Bast (known as “Bastet” in later times to emphasise that the “t” was to be pronounced) was one of the most popular goddesses of ancient Egypt. She is generally thought of as a cat goddess. However, she originally had the head of a lion or a desert sand-cat and it was not until the New Kingdom that she became exclusively associated with the domesticated cat. Even then, she remained true to her origins and retained her war-like aspect.
Bast personified the playfulness, grace, affection, and cunning of a cat, as well as the fierce power of a lioness. She was also worshiped all over Lower Egypt, but her cult was centered on her temple at Bubastis in the eighteenth nome of Lower Egypt (which is now in ruins). Bubastis was the capital of ancient Egypt for a time during the Late Period, and a number of pharaohs included the goddess in their throne names.
Her name could be translated as “Devouring Lady”. However, the phonetic elements “bas” are written with an oil jar (the “t” is the feminine ending) which is not used when writing the word “devour”. The oil jar gives an association with perfume which is strengthened by the fact that she was thought to be the mother of Nefertum (who was a god of perfume). Thus her name implies that she is sweet and precious, but that under the surface lay the heart of a predator. Bast was depicted as a cat, or as a woman with the head of a cat, a sand cat or a lion. She is often shown holding the ankh (representing the breath of life) or the papyrus wand (representing Lower Egypt). She occasionally bears a was-scepter (signifying strength) and is often accompanied by a litter of kittens.
Cats were sacred to Bast, and to harm one was considered to be a crime against her and so very unlucky. Her priests kept sacred cats in her temple, which were considered to be incarnations of the goddess. When they died they were mummified and could be presented to the goddess as an offering. The ancient Egyptians placed great value on cats because they protected the crops and slowed the spread of disease by killing vermin. As a result, Bast was seen as a protective goddess.
Evidence from tomb paintings suggests that the Egyptians hunted with their cats (who were apparently trained to retrieve prey) and also kept them as beloved pets. Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that Bast was so popular. During the Old Kingdom she was considered to be the daughter of Atum in Heliopolis (because of her association with Tefnut), however, she was generally thought to be the daughter of Ra (or later Amun). She (like Sekhmet) was also the wife of Ptah and mother of Nefertum and the lion-god Maahes (Mihos) (who may have been an aspect of Nefertum).
As the daughter of Ra she was one of the goddesses known as the “Eye of Ra”, a fierce protector who almost destroyed mankind but was tricked with blood-coloured beer which put her to sleep and gave her a hangover, stopping the carnage. As a result, she is linked to the other goddesses who were known as the “eye of Ra”, most notably Sekhmet, Hathor, Tefnut, Nut, Wadjet and Mut. Her link with Sekhmet was the closest. Not only did both goddesses take the form of a lioness, they were both considered to be the spouse of Ptah and the mother of Nefertum and during the feast of Hathor (celebrating man’s deliverance from the wrathful “Eye of Ra”) an image of Sekhmet represented Upper Egypt while an image of Bast represented Lower Egypt.
Bast was very closely linked to Hathor. She was often depicted holding a sistrum (the sacred rattle of Hathor) and Denderah (the home of the cult centre of Hathor in the sixth nome of Upper Egypt) was sometimes known as the “Southern Bubastis”. This association was clearly ancient, as the two appear together in the valley temple of Khafre at Giza. Hathor represents Upper Egypt and Bast represents Lower Egypt. One of her epithets was “lady of Asheru”. Asheru was the name of the sacred lake in the temple of Mut at Karnak, and Bast was given the epithet because of her connection with Mut, who occasionally took the form of a cat or a lion. Within Mut’s temple there are a number of depictions of the pharaoh celebrating a ritual race in the company of Bast. In this temple Bast is given the epithet “Sekhet-neter” – the “Divine Field” (Egypt).
She was also associated with the lion-headed goddess Pakhet of Speos Artemidos (cave of Artemis) near Beni Hassan. The cave was given the name because Bast (and her aspect Pakhet) was identified by the Greeks with Artemis, the hunter. However, the two goddesses were not that similar as Artemis was celibate while Bast was associated with fun and sexuality. However, the connection with Tefnut and Bast’s potentially warlike aspect probably contributed to this apparently strange connection. After all, even the smallest house cat is a skilled hunter.
The Greeks thought that Bast should have a twin brother, as Artemis had her brother Apollo. They linked Apollo with Heru-sa-Aset (Horus son of Isis), so Bast’s name was tinkered with to mean “soul of Isis” (ba-Aset) changing her into a form of this popular goddess. They also decided that Bast was a moon goddess, although she was originally considered to be the daughter of Ra and the “Eye of Ra”.
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Copyright J Hill 2008