Bastet Goddess – Birth Story, Powers, Symbols & Meanings
In Egyptian mythology, Bastet (Bast) is the goddess of protection, cats, pregnancy, fertility, music, warfare, and ointments. She was generally revered as the daughter of Ra the creator god and king of the Egyptian Gods. As Bastet was the goddess of cats, she was usually depicted with a cat head and an ankh (the Egyptian symbol of life). Prior to her association with cats, Bastet was primarily associated with a lioness.
Like many Egyptian deities, the worship of Bastet was very widespread in Egypt, especially in places such as Bubastis during the Second Dynasty (2900 BCE). The ancient Greeks had a different name for Bastet; they called her Ailuros, which translates to “cat”.
The article below delves right into the myths surrounding the birth story, powers, worship, and symbols of Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of protection.
Bastet Birth Story and Origin
Bastet took Ptah – the ancient god of architecture and craftsmanship – as her consort. From the union between Bastet and Ptah came Maahes, the lion-headed god of war and weather who protected the innocent and avenged wrong deeds.
Like many Egyptian gods and goddesses, Bastet has a number of origin stories. In the early periods of ancient Egypt, Bastet was depicted as a lioness, similar to the role her twin sister, Sekhmet (Egyptian goddess of healing and warfare) played. Her portrayal as a lioness started around the third millennium BCE.
In time, Bastet’s depiction changed from a fierce goddess to a milder one. She was depicted as a domestic cat or a woman with a cat head. This change occurred around Third Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1067 BC – c. 665 BC)
Read More: 10 Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Goddesses
Meaning of Bastet
Bastet’s name began as bꜣstt or Ubaste in the early periods of ancient Egypt. Egyptologists and scholars alike are often left scratching their heads trying to find the meaning of those names.
Many have associated Bastet’s name with the hieroglyphic symbol for an ointment jar (bꜣs). Ancient Egyptians had different ointments that were used to ward off evil spirits. Therefore, it’s likely that her name can be interpreted into something related to ointment and protection.
Another point worth mentioning is that Bastet has sometimes been called Bast ba’Aset . The name translates to “the Soul of Isis”. This name is in line with Bastet being the daughter of Isis.
Symbols and Depictions
Owing to her association with fertility and pregnancy, Bastet earned the title “the Eye of the Moon”. Thus, aside the cat, the moon was considered a very import symbol of Bastet. Other symbols of Bastet are the solar disk, an ointment jar and a sistrum (an ancient percussion instrument). In many depictions, the goddess is shown as slender woman in a beautiful dress with a cat head. Often times, she is holding a sistrum in her right hand and an aegis (a breastplate) in the other hand.
Why was Bastet associated with cats?
Similar to the reverence modern India gives to cow, ancient Egyptians awarded a very high reverence to cats. Every family had a domestic cat. There were also shrines in their homes to honor and worship Bastet. Her association with cats stems from the manner in which cats ward of vermin (i.e. mice, snakes and rats) from our homes. And not only was Bastet the protector of the home, she was also seen as fertility goddess. This attribute again stems from the fertile nature of domestic cats.
Owing to Bastet’s association with mankind’s little feline friends, cats were treated with the utmost of respect. They were more or less considered royal materials in the land of Egypt. In the courts of Egyptian pharaohs, cats were dressed in magnificent jewelries. Some royals even allowed cats to eat from the same bowl as them.
Bastet’s worship places were predominantly in Lower Egypt, particularly in the Nile Delta. This area was called Bubastis (close to present-day Zagazig). Chosen by the Libyan kings starting around the 22nd Dynasty, the worship place was one of the richest worship sites in ancient Egypt. In time the Bastet’s cult – the Cult of the Mistress of Bubastis – flourished. It peaked during the Ptolemaic era
According to the Greek historian Herodotus’ description, Bastet’s temple at Bubastis (House of Bastet) was a magnificent place to behold. The temple was surrounded by water. And in that lake (Isheru), Egyptians offered sacrifices to the goddess.
