Bastet or Bast was a goddess of ancient Egyptian religion, worshiped as early as the Second Dynasty (2890 BCE). Her name also is rendered as B’sst, Baast, Ubaste, and Baset. In ancient Greek religion, she was known as Ailuros.
Bastet was worshiped in Bubastis in Lower Egypt, originally as a lioness goddess, a role shared by other deities such as Sekhmet.
Eventually, Bastet and Sekhmet were characterized as two aspects of the same goddess, with Sekhmet representing the powerful warrior and protector aspect and Bastet, who increasingly was depicted as a cat, representing a gentler aspect.
Bastet first appears in the third millennium BC, where she is depicted as either a fierce lioness or a woman with the head of a lioness.
Two thousand years later, during the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1070–712 BC), Bastet began to be depicted as a domestic cat or a cat-headed woman.
Scribes of the New Kingdom and later eras began referring to her with an additional feminine suffix, as Bastet. The name change is thought to have been added to emphasize pronunciation of the ending t sound, often left silent.
Cats in ancient Egypt were highly revered, 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 the plates of their owners.
Turner and Bateson estimate that during the Twenty-second Dynasty (c. 945–715 BC), Bastet worship changed from being a lioness deity into being predominantly a major cat deity. Because domestic cats tend to be tender and protective of their offspring, Bastet was also regarded as a good mother and sometimes was depicted with numerous kittens.
The native Egyptian rulers were replaced by Greeks during an occupation of Ancient Egypt in the Ptolemaic Dynasty that lasted almost 300 years. The Greeks sometimes equated Bastet with one of their goddesses, Artemis.
Role in ancient Egypt
Bastet was originally a fierce lioness warrior goddess of the sun worshiped throughout most of ancient Egyptian history, but later she was changed into the cat goddess that is familiar today, becoming Bastet. She then was depicted as the daughter of Ra and Isis, and the consort of Ptah, with whom she had a son Maahes.
As protector of Lower Egypt, she was seen as a defender of the king, and consequently of the sun god, Ra. Along with other deities such as Hathor, Sekhmet, and Isis, Bastet was associated with the Eye of Ra. She has been depicted as fighting the evil snake named Apep, an enemy of Ra. In addition to her solar connections, sometimes she was called the “eye of the moon“.
Bastet was also a goddess of pregnancy and childbirth, possibly because of the fertility of the domestic cat.
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.
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 that became named, Bubastis. It lay in the Nile Delta near what is known today as Zagazig.
It was known in Greek as Boubastis 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.
Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian who traveled in Egypt in the fifth century BCE, describes Bastet’s temple at some length:
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.
This description by Herodotus and several Egyptian texts suggests 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.
These lakes were typical components of temples devoted to a number of lioness goddesses, who are said to represent one original goddess, Bastet, Mut, Tefnut, Hathor, and Sakhmet, and came to be associated with sun gods such as Horus and Ra as well as the Eye of Ra. 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.
At the Bubastis temple, some cats were found to have been mummified and buried, many next to their owners. More than 300,000 mummified cats were discovered when Bastet’s temple was excavated. 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 burial site of many hundreds of thousands of cats in Beni Hasan.