|Goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music, and love|
Bastet in her later form as a cat-headed woman.
|Name in hieroglyphs||
|Major cult center||Bubastis|
|Symbol||lion, cat, the sistrum|
|Siblings||Tefnut, Shu; Serket, Hathor, Ammut, and Thoth in some accounts; Horus|
Bastet was a goddess in ancient Egyptian religion, worshipped as early as the Second Dynasty (2890 BC). 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 spelled Baast, Ubaste, and Baset.
The two uniting cultures had deities that shared similar roles and usually the same imagery. In Upper Egypt, Sekhmet was the parallel warrior lioness deity to Bast. Often similar deities merged into one with the unification, but that did not occur with these deities with such strong roots in their cultures. Instead, these goddesses began to diverge. During the Twenty-Second Dynasty (c. 945–715 BC), Bast had changed 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.
Bastet, the form of the name which is most commonly adopted by Egyptologists today because of its use in later dynasties, is a modern convention offering one possible reconstruction. In early Egyptian, her name appears to have been 𓃀ꜣ𓊃𓏏𓏏. In Egyptian writing, the second 𓏏 marks a feminine ending, but was not usually pronounced, and the aleph ꜣ may have moved to a position before the accented syllable, ꜣ𓃀𓊃𓏏. By the first millennium, then, 𓃀ꜣ𓊃𓏏𓏏 would have been something like *Ubaste (< *Ubastat) in Egyptian speech, later becoming Coptic Oubaste.
During later dynasties, Bast was assigned a lesser role in the pantheon bearing the name Bastet, but retained. During the 18th dynasty Thebes became the capital of Ancient Egypt. As they rose to great power the priests of the temple of Amun, dedicated to the primary local deity, advanced the stature of their titular deity to national prominence and shifted the relative stature of others in the Egyptian pantheon. Diminishing her status, they began referring to Bast with the added suffix, as "Bastet" and their use of the new name was well-documented, becoming very familiar to researchers. by the 22nd dynasty the transition had occurred in all regions.
The town of Bast's cult (see below) was known in Greek as Boubastis (Βούβαστις). The Hebrew rendering of the name for this town is Pî-beset ("House of Bastet"), spelled without Vortonsilbe.
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 "ointment jar" (𓃀ꜣ𓊃) and that she was associated with protective ointments, among other things.
She was the goddess of protection against contagious diseases and evil spirits.
She is also known as The Eye of Ra.
From lioness-goddess to cat-goddess
From the 3rd millennium BC, when Bast begins to appear in our records, she is depicted as either a fierce lioness or a woman with the head of a lioness. Images of Bast were created from a local stone, named alabaster today. The lioness was the fiercest hunter among the animals in Africa, hunting in co-operative groups of related females.
Originally she was viewed as the protector goddess of Lower Egypt. As protector, she was seen as defender of the pharaoh, and consequently of the later chief male deity, Ra, who was also a solar deity, gaining her the titles Lady of Flame and Eye of Ra.
Her role in the Egyptian pantheon became diminished as Sekhmet, a similar lioness war deity, became more dominant in the unified culture of Lower and Upper Egypt known as the Two Lands.
In the first millennium BC, when domesticated cats were popularly kept as pets, during the 18th dynasty Bastet began to be represented as a woman with the head of a cat and ultimately, by the 22nd dynasty emerged as the Egyptian cat-goddess par excellence. In the Middle Kingdom, the domestic cat appeared as Bast’s sacred animal and after the New Kingdom she was depicted as a woman with the head of a cat or a lioness, carrying a sacred rattle and a box or basket.
Bast was a local deity whose cult was centered in the city of Bubastis, now Tell Basta, which lay in the Delta near what is known as Zagazig today. The town, known in Egyptian as pr-bȝstt (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. In the biblical Book of Ezekiel 30:17, the town appears in the Hebrew form Pibeseth.
Save for the entrance, it stands on an island; two separate channels approach it from the Nile, and after coming up to the entry of the temple, they run round it on opposite sides; each of them a hundred feet wide, and overshadowed by trees. The temple is in the midst of the city, the whole circuit of which commands a view down into it; for the city's level has been raised, but that of the temple has been left as it was from the first, so that it can be seen into from without. A stone wall, carven with figures, runs round it; within is a grove of very tall trees growing round a great shrine, wherein is the image of the goddess; the temple is a square, each side measuring a furlong. A road, paved with stone, of about three furlongs' length leads to the entrance, running eastward through the market place, towards the temple of Hermes; this road is about 400 feet wide, and bordered by trees reaching to heaven.
The description offered by Herodotus and several Egyptian texts suggest that water surrounded the temple on three (out of four) sides, forming a type of lake known as isheru, not too dissimilar from that surrounding the Temple of the mother goddess Mut in Karnak at Thebes. Lakes known as isheru were typical of temples devoted to a number of leonine goddesses who are said to represent one original goddess, daughter of the Sun-God Re / Eye of Re: Bast, Mut, Tefnut, Hathor, and Sakhmet. Each of them had to be appeased by a specific set of rituals. One myth relates that a lioness, fiery and wrathful, was once cooled down by the water of the lake, transformed into a gentle cat, and settled in the temple.
Herodotus also relates that of the many solemn festivals held in Egypt, the most important and most popular one was that celebrated in Bubastis in honour of the goddess, whom he calls Bubastis and equates with the Greek goddess Artemis. Each year on the day of her festival, the town is said to have attracted some 700,000 visitors ("as the people of the place say"), both men and women (but not children), who arrived in numerous crowded ships. The women engaged in music, song, and dance on their way to the place, great sacrifices were made and prodigious amounts of wine were drunk, more than was the case throughout the year. This accords well with Egyptian sources which prescribe that leonine goddesses are to be appeased with the "feasts of drunkenness".
