Bastet, Hathor and Sekhmet

EGYPTIAN CAT GODDESS

Would you like to discover the place of Bastet in Egyptian mythology? To understand how Bastet slightly influenced our view of cats in our modern culture?

Then you've come to the right place: as enthusiasts of ancient Egypt, we're here to help you!

The Egyptian cat goddess Bastet is one of the best-known deities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Represented either as a cat-headed goddess or as a black cat, she was the goddess of cats, music, women, childbirth, and pleasure.

In this article, you will discover:

  • The role of Bastet in Egyptian mythology
  • An explanation of the rites of the ancient Egyptians performed in honor of the goddess Bastet
  • Modern theories attached to the goddess Bastet

Let's begin without further ado!

1) Who is Bastet?

A) Bastet in Egyptian mythology

First, we find Bastet (or Bast) in the myth of Osiris. In this myth at the center of the polytheistic Egyptian religion, Bastet protects the young falcon god Horus and his mother Isis from the god Set. Indeed, after having killed Horus' father, the pharaoh Osiris, to rob him of his throne, Set also wants to delete the legitimate heir of the kingdom of Egypt.

Thus, as protective goddess of women, Bastet protects Isis and, by extension, her innocent child Horus. Later, thanks to this saving protection, Horus, as an adult, will be able to take back the throne of Egypt from Set by challenging him in a series of trials.

In Egyptian mythology, the son of Bastet was Maahes, the Egyptian lion god conceived from the union of Bastet with the creation god Ptah. Maahes (or "Miysis" according to the centuries) was the god of war of ancient Egypt. As Bastet, Maahes was often depicted as a lion-headed man.

At certain times in Egyptian civilization, Maahes was the substitute in the Egyptian pantheon for the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, the warrior goddess who exterminated a large portion of mankind in the myth of Sekhmet. It is highly probable that Maahes was inspired by a merged version of the names of the two war gods Mars and Ares (respectively present in Roman and Greek mythology).

Bastet in the Myth of the Solar Boat of Ra

According to the "texts of the pyramids", Bastet stood on the boat of Sun god Ra alongside Thoth and Hathor to thwart the attacks of the giant serpent of chaos Apep who wanted to devour Ra. Note that according to the versions of this story, it is sometimes Ra who turns into a cat during the fight against Apep, without Bastet being present.

B) The feline deity in ancient Egypt

Bastet, the cat goddess, was the goddess of love, of the mystery of women, of pregnant women, of the joy of home, of passion, of pleasure and of "all things pleasant." Her emblem was a black Egyptian ankh cross with two cats on it.

Initially, Bastet was represented as a cheetah goddess, daughter of the Sun god Ra. She was the protector of the Egyptian pharaohs as well as their vengeful goddess. Indeed, she was believed to have the power to torment the rulers of foreign countries who had bad intentions towards the kings of Egypt.

Around 1500 BC, Bastet evolved in her representations towards a more domestic animal: the cat. Bastet received new attributes from this association with cats, becoming the goddess of fertility, sensuality, grace, and family. These attributes were probably given to her because of the fertility of domestic cats (cats can have up to 8 kittens in a litter) as well as the friendly nature of these small felines.

2) Cats in ancient Egypt

Today, historians confirm that the Egyptian cat goddess gained great popularity around the 22nd dynasty of pharaohs (954 BC). The cult of Bastet made their goddess one of the few Egyptian gods and goddesses to possess a city named directly after her: the city of Bubastis ("Bu-Bastis" meaning "The House of Bastet").

Bastet was mostly depicted as a human woman with the head of a cat. However, for artistic reasons, Bastet was sometimes depicted with a whole cat's body. The latter representation generated the belief that Bastet could be any cat living in Egypt, which made Egyptian cats even more sacred animals.

Thus, for the ancient Egyptians, injuring a cat was a great insult to Bastet. The accidental or intentional killing of a cat was always punishable by the death penalty.

The writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus confirms that this immense respect for cats of Egyptian was not a rumor. Diodorus Siculus describes the scene of the lynching of a Roman citizen who killed a cat by mistake and who was immediately lynched to death by a crowd of angry Egyptians.  

Bastet, the Egyptian feline goddess

For ancient Egyptians, it is impossible to distinguish Bastet in the form of a black cat from a simple Egyptian black cat.

3) Mummification of cats

Cats were mummified on a very large scale in an attempt to obtain the favors of Bastet, deemed to be the protector of the homes where cats were treated well. Accordingly, as mummification made it possible to help the cats' souls reach the heavens, Bastet could only thank those who cared for salvation and respected her sacred animals.

After the death of a pet cat, to go even further in Bastet's veneration than the embalming of cats, the family of a cat marked a profound period of mourning. This period of mourning was marked at its beginning by the shaving of the eyebrows of the deceased cat's family members. This period of mourning would not stop until their eyebrows had fully grown back.

Due to Bastet's increasing search for favors, cat breeding soon became a very lucrative business. The vast cemeteries discovered in the great cities of ancient Egypt containing thousands of cat mummies are there to bear witness to this.

4) The festival of Bastet

Every year, the Festival of Bastet took place. In this festival, up to 700,000 people travelled by boat down the Nile to the port city of Bubastis to celebrate the glory of Bastet. Bastet was honored with rituals, sacrifices and songs during a great, highly alcoholic festival that started as soon as the boat was on the Nile.

The historian and geographer Herodotus witnessed such a festival. He describes a sumptuous feast in which the women arrived very dressed and more numerous than the men. These women were temporarily freed from all social constraints and could celebrate the goddess' feast by drinking, dancing, and singing.

According to tradition, Bastet, as the goddess of luck, granted all those who came to her feast her "benediction of luck" through her priests, a benediction that would last until the next feast.

The Egyptian cat goddess

You now know everything of the story of the goddess of "all pleasant things."

If you like ancient Egypt myth, we invite you to keep this myth alive by visiting the part of our website where we offer Egyptian necklaces, rings, and bracelets.

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The god of Egypt