancient Egypt. For the average reader, it probably sounds a bit weird. After all, taking care of nature and its animals isn’t the strongest asset of many (mainly Western) societies. 

Yet, as with many other ancient civilizations, animals can probably be regarded as of a higher importance than the average ‘human’ god in ancient Egypt. In the case of cats in Egypt, this is based on a couple of things.

For starters, their ability to keep rodents, snakes and other pests out of homes was of high importance. Domestic cats these days might pick up an occasional mouse, but threats were a bit greater in the ancient civilizations. Cats functioned as great companions in that regard, hunting down the most threatening and annoying pests.  

A second reason why cats were highly regarded was because of their characteristics. Egyptians understood cats of all sizes to be smart, quick, and powerful. Also, they were oftentimes related to fertility. All these characteristics will come back in the most mighty of them all, Bastet.

What did Bastet represent?

We see the goddess Bastet as the most important feline goddess. In this role she would mostly represent protection, pleasure, and good health. In myths, the female deity is believed to ride through the sky with her father Ra — the sun god — protecting him as he flew from one horizon to the other. 

At night, when Ra was resting, Bastet would morph into her cat form and protect her father from his enemy, Apep the serpent. She had quite some other important family members too, which we will discuss in a bit. 

Appearance and name of Bastet

So, one of the most important cat goddesses indeed. In her common form, she is depicted as having the head of a cat and the body of a woman. If you see such a depiction, this refers to her heavenly form. Her earthly form is entirely feline, so just a cat really.

Indeed, just any cat, such as your house cat. Yet, she’d probably have an air of authority and disdain. Well, more of an air of authority and disdain than a typical cat. Also, Bastet was usually seen carrying a sistrum — an ancient instrument that was like a drum — in her right hand and an aegis, a breastplate, in her left.

But, Bastet was not always believed to be a cat. Her actual cat form really arises around the year 1000. Before, her iconography indicates that she was rather seen as the lioness goddess. In this sense, she would also have a lioness head instead of that of a cat. Why this is the case will be discussed in a bit. 

Bastet Definition and Meaning

If we want to talk about the meaning of the name Bastet there is little to talk about. There is none, really. In many other mythological traditions, the name of a god or goddess represents what she really stands for. But, in ancient Egyptian religion and mythology it’s a bit different.

The problem with Egyptian religion and Egyptian deities is that their names were written in hieroglyphs. We know a fair bit nowadays about hieroglyphs and what they mean. Yet, we can’t be a hundred percent sure.

Like one of the most important scholars on this topic noted in 1824: “Hieroglyphic writing is a complex system, a script all at once figurative, symbolic and phonetic in one and the same text… and, I might add, in one and the same word.’’

So about that. The hieroglyph of Bastet is a sealed alabaster perfume jar. How would this ever relate to one of the most important cat goddesses? 

Some suggest that it might represent the ritual purity involved in her cult. But, as indicated, we can’t be fully sure about it. No real valuable insights have been given with regards to the hieroglyph. So, if you have any suggestions, spread the word and you might become famous. 

Different Names

It should be said that there is a difference in the way in which Egyptians referred to the cat goddess. This is mostly the distinction between lower and upper Egypt. While in the lower Egypt region she is indeed referred to as Bastet, the upper Egypt region also referred to her as Sekhmet. Also, some sources refer to her as just ‘Bast’.

A Family of Egyptian Gods 

Our cat headed woman was born into a family of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. Of course, Bastet herself is the focus of this article. But, her family played an important part in her influence and tells us quite a bit about what Bastet represents and where she got her influence from.  

Sun God Ra

The father of Bastet is the sun god Ra. He was creation. Like, literally, he created everything, and is related to the process of creation in general. Of course, the sun is also a vital part of any life on earth, so it would only make sense that something that is so intertwined with creation would be related to something like the sun. 

His relationship to the sun goes to show in many parts of his appearance. From the disk on his head to his left eye, a lot of things about him refer to the fiery ball in space. The ancient Egyptians built countless temples in his honor as Ra represented life, warmth, and growth.

Although sunny, it’s tough not to feel intimidated as you face down the most important god from ancient Egypt. He doesn’t exactly look human despite having the body of a man — he gazes at you with the face of a falcon and there’s a cobra sitting on his head.

The Many Forms of Ra

It’s a bit tough to pin down exactly what Ra was and what it represented, since he is also believed to have existed as an actual pharaoh in ancient Egypt. This was mainly in relation with Horus, another Egyptian falcon God. In this relation, he became Ra-Horakhty or “Ra-Horus in the horizon.”  

Bastet’s Husband Ptah

Another one of the many gods that was related to Bastet was Ptah. Also known as Peteh, he is believed to be the husband of Bastet. Actually, in one narrative of the Egyptian story of creation, Ptah is the god of creation; not Ra. 