Bast was a lioness goddess of the sun throughout most of Ancient Egyptian history, but later she was changed into the cat goddess (Bastet). She also was changed to a goddess of the moon by Greeks occupying Ancient Egypt toward the end of its civilization. In Greek mythology, Bast also is known as Ailuros.
History and connection to other deities
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The lioness represented the war goddess and protector of both lands that would unite as Ancient Egypt. As divine mother, and more especially as protector, for Lower Egypt, Bast became strongly associated with Wadjet, the patron goddess of Lower Egypt. She eventually became Wadjet-Bast, paralleling the similar pair of patron (Nekhbet) and lioness protector (Sekhmet) for Upper Egypt. Bast fought an evil snake named Apep.
As the fierce lion god Maahes of nearby Nubia later became part of Egyptian mythology and assigned the role of the son of Bast, during the time of the New Kingdom, Bast was held to be the daughter of Amun Ra, a newly ascending deity in the Egyptian pantheon during that late dynasty. Bast became identified as his mother in the Lower Egypt, near the delta. Similarly the fierce lioness war goddess Sekhmet, became identified as the mother of Maahes in the Upper Egypt.
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. Turner and Bateson estimate that during the 22nd dynasty c.945-715 BC, Bast worship changed from being a lioness deity into being a major cat deity. With the unification of the two Egypts, many similar deities were merged into one or the other, the significance of Bast and Sekhmet, to the regional cultures that merged, resulted in a retention of both, necessitating a change to one or the other.
The Ancient Egyptian pantheon was evolving constantly. During the 18th dynasty Thebes became the capital of Ancient Egypt and because of that, their patron deity became paramount. The priests of the temple of Amun shifted the relative stature of other deities in the Egyptian pantheon. Diminishing the status of Bast, they began referring to her with the added suffix, as "Bastet" and their use of the new name became very familiar to Egyptologists.
In the temple at Per-Bast some cats were found to have been mummified and buried, many next to their owners. More than 300,000 mummified cats were discovered when Bast's temple at Per-Bast was excavated. The main source of information about the Bast cult comes from Herodotus who visited Bubastis around 450 BC during after the changes in the cult. He equated Bastet with the Greek Goddess Artemis. He wrote extensively about the cult. 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.
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Later scribes sometimes renamed her Bastet, a variation on Bast consisting of an additional feminine suffix to the one already present (the "t" of Bast), thought to have been added to emphasize pronunciation; perhaps it is a diminutive name applied as she receded in the ascendancy of Sekhmet in the Egyptian pantheon. Since Bast literally meant, (female) of the ointment jar, Her name was related with the lavish jars in which Egyptians stored their perfume.
Bast thus gradually became regarded as the goddess of perfumes, earning the title, perfumed protector. In connection with this, when Anubis became the god of embalming, Bast, as goddess of ointment, came to be regarded as his wife. The association of Bast as mother of Anubis, was broken years later when Anubis became identified as the son of Nephthys.
Lower Egypt's loss in the wars between Upper and Lower Egypt led to a decrease in the ferocity of Bast. Thus, by the Middle Kingdom she came to be regarded as a domestic cat rather than a lioness. Occasionally, however, she was depicted holding a lioness mask, hinting at her potential ferocity and perhaps, a reminder of her origin.
Because domestic cats tend to be tender and protective of their offspring, Bast also was 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.
Eventually, her position as patron and protector of Lower Egypt led to her being identified with the more substantial goddess Mut, whose cult had risen to power with that of Amun, and eventually being syncretized with her as Mut-Wadjet-Bast. Shortly after, in the constantly evolving pantheon, Mut also absorbed the identities of the Sekhmet-Nekhbet pairing as well.
This merging of identities of similar goddesses has led to considerable confusion, leading to some attributing to Bast the title Mistress of the Sistrum (more properly belonging to Hathor, who had become thought of as an aspect of the later emerging Isis, as had Mut), and the Greek idea of her as a lunar goddess (more properly an attribute of Mut) rather than the solar deity she was. The native Egyptian rulers were replaced by Greeks during an occupation of Egypt in the Ptolemaic dynasty that lasted almost 500 years.
The Ptolemys adopted many Egyptian beliefs and customs, but always "interpreted" them in relation to their own Greek culture. These associations sought to link the antiquity of Egyptian culture to the newer Greek culture, thereby lending parallel roots and a sense of continuity. Indeed, much confusion occurred with subsequent generations; the identity of Bast slowly merged among the Greeks during their occupation of Egypt, who sometimes named her Ailuros (Greek for cat), thinking of Bast as a version of Artemis, their own moon goddess.
Thus, to fit their own cosmology, to the Greeks Bast is thought of as the sister of Horus, whom they identified as Apollo (Artemis' brother), and consequently, the daughter of the later emerging deities, Isis and Ra. Roman occupation of Egypt followed in 30 BC, and their pantheon of deities also was identified with the Greek interpretations of the Ancient Egyptians. The introduction of Christianity and Muslim beliefs followed as well, and by the 6th century AD only a few vestiges of Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs remained, although the cult of Isis had spread to the ends of the Roman Empire.
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- Serpell, "Domestication and History of the Cat", p. 184.
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- Te Velde, "Bastet", p. 164.
- Bastet Egyptian Museum
- Herodotus, Book 2, chapter 138.
- Herodotus, Book 2, chapter 59.
- Herodotus, Book 2, chapter 137.
- Herodotus, Book 2, chapter 60.
- Herodotus, ed. H. Stein (et al.) and tr. AD Godley (1920), Herodotus 1. Books 1 and 2. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.
- Egyptian temples
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