In ancient times cats were worshiped as Gods;
they have not forgotten this.
~ Terry Pratchett
On this first Sunday of Summer, as our brothers and sisters in Egypt today celebrate their dramatic progress towards democracy, we welcome the glad and Summery energy of beautiful Bastet!
Bastet (the name now preferred by most Egyptologists), is also known to many as Bast. Pre-dating even Isis, the earliest mentions of Her come from the Nile Delta around the third millennium B.C.E. Author Patricia Monaghan tells us that by 930 B.C.E., She was beloved throughout Egypt and even thousands of miles beyond.
Originally a lion Goddess of the Sun, Bastet gradually changed from lion to cat. Her warrior-destroyer ferocity was eventually superseded by the lioness Goddess, Sekhmet. Bastet’s gifts to humanity are the life-giving rays of the sun (as opposed to Sekhmet’s harsher, death-wielding solar aspect).
As She came to be associated with domestic cats, Bastet also became one of the world’s only combinations of Sun and Moon Goddess. This was doubtless in part because of the nocturnal habits of cats and Her role in the cycles of fertility. Reinforcing this, the later Greek culture adopted Her, giving Her the name Ailuros. They associated Her with Artemis, the Goddess of Moon and the Hunt.
Bastet rules pleasure, dancing, music, and joy. Although there were many huge temples dedicated to Her, the primary center of Her worship was the city of Bubastis, which means “house of Bastet” and is near present-day Zagazig in lower Egypt. In the late Egyptian period, Her importance grew to such an extent that Bubastis was temporarily made Egypt’s capital city.
According to 5th century B.C.E. Greek historian Herodotus, hundreds of thousands of men and women (no children allowed) from throughout the known world would attend Her festival each year. Her faithful worshipers would float into the peninsular city by the boatloads, to be greeted by “pleasant flute melodies as they debarked for a worship service combined with a vast trade fair,” Patricia tells us.
Herodotus goes on at length to describe Her temples as places of enormous luxury and beauty, rivaled only by the temples of Ra and Horus. Those who made the journey to Bubastis could expect days and nights of sensual pleasures, erotic dancing, music, revelry, and other delights, resulting in blessings of excellent mental and physical health.
Of course, because of Her enormous importance, all cats in Egypt were under Bastet’s protection, and were pampered and treated with great honor. Killing a cat was a capital offense. This paid off beautifully for the Egyptians (as opposed to other cultures who have not had the good sense to love their feline populations), since cats are terrific guardians against the vermin that destroy crops and spread disease.
Bastet is a protector of women and young children and was invoked in matters concerning fertility and child-bearing. Amulets featuring a mother cat with several kittens suckling or playing at her feet were often given to new brides as gifts of good fortune and protection.
Most households also had a small statue of Bastet to ensure Her blessings and protection for the home. She was often depicted as a cat carrying the Sun, or a cat-headed woman wearing a breastplate decorated with Her older lioness image. She is also often painted or sculpted with a ceremonial sistrum in one hand and an aegis in the other—the aegis usually resembling a collar embellished with a lioness head.
In one of Her myths, Bastet rode beside Ra, God of the Sun, serving as His protector while He slept. Thus, She possesses the Eye of Ra, and Her symbol of the utchat (all-seeing eye) can be found throughout Egyptian art. (It is also associated with Ra Himself, as well as with Horus).
The symbol is used to ward off thieves, to bring powerful protection, especially while traveling, to keep the home free of snakes, and as a ward against infectious diseases. It became also a symbol of great beauty, and Egyptian women adorned their eyes with makeup to emulate its shape.
The Egyptians loved their cats, and would often dress them in golden earrings and other jewelry in honor of Bastet. The death of a cat was a family tragedy. All members of the household would shave their eyebrows in mourning. Their cats were often embalmed, so that they could travel with their human companions in the afterlife. Huge cat cemeteries have been found at Bubastis and other sites across Egypt.
Like cats everywhere, when treated with deference and respect, Bastet showers us with delightful favors. Hers are the life-affirming gifts of happiness, playfulness, elegance, and beauty.
Bastet is the keeper of our most intimate secrets and invites us to recognize our magic. Celebrate Bastet today by basking in the Sun, frolicking in the dark, and enjoying your sensual, pleasure-loving body.
She also reminds us that sometimes, we would do best to ignore the opinions of others, and obey only our own joyful, creative spirits.
With gratitude to these resources:
365 Goddess, by Patricia Telesco
The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines, by Patricia Monaghan
Bast, Goddess of Pleasure and Protection
Bast – Eye of Ra
Wikipedia – Bastet