However, in other stories, Ptah is known as a ceramist or just as an artist in general really. Because of this, he is known as someone who gave birth to the things that are needed to engage in art. It is believed that he contributed to the creation of the world through thoughts of his heart and words of his tongue. 

Bastet’s Sisters Mut and Sekhmet

Bastet has a couple of siblings, but not everyone of them had as much of an influence as Mut and Sekhet. 

Mut: the Mother Goddess

Mut was the first sister and considered a primal deity, associated with the primordial waters of Nu from which everything in the world was born. She was believed to be the mother of everything in the world, at least if we have to believe her followers. However, in general she is mostly considered to be the mother of the lunar child god Khonsu. 

She has quite a famous temple at Karnak, which is located in Egypt’s ancient capital Thebes. Here, the family of Ra, Mut and Khonsu were worshiped together. As we will see later, this is also of importance for the story of Bastet.

Sekhmet: Goddess of War

Another sister of Bastet is known as the goddess of force and power. It goes without saying that she therefore represents war and vengeance. She goes by the name of Sekhmet and also covered another aspect of war relations. That is to say, she was also known to be a curator and protected the pharaohs during the war.

But wait, sister of Bastet? Didn’t we just say that Sekhmet was the name for Bastet in Lower Egypt?

That is indeed true. However, at one point Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt united, which resulted in many of the gods being merged. For reasons unknown, Sekhmet and Bastet didn’t merge but stayed separate gods. So while they once were the same gods with different names, Bastet would become at one point a distant goddess from Sekhmet. 

Sekhmet was primarily a lioness goddess, which she would thus share with Bastet initially. This means that she was also part of the feline deities. 

But, two lioness goddesses might be a bit much, so eventually only one of the two lioness goddesses would remain. That is to say, the goddess Bastet changed into a cat. This is really the reason why the initial goddess changed from one into two. 

From Lion to Cat and Egyptian Mythology

As the daughter of Ra, Bastet is known to also have the rage that is inherent to the sun-god’s eye. But still, as indicated, her sister might have gotten a bit more of the inherent rage. Anyway, the ferocity that she still inherited also explains her initial relation to the lioness.

Bastet developed into a cat headed woman only in the so-called Late Period of Egyptian civilisation. This is generally considered the period from 525 to 332 BC. Still, it retains some of the links with the rage of the sun god.

From Lion to Cat

Yet, her rage definitely softened the vicious side of her nature. In her form as cat goddess she becomes a more peaceful creature. She becomes a lot more approachable and doesn’t rage uncontrollably.

So, how does that happen? As many stories in mythology, including Egyptian mythology, the initiation of her change is a bit contested. 

Bastet in Nubia

One story says that Bastet returned from Nubia, a special place in Egyptian mythology which is located along the Nile river. She had been sent there by her father, Ra, as a lioness to rage in isolation. Maybe her father got too annoyed with her? Not sure, but that could be the case.

Bastet returned from Nubia to Egypt in the form of a somewhat softer creature, as a cat. Some believe that her being sent away to Nubia represents the period of unapproachability in the cycle of menstruation. Instead of giving chocolate, Ra decided to send her as far away as possible. That’s one way to do it, apparently. 

This theory is based on some scenes that were found in hieroglyphic paintings at Thebes, where a cat is depicted under the lady’s chair as a deliberate ploy. This, archeologists believe, indicates that she will always be available for sexual intercourse with the tomb owner in his afterlife. 

You might think that this argument isn’t very convincing and in some sense a bit unrelated. That’s very understandable, which only affirms that the real story is only known to the ancient Egyptians. 

Sekhmet’s Vengeance

Another version of the story tells something a bit different. When Ra was still a mortal pharaoh, he once felt angry with the people of Egypt. So he released Sekhmet, his daughter, to attack the people of Egypt. Sekhmet slaughtered huge numbers of people and drank their blood. So far for  the lonely rage.

However, eventually Ra felt remorseful and wanted to stop his daughter Sekhmet. So he had the people pour red-tinged beer over the land. Then when Sekhmet came across it, she thought it was blood ,and drank it. Drunken, she fell asleep.

When she awoke, Sekhmet transformed into Bastet, which thus basically represents the sweeter version of Sekhmet. 

Other Stories of Bastet in Egyptian Mythology

Some other myths in relation to Bastet should still be covered. While her biggest myths are already covered, two essential myths remain. These stories as developed over the course of Egyptian history give an even greater insight into the significance of the goddess. 

