Bastet or Bast was a goddess of ancient Egyptian religion, worshipped in Bubastis in Lower Egypt, originally in the form of a lioness representing the powerful warrior and protector and later as a cat representing a gentler aspect, after the domestication of the cat around 1500 BC. Depicted as the daughter of the sun god Ra and Isis, the mother of the gods, Bastet was represented as an elaborately dressed woman with a cat’s head, holding an ancient percussion instrument, the sistrum, in her right hand and a breastplate in her left hand, along with a small bag over her left arm.
Although the meaning of her name is unknown, it was suggested that the name meant something like She of the Ointment Jar. However, sometimes Bastet is linked with Nefertum, the god of perfume and sweet smells, who was thought to be her son and this further links the meaning of her name to the ointment jar.
Ancient Egyptians respected and worshipped numerous creatures that shared space with them. Particularly, they were deeply devoted to their cats, as they helped to protect the agricultural products from the rodents. However, Bastet first appeared in the third millennium BC, when she was depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness. She was extremely popular throughout Egypt and her cult centred in the city of Bubastis from at least the 5th century BC. Two thousand years later, she lost her fierce image and all the traces of her lioness form and began to be depicted as a domestic cat or a cat-headed woman, often holding a sistrum.
As the protector of Lower Egypt, Bastet was the defender of the king and consequently of the sun god Ra. She was associated with Mau, the divine cat, who is an aspect of Ra and was depicted destroying Apophis, the Great Serpent, an enemy of Ra, by slicing off his head with a knife in her paw. Nevertheless, her popularity grew from her role as the protector of women and the household. She became the beloved Egyptian goddess of the home and domesticity, women’s secrets, fertility and childbirth. She was considered to be the protector of the home from disease and evil spirits. Along with other deities, she also played a role in the afterlife as a guide and helper to the dead.
Bastet was also regarded as the Egyptian cat Goddess of passion and pleasure. She loved to dance and remembered not to take anything too seriously. She had that special nocturnal cat-vision that allowed her to see through the darkness in physical circumstances and emotional ones.
Due to her strong and loving personality, Bastet attracted many followers. Most of the households contained a small statue of Bastet with her all-seeing eyes, as a form of household protection to ward off evil and keep the house free of mice, rodents and snakes and also as the healer to ward off infectious diseases. She was worshipped around 3,000 BC and the worshipers used to visit her shrine in Baubastis, made of pink granite. The great festival of Bastet at Bubastis was one of the most lavish and popular events of the year when the town was said to have attracted around 700,000 visitors, adult men and women, who arrived in numerous crowded ships.
According to Greek historian Herodotus, during the festival the women were freed from all constraints and celebrated the festival of the goddess by crazy drinking, wild dancing, making music and displaying their genitals by raising their skirts. The raising of the skirts by the women, described by Herodotus, had as much to do with freedom from social restrictions, as with the fertility associated with the goddess. The celebration was the only time for the women to cast aside their inhibitions, which is much like the performances of the modern revellers during the numerous traditional carnivals in Europe, Latin America and the United States.
Another important aspect of Bastet's festival was the shifting of the mummified cats to the temple of Bastet in Bubastis. After the death of a domestic cat, the bereaved family used to embalm the animal, before burying the body in the cat cemeteries, pointing to the great prevalence of the cult of Bastet. When the temple was excavated in 1887 and 1889 BC, more than 300,000 mummified cats were found. However, apart from Bubastis, cat cemeteries were also discovered in other places like Beni Hasan and Saqqara.