Bastet – How the Cat Became a Goddess
The Goddess Bastet has become a strange hybrid icon of both the ancient and digital ages. This is probably due to the fascination with ancient Egypt and the popularity of cats on the internet.
So without further ado, here’s the story of how the ancient Egyptians deified the cat.
Although cats seem to have self-domesticated – meaning they themselves began to adapt to humans – no one is sure of exactly where or when this first happened.
But one thing that’s for sure is that the cat had special significance in the world of ancient Egypt, and all because of the usefulness of their natural qualities.
Cats chased away snakes from people’s homes and hunted vermin that ruined their food supplies, and so the ancient Egyptians began to take care of them.
They would even adorn them with jewelry, if they were rich of course, and eventually began to revere them as protectors.
The protectiveness of cats was also observed in the way they treated their offspring. People them feeding, grooming and playing with their kittens and then teaching them to do these things themselves.
And so more and more they began to respect and adore the cat, which eventually led to its deification.
But as with most of the ancient Egyptian pantheon – the origins of a deity was not always clear cut.
Gods morphed and combined, evolved and changed roles over time. And so it was with Bastet as well.
At first, she was named Bast and was depicted as a lioness. She was worshiped in Lower Egypt, while her Upper Egyptian lioness counterpart, Sekhmet, was more dominant.
By the Middle Kingdom, Bast evolved into more of the cat goddess while Sekhmet grew more in her association with lions.
And so Bast became the Goddess Bastet, with some believing this slight change in naming eluded to a softening by adding an extra feminine suffix of (t) at the end.
Her depictions also changed from lioness to cat, and by the New Kingdom she was usually shown as a woman with a cat’s head.
A Feminine Goddess
In ancient Egypt, protection was delegated to female deities much more than to male deities, perhaps because in nature the protection of offspring was usually the mother’s role. And because of the proximity cats to humans, people found in them many motherly qualities they respected and appreciated.
And so they began to make amulets of a Bastet with a litter of kittens, with the number of kittens symbolizing the number of children the women who would wear these amulets wanted for themselves…
Another somewhat feminine role of Bastet was to act as the guardian of ointment jars, and so she also became the Goddess of Perfume.
The Worship of Bastet
Although the Egyptians mummified all types of animals, from donkeys to baboons, the mummification of cats was perhaps the most wide-spread. At the temple of Per-Bast, mummies of hundreds of thousands of cats were excavated.
A family whose cat died would shave their eyebrows and then prepare the cat’s body for mummification and burial. It’s even been recorded that, at one point, the punishment for killing a cat was death.
Bastet had her own festivals and celebrations; the ancient Egyptians never missed an opportunity to drink and let loose! Once a year thousands of Egyptians would make pilgrimages from all over the country to her cult center at Per-Bast in Lower Egypt.
Per-Bast means “House of Bast” though the city’s Greek name, Bubastis, is more well known. Nowadays it is called Tell Basta in modern Egypt.
The Greek historian Herodotus mentioned that the festivals of Bast were some of the most beautiful in ancient Egypt, where people would sing, dance, play music in boats floating across the Nile. They would drink and behave in wild ways, and then pray to the Goddess.
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