Slaying of Apep

Apep, sometimes called Apophis, was an underworld serpent god associated with darkness and chaos. The cunning serpent was the greatest enemy of Ra, the father of Bastet. The serpent wished to consume everything with darkness and destroy Ra. Indeed, Apep would represent close to all evil spirits. 

Remember, Ra is the sun god, which means that everything he did was necessarily related to light in one way or the other. Unfortunately for him, his greatest enemy functioned only in the darkness. This made it impossible for Ra to hex Apep with one of his spells. But then, Bastet came to the rescue.

As a cat, Bastet had excellent night vision. This allowed Bastet to search for Apep and slay him with the greatest of ease. The death of Apep ensured the sun would continue to shine and crops would continue to grow. Because of this, Bastet is also related to fertility from that point onwards. One might say that she became to be worshiped as the fertility goddess.

The Origin of Turquoise

A myth that is related to the goddess but is a bit less eventful surrounds the color turquoise. That is to say, Bastet is considered the creator of the turquoise color. According to a myth, turquoise is a color that forms when Bastet’s blood touches the ground. The blood is mostly believed to be menstrual blood, which relates to the color of turquoise to women in general.

Bastet’s Cults and Representations in Pyramids

Bastet was widely worshiped as the single most important feline goddess. This means she had quite some festivals and temples that were dedicated solely to her or in relation with other deities.

Khafre Valley Temple

In some of the pyramids, Bastet is a goddess that is closely linked to the king. One of the examples of this can be found in the valley temple of King Khafre at Giza. It carries the names of only two goddesses, namely Hathor and Bastet. They both represented different parts of the Egyptian kingdom, but Bastet is seen as the benign royal protector.

In case you weren’t sure, the pyramids basically functioned as a stairway to heaven for the ones that were buried there. No Led Zeppelin needed, just build yourself a pyramid and you will enjoy ascension to heaven. 

In the case of the temple of King Khafre, Bastet is depicted as his mother and nurse. It is believed that this would enable the king to reach the sky in good health.

Lady of Asheru

Asheru was the name of the sacred lake in the temple of Mut at Karnak, and Bastet was given the name ‘lady of Asheru’ in honor of her connection with Mut. As discussed earlier, Mut was the sister of Bastet. The aggressive protective side of Bastet can be seen in historical texts describing the pharaoh in battle.

Reliefs in the temple of Karnak, for example, show the pharaoh celebrating ritual races carrying either four scepters and a bird or an oar in front of Bastet. Our goddess is in this instance referred to as Sekhet-neter. This translates to the ‘Divine Field’, which is a reference to Egypt as a whole. So indeed, the lady of Asheru represents the protection of the whole of Egypt.

Bastet’s Cult and its Centers

Bastet had her very own cult, which was located in the north-east delta of the Nile. It was located in a city known as Bubastis, which translates to the ‘house of Bastet’. The actual center where Bastet was worshiped is heavily ruined these days, and no real recognizable images that affirm the actual influence of Bastet can be seen there. 

Luckily, there are some nearby tombs that give some information about the goddess Bastet and her importance in ancient Egypt. From these tombs, we learn that Bastet had the single most elaborate festival in Egypt. This definitely says something, since it means that she had a bigger festival than the creator of all: her father Ra . 

The festival was celebrated with feasts, music, a lot of dancing, and unrestrained wine-drinking. During the festival, sacred rattles were used as a sign of jubilation to Bastet. 

Bastet and Mummified Cats

Bubastis was not just known to be related to Bastet merely for its name. The city actually housed a temple complex called Bubasteion, near the pyramid of King Teti. 

It is not just any temple, since it contains tons of well-wrapped mummies of cats. The mummified cats often have linen bandages forming geometrical patterns and faces painted to give a quizzical or humorous expression. 

It tells something about the universal affection in which the goddess’s sacred creature was held by the ancient Egyptians, a legacy that lives on to this day

How Cats were Mummified

The cats at the temple were mummified in quite a specific way. This has mostly to do with the position of their paws. It allowed archeologists to classify the mummies into two categories.

The first category is the one where the forepaws extend along the trunk of the cats. The legs are folded up along the abdomen of the cats. Their tails are pulled through the hind-legs and rest along the belly. When mummified, it resembles a sort of cylinder with a cat’s head.

The second category of cats that were mummified are more suggestive of the actual animal. The head, limbs, and tail are separately bandaged. This cherished the actual figure of the cat, as opposed to the first category. The head is often decorated with painted details such as the eyes and nose.

Towards Contemporary Animal Gods

The story of Bastet tells us a great deal about the importance of cats in ancient Egypt. Also, it tells us a lot about their civilization in general. 

Imagine a world in which everybody sees such animals as the highest deities that can exist. Wouldn’t that be epic? Also, wouldn’t it potentially help us to relate in a different way to animals and nature in general? We might never know.

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