December 18, 2012

Bast: The Cat Goddess of Egypt

Posted in Goddess Project, Goddess Things tagged , , , , , at 12:58 am by Babs

In early times Bast (written as ‘Bastet’ by scribes in later times to emphasize that the ‘t’ was to be pronounced) 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, Atem (her father) and Mut.  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’ represented by a loaf of bread, reading ‘She of the bas-Jar’ .  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.  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 not related by family, they were both very distinct goddesses in their own right.

She was one of the older goddesses, mentioned in The Book of the Dead (which was a selection of spells, rather than an actual book):

The breast of this Meri-Ra is the breast of Bast; he cometh forth therefor and ascendeth into heaven.

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 Chapter of the Deification of the Members (From the Pyramid of Pepi I)

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 was seen as the fierce flame of the sun who burned the deceased should they fail one of the many tests in the underworld.

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 sacrifices 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.

— Herodotus, Histories Book II Chapter 60

Her cult center 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’, referring to the city of Per-Bast. She was also worshipped all over Lower Egypt.

Bast comes from the Kemetic religion, a belief system that for many years was traditionally typecast as polytheistic in nature. Recent modern research has questioned this label, and the Egyptological community today is now vastly under the opinion that the Kemetic religion was, keeping with most indigenous African religions, “monolatrous” meaning one god who can take on multiple faces (the One and the Many).

Some people question the categorization of ancient Egypt as a monolatry because it would seem to be so obviously polytheistic. People who purport that ancient Egyptian religion is polytheistic are actually half correct however, numerous references to deity in the singular and to priests priding themselves on knowing the “Names of Netjer” point toward more than just a polytheistic categorization of the religion, which is where the term monolatry comes into use. One God with multiple faces.

Because Kemet was absorbed by the roman Empire (which was polytheistic) and encountered by the Greeks before even that (who were also polytheistic), and because for over a thousand years the hieroglyphic language was lost, it is easy to see why it has been miscategorized. However, just as one could not fairly call the religion of Yoruba or the Hindu religion polytheistic, so also one would not – when dealing with pre_Greco-Roman Egypt – do the same with Kemetic religion. It is extremely important when studying ancient Egypt to differentiate between the time when Egypt was held by foreign powers – the Late Period on – and when it was not. Culturally, religiously, and structurally, the differences are readily apparent – enough so that Egypt may as well have been two different countries entirely: the land of the native Pharaohs, and the land of the foreign rulers.

Finally, while Bast is one of the better-known and visible Goddesses of Netjer, She is also part of a magnificent and complex composite. This is a fact that should be kept in mind throughout the course of reading this. People who have had a problem grasping ancient Egyptian religion and its seemingly confusing flurry of myriad, over-lapping concepts may also find that their view of the theology has changed with this new understanding of how it was most likely viewed by the ancient Egyptians themselves.

When dealing with something as enduring as Bast, it’s easy to forget just how old She really is. Since She has been dated to at least the Second Dynasty, this means She predates the following events:

  • The Dark and Feudal Ages of all the major world cultures.
  • Muhammad as the Prophet of Allah.
  • The Roman Empire’s rise.
  • Alexander the Great.
  • The Trojan War.
  • Lao-tzu, Confucius, and Buddha.
  • Ramese, Tutankhamen, Akhenaten, Thutmose III, and Hatshepsut.
  • The building of the Pyramids, Khaefra (Cheops), Senefru.

If you sit back and think about it, this means She has existed – in name – just under five millennia. This is an awesomely vast amount of time, making Her one of the oldest Goddesses in existence.

Bast is most commonly depicted as a woman with the head of either a cat, a lion, or a large desert cat. Not that these desert cats, ferocious in fury and strength, were not domesticated variety as we would know them’ this was the feral desert cat from which the Kemetics would breed cats similar to our own pets. Except in one Ramesside depiction where She is syncretized with Mut (Mut-Bast), Bast is never shown fully human.

Most importantly, Bast was not depicted with the domesticated cat imagery that has now become synonymous with Her until 1000 BCE – nearly two thousand years after Her worship began. Previous to synonymous with Her until 1000 BCE – nearly two thousand years after Her worship began. Previous to that, the cat was considered “beneath” representation except in rare cases involving Mafdet (in the Pyramid Texts) and Ra. In the Litany of the Sun, seventy-five names of Ra are mentioned, along with His seventy-five corresponding forms. Two of those names are cats – Miuty and Miu-Oa or “The Great Male Cat”. While Bast is perhaps better known as a domesticated, Her representation as a lion or desert cat did not cease with the advent of Bast as a house cat. Images of Bast as a lion-headed figure holding a was-scepter (from the Hall of Osorkon at Bubastis) or with a lion’s mane and holding the Eye of Ra can be found throughout Egyptian art from the Late Period on. Bast is even shown in one particular Late Period depiction as wearing the Double Crown (the red and the white “nested” together) and suckling the Pharaoh – perhaps an illusion to the rise of popularity with Per-Bast or Bubastis, the Domain of Bast. Additionally, there is not reason to believe that the lion device on the aegis wielded by the cat-headed Bast is not in fact a second representation of Her (a concept known to Kemetic art and symbology).

