The Dual Roles of Bastet in Egyptian Mythology
Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of cats, featured in the stories, myths and legends in Egyptian Mythology. She was revered as the kindly goddess of pets and household cats and also as the war-like lion-headed goddess. Bastet (also known as Bast) replaced the ancient cult of Mafdet, the earliest cat goddess of ancient Egypt. In her benign aspect Bastet was worshipped as the kindly life giving god of fire, cats, the home and pregnant women. In her malignant aspect Bastet was worshipped as the hostile war goddess and protector of Egypt. Bastet was therefore known as the giver of blessings to the good and a deliverer of wrath to the evil and could be depicted as cat, lion, lynx or cheetah.
Bastet Cat Goddess holding the flint knife or dagger used in ancient Egypt called the Khop
Cat Goddesses - Bastet and Sekhmet
Bastet in ancient Egyptian Mythology
Bastet featured in a major legend relating to ancient Egyptian mythology in which she was credited with killing the Evil Serpent god Apep. In the myth Bastet was the daughter of Ra the Sun God, and every sunrise she fought with Ra against the evil serpent god Apep. After countless battles, Bastet killed Apep and was released from the nightly conflicts. She was able to roam free and she has become the guardian of home and hearth, the patron of women and of the domestic cat.
Bas relief of Bastet at Thebes
Cat Goddess killing the evil snake god Apep
The Cult Centers of Bastet at Bubastis and Leontopolis
The cat goddess Bastet was primarily worshipped at her cult center in Bubastis but she was also worshipped at Leontopolis the cult center of the lion gods of Ra. Bubastis was the Greek name for Tell Basta in Egypt which was also known as Per-Bast, Per-Bastet or Per-Basted and is located in the Eastern Delta of the River now the modern city of Zagazig. Her cult temple at Bubastis was said to rival the temples of Ra and Horus in their magnificence. Her priests kept sacred cats in her temple in Bubastis, which were considered to be incarnations of the goddess. Bastet became a national deity when Bubastis became the capital of Egypt circa 950 BCE. Leontopolis was famous as another cult center of the lion gods associated with Ra the sun god. Leontopolis was located in the central area of the Nile delta as indicated on the following map. The ancient Egyptian name for Leontopolis was Taremu. The Greek name 'Leontopolis' means, "City of Lions" as there were many temples dedicated to the lion gods and deities which contained live lions and cats.
Map of Lower Egypt - Leontopolis and Bubastis
The Cults of Bastet
The cult of Bastet was known for its orgiastic ceremonies. Up to 700,000 men and women made a pilgrimage to Bubastis every year to honor the goddess Bastet and join in celebrations and grand processions. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian (c. 484 – 425 BC) wrote:
"... they come to Bubastis (and) they begin the festival with great offerings and sacrifices, during which more wine is consumed than during the whole of the rest of the year".
Aelian (ca. 175 – ca. 235), an ancient Roman historian in writing about Leontopolis said:
"In Egypt, they worship lions, and there is a city called after them. The lions have temples and numerous spaces
in which to roam; the flesh of oxen is supplied to them daily and the lions eat to the accompaniment
of song in the Egyptian language"
Bastet and the Domestic Cat
Domestic cats were kept in households of ancient Egypt and are sometimes pictured in tombs of wealthy nobles. Cats were seen as valued members of the family and played a vital role in attacking any snakes, including cobras, that ventured into the house. Cats also kept the vermin population of Egypt in check, an important role in maintaining the crops stored in the granaries. In the royal palaces of Egypt cats were adorned with jewelled collars and even allowed to eat from the dishes of the pharaoh. The death of a cat called for a period of mourning and members of the family shaved their eyebrows in respect. Cats were regarded as manifestations of the goddess Bastet and as such they were afforded a ritualised burial which included mummification. They were interred as cat mummies in sacred cemeteries that were situated near the temples of Bastet. Over 300,000 mummified cats were discovered when the temple of the cat goddess Bastet, at Per-Bast, was excavated.
Tomb painting of a domestic cat eating a fish
The Symbols of Bastet - The Sistrum
The symbols associated with Bastet were the cat, the lioness, the Ankh and the sistrum. The connections between the goddess and the cat and the lion are obvious, but what of the ankh and the sistrum? The 'Ankh' was the cross with the handle which was held in the hands of the gods as a symbol of their power to give life or take it away. The symbol of the ankh meant “life” and represented both physical and eternal life. The sistrum is less obvious, it was an ancient musical percussion instrument, a sacred rattle used in various ancient Egyptian rituals and ceremonies. However, given the reputation of the festivals of Bastet, known for their orgiastic ceremonies, this symbol makes sense.
Picture of a sistrum, the sacred rattle used in ancient Egypt