During the ancient Egyptian era, cats were held in the highest esteem. Killing or injuring a cat came with serious consequences – it was an abomination. They also worshipped a Cat Goddess referred to as Bastet, who was often represented as half woman and half feline. They would organize a massive festival at the city of Bubastis (in northern Egypt) to honor Bastet, which would later be recognized by the Roman writer Herodotus as the largest and most successful in all of Egypt. The Temple priests maintained large catteries and archeologists have discovered a large cemetery of mummified cats outside of Bubastis. Here is everything you need to know about the Egyptian cat god.
Description and meaning
Bastet is the Egyptian goddess of childbirth, fertility, women’s secrets, domesticity, home, and of course, cats. She was believed to protect the home from evil spirits and diseases, especially those associated with women and children. Her secondary roles also included guiding and helping the dead in the afterlife. She was originally known as “B’sst,” which was lengthened to “Ubaste,” then “Bast,” and finally “Bastet.” Although she was greatly respected, Bastet also inspired tremendous fear. This was evidence in some of her titles, including The Lady of Slaughter and The Lady of Dread.
She is associated with Mafdet – the very first feline goddess in Egyptian history who was also the goddess of justice – and Mau – the divine cat and an aspect of Ra. Her role as the protector of the innocent and the avenger of the wronged was inherited from Mafdet. In her association with Mau, Bastet is sometimes depicted destroying Apophis – Ra’s enemy – by chopping his head off with a knife, an image that is synonymous with Mau. Over time, Bastet’s nature watered down from that of a lionine form to that of a familiar companion, often represented as a woman with a cat’s head or just a house cat.
Role in religion
As said earlier, Bastet was highly glorified by the Ancient Egyptians. She had a cult center at Bubastis, which attracted a diverse crowd from all over the country as people came to pay their respects and have the bodies of their deceased cats entombed. Some statues depict Bastet holding a sistrum in her hand, which is a direct association with Hathor who was traditionally known for carrying the instrument. Initially, Hathor was the lioness goddess Sekhmet who was sent by Ra to destroy humans for their sins. Her personality underwent a dramatic transformation over time, subsequently becoming a gentler friend to humanity. On the other hand, while Bastet became friendlier than her original self, she was equally dangerous to those who abused others or broke the law.
Bastet grew immensely in her role as the protector of women and the household. She became popular among both men and women, since every man had a wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, or daughter who benefited from Bastet’s protection. As a result, women became highly regarded in Egypt, enjoying almost equal rights with men. Cats were also highly prized in the country, as they were believed to protect the house from vermin and keep unwanted animals from the owners’ crops. Bastet’s popularity was so great that, when Cambyses II of Persia invaded the country in 525 BCE, he used the feline deity to force the Egyptians to surrender. Knowing how highly they regarded animals, particularly cats, he had the image of Bastet painted on all his soldiers’ shields and then rallied all the animals available towards the pivotal city of Pelusium – in front of the Egyptian army. Fearing to harm the animals and offend Bastet, the Egyptians refused to fight and surrendered instead.