Bast is often shown holding the ankh or the papyrus wand, and sometimes the was-scepter (usually only in connection to Bubastis, which was the home of Her cult). The papyrus wand is a significant and slightly baffling item for Her to be holding, as this item usually signifies a “first” or primordial god such as Ma’at as to Bast’s suspicious lack of representation in common Egyptian mythology, and may connect Her to Tefnut, who, like Bast, is also the Eye of Tem-Ra and depicted with a feline head.

Bast’s sacred city in Kemet was Per-Bast (Greek: Bubastis; modern-day Tell Basta, near Zagazig in Northern (Lower) Egypt). Per-Bast translates into “the Domain of Bast” and has been excavated numerous times since Edourard Naville first broke ground there in 1887. Details on Naville’s excavation can be found in a set of extremely rare books entitled Bubastis, 1887-1889 and The Festival Hall of Osorkon II in the Great Temple of Bubastis, 1887-1889 by Edouard Naville. Both of these books have long been out of print, and are now outdated by the more recent (mid-1970s) excavation information but forth by the late Dr. Labib Habachi in his book, Tell-Basta (also out of print and difficult to acquire). Finds dating from all periods of Kemetic history have been made at the Tell-Basta site; a current mission recently unearthed war-offerings and other materials dating from King Ahmose of the 18th Dynasty.

Other cities where Bast was venerated (with approximate time of establishment of custom when possible) were:

  • Memphis (Old Kingdom), where She was associated strongly with Sekhmet (the lion-headed visage Het-hert takes on when She becomes the Eye of Ra).
  • Heliopolis (Old Kingdom), where She was the “Daughter of Tem” via a possible connection to Tefnut.
  • Herakleopolis (???), in a city called the “Hill of Bast”.
  • Eastern Delta (???), “Ba-ir-Ra-st on the Waters of Ra”.
  • Denderah (???), via Her connection to Het-hert. Denderah is referred to in some cases as the “Southern Bubastis” – an important implication as it would mean that the worship of Bast from early on was country-wide and not regional.
  • The Precinct of Mut in Thebes (New Kingdom), via Her connection to Mut.
  • Sais (Late Period), the city of Nit, where a statue of Bast existed.
  • Leontopolis (???), the city of Shu and Tefnut, at “ihy.n.Bes.t”.

Cities in which festivals of Bast were celebrated included Thembes, Memphis, Bubastis, and Esna. It should be noted that the contrary to some modern-day claims, there was no festival of Sekhmet-Bast-Ra to coincide with the modern-day Halloween.

Today, no shrines or temples remain of Bast in Egypt; even Bubastis was mostly ruins by the time Naville got around to it. There is a “Portal of Bast” on the Giza Plateau (fittingly, near the Sphinx), and statues have been discovered showing Khaefre accompanied by Her. A painting of Bast is present within the tomb of Nefertari at Abu Simbel, and dozens of bronze statues dating from the Late Period have been discovered amidst the cat cemetery found at Per-Bast. A Bast shrine on display is located in the Field Museum of Chicago; benches flank a small enclosure thin which stands a statue of the seated cat and the cat-headed woman (both behind glass).  This is perhaps as close as we can currently get in the modern-day to a public shrine unto Her.

Bast is one of several names who are known as the “Eye of Ra”, a title that denotes a Name of Netjer who functions as a protector or avenger.  Since the earliest of times She has been associated with the king.  Pyramid Texts 892 name Her next to the king as the, “Knowledge through which death cannot approach too closely.”  She also serves as his protector, a trait that is common in many other feline names such as Mafdet – protector of Pharaoh’s chambers – and Sekhmet – destroyer of the King’s enemies.

As a regional name associated with Per-Bast, Bast was strongly connected to the delta region of Kemet (referred to as Lower Egypt).  Her initial role as the protector of the ruler spread out to children and pregnant women in later times as Her image became “softened” by Her associations with such names as Het-hert (Greek: Hathor), Mut, and Aset (Greek: Isis).  She was also invoked in the hopes of bestowing fertility (perhaps due to the proliferation of cats themselves), and She became more closely associated with Het-hert She became more closely associated with Het-hert She also picked up many of that Netjert’s associations, such as music and the arts.

