Bast, Feline Protector, Goddess of Lower Egyptby Caroline Seawright
February 25, 2001
Updated: November 29, 2012
In early times Bast (Ubasti, Bastet) was a goddess with the head of a lion or a desert sand-cat and was regarded as mother of Maahes, a lion-headed god, and wife to Ptah. She was usually depicted as a cat, or as a woman with the head of a cat or lion. She was also connected to Hathor, Sekhmet, Tefnut and Mut. Bast was considered to be the daughter of Atem or Ra. It was only in the New Kingdom that she gained the head of a house cat and became a much more 'friendly' goddess, though she was still depicted as a lion-headed woman to show her war-like side. As with Hathor, Bast is often seen carrying a sistrum.
Her name has the hieroglyph of a 'bas'-jar () with the feminine ending of 't' (), reading 'She of the bas-Jar'. (Apparently her name was written as 'Bastet' by scribes in later times to emphasise that the 't' was to be pronounced, but this is unclear.) These jars were heavy perfume jars, often filled with expensive perfumes - they were very valuable in Egypt, considering the Egyptian need (with the hot weather) of makeup, bathing, hygiene and (of course) perfume. Bast, by her name, seems to be related to perfumes in some way - a perfumed protector, as it were. Her son Nefertem, a solar god, was a god of perfumes and alchemy, which supports the theory.
Now there is some confusion over Bast and Sekhmet. She is given the title the 'Eye of Ra' when she's in her protector form... but Bast and Sekhmet are not the same goddess (unlike Hathor who becomes Sekhmet as the 'Eye of Ra'). This all gives rise to a lot of confusion about these goddesses. Bast and Sekhmet were another example of Egyptian duality - Sekhmet was a goddess of Upper Egypt, Bast of Lower Egypt (just like the pharaoh was of Upper and/or Lower Egypt!)... and they were linked together by geography, not by myth or legend.
These two feline goddesses were both very distinct goddesses in their own rights, despite the below phrase, used rather late in Egyptian history (c. 150 BC):
"She rages like Sekhmet and she is friendly like Bast" is how the goddess Hathor-Tefnut was described in the Myth of the Eye of the Sun in the temple at Philae.
-- Jaromir Malek (1993 ), The Cat in Ancient Egypt, p. 95
She was one of the older goddesses, mentioned in The Book of the Dead (this was a selection of spells, rather than an actual book):
Rubric - If this Chapter be known by the deceased upon earth, he shall become like unto Thoth, and he shall be adored by those who live. He shall not fall headlong at the moment of the intensity of the royal flame of the goddess Bast, and the Great Prince shall make him to advance happily.
The breast of this Meri-Ra is the breast of Bast; he cometh forth therefore and ascendeth into heaven.
-- E. A. Wallis Budge (1979), The Book of the Dead, p. 512, 602
Even from very old times, as protector, Bast was seen as the fierce flame of the sun who burned the deceased should they fail one of the many tests in the underworld.
Some of Bast's festivals included the 'Procession of Bast', 'Bast appears to Ra', the 'Festival of Bast', 'Bast Goes Forth from Per-Bast (Bubastis)' and 'Bast guards the Two Lands'. There was even a 'Festival of Hathor and Bast', showing the connection between the two goddesses.
Herodotus describes the 'Festival of Bast' where thousands of men and women travelled on boats, partying like crazy. They had music, singing, clapping and dancing. When they passed towns, the women would call out dirty jokes to the shore-bound, often flashing the townsfolk by lifting up their skirts over their heads! When they reached Per-Bast, they made their sacrificies of various animals, and drank as much wine as they could stomach. No wonder it was such a popular festival!!
When the people are on their way to Per-Bast, they go by river, a great number in every boat, men and women together. Some of the women make a noise with rattles, others play flutes all the way, while the rest of the women, and the men, sing and clap their hands.
As they travel by river to Per-Bast, whenever they come near any other town they bring their boat near the bank; then some of the women do as I have said, while some shout mockery of the women of the town; others dance, and others stand up and lift their skirts. They do this whenever they come alongside any riverside town.
But when they have reached Per-Bast, they make a festival with great sacrifices, and more wine is drunk at this feast than in the whole year besides. It is customary for men and women (but not children) to assemble there to the number of seven hundred thousand, as the people of the place say.
Dead cats are taken away to sacred buildings in the town of Per-Bast, where they are embalmed and buried.
-- Herodotus, Herodotus: Book II
In Greco-Roman times she was equated with Diana and Artemis, and the sister of Horus (who was considered to be the Egyptian Apollo) and thus a child of Osiris and Isis, and became a goddess of the moon.
Her cult centre was in Per-Bast (the temple is now in ruins, but it was made of red granite with a sacred grove in the centre, with the shrine of the goddess herself... it was also full of cats). An alternative translation of her name could be 'She of Bast', refering to the city of Per-Bast. She was also worshiped all over Lower Egypt.
Further Information about Bast
- Bastet - Wikipedia
- Bastet - Encyclopedia Mythica
- Bast - Tour Egypt
- Bastet - André Dollinger
- Gods and goddesses in Ancient Egypt - Digital Egypt
Video of Bast
A fact-filled video about the cat goddess Bast, by hotfactsgirls:
© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present
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