It is believed that her rage and anger was cooled down by the water in the lake. This turned her from a ferocious lioness into a gentle cat.
Around the temple in Bubastis, Egyptians took to mummifying their dead cats in honor of Bastet. Such was the importance and reverence of cats that the mummified cats were buried close to their human owners. While excavating the area, archaeologist found more than 300,000 mummified cats.
How did the ancient Egyptians pray to Bastet?
Egyptians believed that Bastet’s sphere of control stretched beyond protection and fertility; she had her hands in issues such as the arts, music, and general well goodness. For a typical ancient Egyptian, a prayer to Bastet might have looked something like this:
Powers and abilities
The story of Bastet started off as an aggressive lioness goddess of the sun. In that role she was seen in almost the same light as the goddess Sekhmet (deity of war and healing). Thus she was responsible for all the bloodshed and carnage that took place in the land of Egypt. She could also doom a city or region with plague and diseases and other forms of natural disasters. It was for the above reasons Bastet was given the epithets such as – The Lady of Dread and The Lady of Slaughter.
Over time, her powers and abilities shifted from aggressive and terrifying in nature to a softer one – a more nurturing trait. This trait comes from emerges from the manner in which cats took care of their young. In this role, Bastet was typically associated with the Ra’s divine cat called Mau.
In her depiction as cat, Bastet is believed to have the power to protect against diseases particularly in women and children. She could also vanquish all threats from evil spirits.
Bastet’s importance and popularity were quite pronounced in Lower Egypt. It is believed that she protected the inhabitants of those regions. She also defended the Egyptian pharaohs in battles.
Bastet rode daily with the sun god, Ra in Ra’s sun barge (the Boat of Million Years). It was believed that she protected Ra by killing the nefarious serpent known as Apophis (Apep) with a knife in her paw. For this action of hers, she earned the epithet, “The Lady of the Flame”.
Aside from defeating Apep, Bastet also protected the souls of dead during their journeys in the underworld.
Bastet is often associated with a group of deities who belong to the Eye of Ra. The other deities are Sekhmet, Hathor, Isis, Mut, and Horus. All those deities had a very close relationship with the creator god, Ra.
Festivals that honored Bastet
In the months of April and May, Ancient Egyptians took to celebrating a festival in honor of Bastet. The festival attracted more than 700,000 visitors, according to an account by Herodotus. Owing to wild nature and reckless abandon of the festival, children were not allowed to attend.
Participants of the festival drank and made merry in a bid to appease Bastet. Music was played and women let down their hair while at the same time raising their skirts up. During the festival, some of the best sacrifices and offerings in Egypt were made to the goddess Bastet.
Other Major Facts about Bastet
Below, we have put together 8 key facts about Bastet:
- Other names of the Festival of Bast include, Procession of Bast or Bast Guards the Two Lands.
- Whereas her twin sister Sekhmet was seen as the protectress of Upper Egypt, Bastet was revered as the deity who protected Lower Egypt.
- The goddess Bastet has been associated with Nefertum, the god of perfume and sweet things. In some accounts, Nefertum is seen as the son of Bastet.
- In order to avoid the wrath of Bastet (i.e. the lioness Bastet), some ancient Egyptians resorted to casting a spell on themselves so as to pass off as the “son of Bastet”.
- Bastet’s origin story and role perhaps came from one of the first feline deities in ancient Egypt called Mafdet. The goddess Mafdet was the Egyptian deity of justice and truth – almost similar to the role Ma’at plays.
- In terms of popularity, Bastet was second only to Isis in ancient Egypt. Bastet’s popularity stemmed from her function as the protector of women and children. And because men valued the women in their lives, Bastet’s popularity was also pronounced among men. She was the one who protected the entire home, hence her importance in Egypt.
- To force the Egyptians to surrender, Cambyses II of Persia threatened to harm all the animals Egypt, particularly cats. This compelled the Egyptians to surrender to Persians in 525 BCE.
- Aside Bubastis, Bastet had important cult followings in ancient Egyptian cities such as Memphis, Heliopolis and Herakliopolis.