They hieroglyphs for Bast are the jar-like symbol representing “bas” and the half-circle (a loaf of bread) standing for the feminine “-t” ending.  The jar and two loaves of bread are the hieroglyphs for Bastet, the one of the name She is given when in the full cat form.  The bas-jars themselves are heavy vessels used to store perfume, one of the most valuable commodities of Kemet, and Bast Herself has relations to perfumery (a second beginning of the 1900’s (as per E.A. Wallis Budge’s The Gods of the Egyptians), Bast’s name has nothing to do with “friction”, “heat”, or “fire”.

Bast has been associated closely with Het-hert since the Old Kingdom; toward the Middle Kingdom, Bast also became associated with Mut and, even later, Aset (Isis).  As well, just as images of Bast have been found in Memphis (the city of Sekhmet, Ptah, and Nefertem), images of Sekhmet have been found in Bubastis.  As the Eye of Ra, Bast acts as His personal “hitman” ripping out the hearts of the transgressors of Ma’at and delivering them personally to His and the Pharaoh’s feet.

As we can see, this is far from the “happy fluffy sex goddess” that has been set forth by the media and many modern-day religious institutions.  This approach may not even be appropriate for the cat-goddess She became with the arrival of Hellenistic influence on Her society, and even if it was, it is fairly appropriate to say that this Hellenized version is no more Bast than processed Velveeta is really cheese.  Defining the Egyptian Bast by the Greek and Roman worldview does not leave Her empowered to do the job She was originally allotted in the Kemetic theology.

While Bast and Sekhmet have been paired together since as early as 1850 BCE, their relationship is not along the lines of facets of a pacified/angry goddess.  Bast’s role as a “raging” goddess quickly discourages this notion, and even in the very later periods She was still depicted bearing the Uadjet and wearing Wadjet which would imply divine vengeance and the role of the divine avenger.  Sekhmet is no more the “angry” side of Bast than Bast is the “pacified” side of Sekhmet; if any Egyptian deity occupies this role, it would be Het-hert, who clearly becomes Sekhmet after She has gone forth to slaughter those who would disobey the will of the Creator (Ra or Tem).  In regards to Sekhmet, another pairing that should be considered by those who wish to explore Her as the divine destroyer would be the one the ancient Egyptians themselves established by “marrying” Her to Ptah.  In this union, the two compliment each other suitably as in Egyptian theology Ptah occupies a position of industrious craftmanship and even creation of the world.

However, the fact remains that Bast and Sekhmet were paired.  Bast was primarily a Northern god (since Her main place of worship was in Lower Egypt), while Sekhmet (as a form of Het-hert) was a Southern god.  Just as Nekhbet and Wadjet are paired (Nekhbet being the vulture and Wadjet the royal cobra) as the Two Ladies, so Bast and Sekhmet are paired, one representing Lower Egypt (Bast) and the other representing Upper Egypt (Sekhmet).  This is traditionally a “She of the North and She of the South” representation, and not necessarily a “She of the Content and She of the Really Ticked Off” kind.

Bast shares qualities of both Sekhmet and Het-hert in Her role as protector, destroyer, and avenger; witness the dozens of shields belonging to soldiers with Bast’s device on them that have been unearthed in Egypt.  However, at no time in the history of Kemetic religion were Sekhmet and Bast associated in a “sister-sister”, “mother-daughter”, “aunt-niece”. or “big bad lioness/ nice kitty” context.  The phrase, “She rages as Sekhmet, She is pacified as Bast.”  is a fairly late one (150 BCE), and in specifying “Kemetic religion”, one is implying the state of the theology previous to the Third Intermediate/ Late Period.

As final note on the sisterhood issue – while it might be convenient to put Sekhmet and Bast back-to-back as the lion/cat twins, keep in mind that sisters in ancient Egyptian theology were extremely important and rare occurrences and that Bast and Sekhmet in particular are never mentioned in this sort of relationship.  Aset (Isis) and Nebt-het (Nephthys) who are sisters, share a very distinctive relationship that carries through into their iconography and depictions.  Rarely do you see one without the other in funerary scenes, and there are numerous paired statues of the two as well as extant mythology relating them as born of the same parents.  The same is not true in antiquity with Bast and Sekhmet, aside from references of Ra as their father – a reference that rings true for nearly every ancient Egyptian goddess.  If one is to understand the theology of Kemet, one would be wise to avoid instituting one’s own presumptions onto the framework of the society.  It is our duty, as responsible historians, to preserve and respect the wishes of those from whom we have inherited.

More on Bast

Bast’s mother goddess energy is most nurturing, but like all mothers, is occasionally a disciplinarian for the greatest good of all.

Suggested Mantra: Play!

