Bastet was the ancient Egyptian goddess of protection and cats. She was the warrior daughter and defender of Ra, who sent her to fight his archenemy Apep. As protectress, she was seen as defender of the pharaoh, after Sekhet, the lioness, and consequently of the chief god Ra.
Bast is also known as Bastet, Ubasti, and Pasch. She was worshiped at least since the Second Dynasty in Ancient Egypt. The centre of her cult was in Per-Bast (Bubastis in Greek), which was named after her. Originally she was seen as the protector goddess of Lower Egypt and her image was that of a fierce lion. The name Bast means '(female) devourer'.
In later times Bast became the goddess of protection and blessing and was the protectress of women, children and domestic cats. She was the goddess of sunrise, music, dance and pleasure as well as family, fertility and birth. When Anubis became the god of embalming, Bast, as goddess of ointment, was connected to him (sometimes viewed as his wife and sometimes as his mother) until Anubis became Nephthys' son.
This gentler characteristic, of Bast as goddess of perfumes, following Lower Egypt's loss in the wars between Upper and Lower Egypt, meant that in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt she became seen as a domestic cat and not as a lioness. Owing to associations with the maternal nature of cats, Bast was also regarded as a good mother and she was commonly depicted with kittens. Sometimes Egyptian women who wanted children wore an amulet showing the goddess with kittens; the number of kittens on the amulet would correspond to how many children the woman wanted to have.
Bastet (Bast) was the most honored feline deity in Ancient Egypt. The cult of Bastet started around the town of Bubastis, located in the Eastern Delta in Lower Egypt (around 3,200 B.C.), and was an important town from the Old Kingdom through the Late Period. During early Egyptian times the city was called Per-Bast which translates into “the domain of Bast”. Later the city was called Bubastis and is today known as Tell Basta. Bastet was worshipped throughout other regions of the Egyptian region as well. Bast was worshipped in Memphis (during the Old Kingdom), where she was associated with Sekhmet; in Heliopolis (during the Old Kingdom) where she was called the “Daughter of Tem” (connected to Tefnut); in a city called “Hill of Bast” in the precinct of Mut in Thebes (during the New Kingdom) and in the city of Nit during the Late Period. Festivals celebrating Bastet were held in the cities of Bubastis, Memphis (Luxor), Thebes and Esna.
Names of the elaborate festivals of Bastet included: “Procession of Bastet”, “Bastet Protects the Two Lands”, “Bastet Goes Forth from Per-Bast”, “Bastet Appears Before Ra” and the “Festival of Hathor and Bastet”. Her main festivals were celebrated in April and May in Bubastis. Her festivals were characterized by music, dancing and wine and were some of the most popular festivals in Egypt at the time. For some festivals, over 700,000 people came from all over Egypt, often in boats, sailing along the Nile.
In Bubastis, the festival began by making sacrifices to Bastet. The Temple of Bast stood in the town center so that it could be seen from everywhere and stood on raised ground. The outside wall of the temple was decorated with pictures of animals and inside the temple was a courtyard, planted with a grove of trees surrounding her shrine. Worshippers came from all over Egypt, often leaving offerings, bronze statues, amulets and mummified cats in her temple. Thousands of these cats were later found in underground crypts where her temple once stood.
During the days of celebration, the Egyptians spent many days making music, dancing and being joyful. Worshippers went to her temple playing instruments, beating drums, shaking tambourines, carrying sistras (sacred rattles), singing and dancing through the streets. On the last night of the festival, a single light would be lit inside the Temple of Bast and from there the light would spread through the town, carried by devotees. Prayers throughout the night would be accompanied by music and incense. Bast was important in worship and the Egyptian people would make sacrifices to her of spices, water, wine, milk, bread and meat. Gifts of gold, diamonds, silver, perfumes and other riches would also be given. The people of Egypt would also dance and sing to her because was the goddess of both dance and song.
Bastet’s father was Ra, the God of the Sun and All Creation. Hathor (Sekment), the cow-headed god of the sky and women, was also a daughter of Ra. Hathor had two sons named Nefertem (meaning 'water lily' or 'the sun' or 'he who is beautiful'), the God of Healing, and Maahes, a solar lion-headed God of War. Bastet did not have a mother because Ra, as the Creator deity, was called “The Great He-She” and was considered to be able to be both male and female. Bastet's husband was Ptah, the god of Craftsmen, Rebirth and Creation. When associated with Isis, Bastet was sometimes called the “Soul of Isis”.
These familial associations are somewhat misleading, however, because Egyptian gods shared relationships beyond traditional family contexts. Sekhmet, Bastet and dozens of other goddesses were considered to be “Eyes-of-Ra”. Bastet and Sekhmet were paired, for example, but they were paired geographically and not as opposite personalities of Bastet. The main place of Bastet’s worship was in Lower Egypt while Sekhmet was worshipped primarily in Upper Egypt. Egyptians traditionally associated Bastet as a “She of the North” and Sekhmet as a “She of the South”. Sometimes Bastet was also called “Lady of the East” (Protectress of the Eastern Delta) while Sekhmet was called the “Lady of the West” (Protectress of the Western Delta).
- Remler, Pat Egyptian Mythology A to Z, pages 23 – 24
- Adil, Janeen Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, page 18
- Millmore, Mark Imagining Egypt, page 21
- Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, pages 177 – 178
- Redford, Donald B. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 1, pages 512 – 516
- The World Book Encyclopedia 2010, Vol. 3 C-Ch, pages 284 – 297
- Ars Mundi Magazine, Germany, Christmas 2009, page 94