Ancient Egyptians considered Goddess Bastet the protector of females, home, domesticity, cats, pleasure and good health. She protected households against evil spirits and diseases that may affect women or children. Like other ancient deities, the goddess also had an essential role in the afterlife.
The roles and depictions of gods and goddesses have changed throughout ancient Egyptian history. A prime example of this phenomenon is the goddess Bastet. Initially, mythology associates the goddess with Ra and the concept of the Eye of Ra. However, with time her roles changed, and her image became more domesticated. Later, ancient Egyptians considered her the protector of everyone’s family and home.
The Meaning Behind Bastet’s Name
According to the ancient texts, the original name of the goddess was B’stt. It later became Ubaste and then Bast. The actual meaning behind the name of the goddess remains a mystery to date. Stephen Quirke, a professor of Ancient Egyptian Religion, defines the name of Bastet as “She of the Ointment Jar”.
The Egyptologist could explain this by observing that the scribes wrote the goddess’s name with the hieroglyph used for the ointment jar. Moreover, Egyptians also associated Bastet with protective ointments, amongst other things.
The Greeks linked the goddess closely with their goddess Artemis. They also associated Apollo with Horus, the son of Isis. Hence, they called the goddess Bast “Ba’Aset” or Soul of Isis. It would be the literal translation of her name as “Aset” is one of the Egyptian names for Isis. Here, the addition of an extra ‘T’ denotes femininity.
Moreover, texts also link Bastet with Nefertum, the god of sweet perfume and smell. Many people considered Nefertum as the son of Bastet that further associates her name to the ointment jar. Historians can perhaps say that initially, her name resembled something like She of the Ointment Jar. However, later, Greeks changed her name to the Soul of Isis. They did this to associate her more closely with Isis, the most popular goddess in Egypt.
Initially, the imagery represents Bastet as a woman with the head of a lioness. It closely resembled the images of goddess Sekhmet. However, with time Sekhmet’s iconography depicted her as more and more aggressive. In contrast, Bastet’s images softened over time to represent a gentler companion and daily helper than her earlier avenger forms.
During the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt, people started depicting the goddess as a domesticated cat or a cat-headed woman. Scribes from the New Kingdom associated a feminine suffix with her name to emphasise the pronunciation of the extra T.
Ancient Egyptians revered and loved cats. It was partly due to their ability to get rid of rats, mice and snakes that threaten crops and households. Royal owners who possessed cats dressed them in gold and allowed them to eat off their plates.
Historians predict that during the Twenty-second Dynasty onwards, the worship of Bastet changed. It converted from a lion deity to a majorly cat god. Since people saw cats as tender and loving to their children, they also considered Bastet a good mother. Imagery often depicts her with numerous kittens.
From the Pyramid Texts onwards, one can observe that people gave Bastet another aspect and her scary avenger form. This aspect was of a nurturing mother and gentle protector. Contrarily the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead talk about the demonic part of Bastet. The “slaughterers of Bastet” inflicted disasters on humanity like the plague.
Hence, one can say that people highly loved but equally feared Bastet at the same time. Her titles like The Lady of Dread and The Lady of Slaughter demonstrate her earlier aggressive nature.
The Role of Bastet in Religion
Texts from the 3rd millennium BCE depict Bastet as an avenging lioness from Lower Egypt. The Pyramid Texts associate her with the king of Egypt as his nursemaid and protector. Later, in the Coffin texts, Bastet retained that role and had the added function of protecting the dead.
The stone vessels of the 2nd dynasty represent Bastet as a woman with a lion head full of mane. However, the iconography of the goddess changed as people started viewing her nature as milder than a lioness deity. Bastet grew in popularity across Egypt and her cult centre Bubastis, located in Lower Egypt, became one of the wealthiest cities in Egypt.
Bubastis became a centre for wealth and luxury as people from all over the country visited the city to pay Bastet their respects. They also had their beloved dead cats interred in the town. Egyptian art borrows the iconography of Bastet from goddess Mafder and Hathor, a goddess linked with Sekhmet.
One can view statues of Bastet holding a sistrum, a musical instrument, in her hand to understand the clear link of the goddess to Hathor, who traditionally carried the sistrum. Hathor was another goddess who transformed from being depicted as a destroyer to a gentle and milder god.
The Worship of Goddess Bastet
Bubastis was the centre of the cult of Bastet. People primarily worshipped Bastet here, but she still held a position at Saqqara and elsewhere. Her popularity increased, and in the Late Period and Graeco-Roman times, she enjoyed a supreme status. Currently, only outlines of the temple of Bastet remain in the city. However, Herodotus visited the site and marvelled at the magnificence of the palace.
Herodotus remains a primary source of information on the cult of Bastet. However, it does not delve deep into the particulars of her worship. Historians discovered that both men and women served as her clergy. Her temple at Bubastis provided various services that included medical attention, food distribution and counselling.
The city celebrated the great festival of Bastet, where people from all over Egypt came together to attend one of the most lavish events of the year. During this ancient Egyptian festival, women felt free from any constraints. They could celebrate the goddess by drinking, dancing and making music. The celebration of Bastet was a time for people to cast aside their inhibitions and have fun.
Bastet’s popularity grew over time as the protector of women and households. Moreover, she was also popular amongst men who had wives, girlfriends, daughters or anyone who came under the goddess’s protection. To date, Bastet remains a popular figure and has multiple references in today’s pop culture.