Suggested Affirmations:

  • I am playful
  • I enjoy the simple things in life
  • I enjoy the journey!
  • I embrace life in its absolute fullness
  • I reach out and take hold of this moment
  • Today I choose to do what I can and I can do anything

Gemstones:

  • Fire Agate
  • Pyrite
  • Sun stone
  • Agate
  • Jasper
  • Lapis Lazuli

Bast, or Bastet, is an Egyptian goddess of the sun but was later adopted by the Greeks as a goddess of the moon.  She is the daughter of Isis and Osiris (Ra), and is represented as a cat-headed woman holding a sistrum (rattle) in her right hand and a protective totem (cat) in the other.

As the ancestral mother of all cats, she is the patron of play, but is capable of unleashing dangerous forces in revenge.  In this sense, she is a goddess of pleasure providing it is for the greatest good of all.  Joy, dancing and music are energized with Bast’s influence, but only if you follow a recipe for wholeness of body, mind and spirit.

Bastet, or more correctly, Bast – was originally worshipped as the Eye of Ra and protector of the Pharoah.  But the conquering Greeks, Romans (and others) evolved her legends so that she eventually became the original Party Girl, ruling over pleasure, love-making and sensory delights.

Also considered a patron goddess of home and family, she was a Daughter of the sun-god Re, sister of Sekhmet the Lion Goddess, and the wife of Ptah, although her worship appears to precede that of Ptah by at least several centuries.

The cult of Bast flourished at her sanctuary at Bubastis in the rich Nile delta region of Egypt, where a necropolis has been found containing mummified cats.  She is depicted as a cat or as a woman with a cat’s head often holding the sacred rattle known as the sistrum.

The cult of Bast or Bastet?  The confusion in the pronunciation runs deeper than one might think.  Firstly, in many cases, the Egyptians did not record vowel sounds – so you might hear “Bast” pronounced “BOST” or even “BIST”.  We don’t really know what the vowel sound was between the B and the ST sounds.  Secondly, the name “Bastet” has been used because the Egyptians used an extra T mark to distinguish a female rather than male personage.  If anyone attempts to correct you on the pronunciation of Bast – just shrug your shoulders and say “it’s all Egyptian to me!”  No one really knows the exact pronunciation that the Egyptians used for the Goddess Bast!

The cat first appeared around 3000 BC in a country called Nubia, which bordered Egypt.  Egypt later conquered Nubia and by 2500 BC the cat was domesticated in Egypt.

The cat’s first name in Egypt was ‘Myeo’ or ‘Mau’.  The ancient Egyptians held the cat in the highest esteem, its status evolved rapidly and it was eventually thought of as the guardian of the temple and was worshipped as a goddess.  The earliest feline Egyptian goddess recorded was ‘Mafdet’, it is recorded in Egyptian lore that She killed a serpent with her claws.  Mafdet is usually depicted as a large cat, like a panther, cheetah or leopard.  The Egyptians had several other feline Goddesses, such as the lioness headed Sekhmet but only Bast was represented by the domesticated cat.  Bast, a beneficent and kindly Goddess, was believed to be the daughter of Isis and Ra.  A Goddess of the Sun – it was believed that the glow from a cat’s eyes held captive the light of the sun – the Moon, fertility, wisdom and love.  Bast presides over enchantment and protects her subjects from evil spirits and contagion.  She is blessed with the powerful ability to heal.  One version of her name, “Pasht,” might have given rise to the English term “Puss.”

Bast was usually depicted as the seated Sacred Cat, often holding the sacred rattle known as the sistrum with gold jewelry in her nose, ears and around her neck.  When she took on her half-feline, half-human form she was known as Bastet.  When in her half-feline form she is often seen holding in her left hand an amulet of the all-seeing sacred eye, the utchat, believed to have magical powers.  It was often depicted as being the eye of a cat, sometimes with cats within the eye itself.  An utchat at the door kept a watchful eye out for thieves and vandals, protecting the home.  An utchat over the lintel kept a watchful eye over all who dwelt within, preserving them from disease and accident.  An utchat over the lintel kept a watchful eye over all who dwelt within, preserving them from disease and accident.  An utchat worn around the neck kept its watchful eye upon the road and protected travelers from harm.  An utchat showing a mother cat with many kittens given as a wedding present meant many children.

The main center for the worship of Bast was in the norther Egypt city of Bubastis.  The festivals that honored Bast were described as one of the largest and most enthusiastically celebrated in the entire ancient world.  Ancient Egyptians also carved wooden figures of cats and crafted furniture and jewelry in the shape of cats.  Thousands of small cat sculptures, probably left with offerings to the Temple by devotees, have been recovered at Bubastis.

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