Egyptian Goddess Bastet: Facts, Symbols & Family Tree

Instructor: Kathleen Halecki

Kathleen Halecki possesses a B.A. and M.A. in history, and a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on early modern Scotland. She has been teaching for over a decade in subjects such as history, philosophy and anthropology.

This lesson will explore the Egyptian goddess known as Bastet. Just one of the many gods worshiped by the ancient Egyptians, this particular goddess is closely associated with the cat. Learn about the symbols, family tree, and facts about Bastet.

Bastet, the Cat Goddess

Anyone who lives with a feline knows that cats expect to be worshiped, and there's even a dignified air about them. They give affection and love when they feel it is warranted, but dole out punishment when they prefer to be left alone. They also watch over us by making our homes vermin-free. When we think of how our feline friends behave, it's easy to see why a cat would enter the Egyptian pantheon and why the Egyptians loved their cats. Perhaps your cat remembers her divine history and expects you to provide offerings and treat her like the cat goddess, Bastet.

Egyptian statue of cat with kittens

Fierce Beginnings

Recent DNA testing indicates that domestic cats of today are descendants of a subspecies of wildcat that lived in North Africa and the Near East. These cats became domesticated over time entering into households and were helpful in killing mice that tried to get into food sources. Bastet did not start out as a cat goddess, but was more closely aligned with the goddess, Mafdet, a lioness, who killed a serpent with her sharp claws in the ancient scroll known as the Pyramid Text, which dates to Egypt's Old Kingdom Period. Like modern day domestic cats which have two sides, sometimes Bastet was also associated with the lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet. The lioness was the fiercer side of the cat, and Bastet represented the friendlier, more playful side.

In some of her earliest forms, she was shown as a woman with a lioness head. As the cat became more and more popular over time, the Egyptians realized the cat's protective nature, and these feline attributes began to take shape in the form of the cat goddess, Bastet. During the Middle Kingdom Period, Bastet was shown as a cat, and from the New Kingdom Period, she was a woman with a cat's head, or sometimes shown as a queen cat.

There are statues of Bastet shown holding a musical instrument known as a sistrum, which is shaken and sounds similar to a rattle. Archaeologists have also found images of Bastet with kittens at her feet showing her protective and nurturing side. Sometimes Bastet was described as the nurse and protector of the pharaoh. She was also considered a domestic goddess; protecting the home and being a good mother. Her litter of kittens was associated with fertility. In some early Egyptian texts she was also the protector of the dead.

Bastet with sistrum

The name Bastet could possibly be translated as ''she of the ointment jar'' because of the hieroglyphs used in writing her name. One of the hieroglyphs looks similar to a jar, and sometimes a cat was put on top of jars such as the one in the tomb of Tutankhamun. It is possible that she was the goddess of ointments. Other scholars have claimed her name simply implied that she was from the city of Bast.

Jar from the tomb of Tutankhamun

Worship of Bastet

The center of worship for Bastet was the city of Bast (also called Per-Bastet meaning ''House of Bastet''), located north of modern-day Cairo. The earliest temple to Bastet appears to have been built around 2400 B.C.E., with later pharaohs continuing to build temples to her. Bastet was the chief deity of the city, and she had a festival every year. The Greek historian, Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C.E., described the event as very popular with the people. There was a ceremonial procession, and the image of Bastet would be paraded around for everyone to see. Thousands of people would go to the celebration where they would sing, play music, and drink wine. Anybody who dared to kill a cat would be put to death.

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