Bast Festival was the celebration of the goddess Bastet at her cult centre of Bubastis and another trendy festival. It honoured the birth of the cat goddess Bastet, the guardian of the hearth and home and protector of women, children, and women’s secrets.
Herodotus mention of the Bast Festival
Herodotus claims that the Bastet festival was the most elaborate and popular in Egypt. Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch, citing Herodotus, claims, “women were freed from all constraints during the annual festival at Bubastis. They celebrated the festival of the goddess by drinking, dancing, making music, and displaying their genitals”. This “raising of the skirts” by the women, described by Herodotus, exemplified the freedom from usual constraints often observed at festivals but, in this case, also had to do with fertility.
Herodotus places the number of attendees at the Bast festival as over seven hundred thousand. Although this may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt the goddess was one of the most popular in Egypt among both sexes and so could be an accurate number. The festival revolved around dancing, singing, and drinking in honour of Bastet, thanking her for gifts and asking for future favours.
Around 450 BCE, the Greek historiography Herodotus described the temple and cult of Bastet by focusing on the famous festival regularly held in honour of the goddess:
Now, when they are coming to the city of Bubastis they do as follows:-they sail men and women together, and a great multitude of each sex in every boat; and some of the women have rattles and rattle with them, while some of the men play the flute during the whole time of the voyage, and the rest, both women and men, sing and clap their hands; and when as they sail they come opposite to any city on the way they bring the boat to land, and some of the women continue to do as I have said, others cry aloud and jeer at the women in that city, some dance, and some stand up and pull up their garments. This they do in every city along the riverbank, and when they come to Bubastis, they hold a festival celebrating great sacrifices, and more wine grapes are consumed upon that festival than during the rest of the year. To this place (so say the natives), they come together year by year even to the number of seventy myriads of men and women, besides children.(Hd. II, 60)
In scholarly discussion, the orgiastic nature of these events is usually connected to the fertility of cats and their conspicuous behaviour during the mating season. According to that view, celebrants explored such fertility in their own lives. Other evidence documents the drunkenness and displays of ecstatic activities that represent willful violations of accepted social standards. This unusual behaviour at fervid celebrations was thought to please Egyptian goddesses, especially those who appeared as a lioness – Bastet and Sekhmet but also Mut and Hathor.
Lioness goddesses were rendered dangerous and unpredictable while, at the same time, they also were caring, protective and fierce. They were connected to Ra‘s sun god, often called “Daughter of Ra” or “Eye of Ra.” The so-called “Mythos of the Eye of Ra,” preserved on three demotic papyri of the 2nd century BCE, offers deeper insight: The narrative tells the story of the daughter of Ra living as a mighty lioness far south of Egypt in the glowing desert heat. For some unaccounted reason, she is furious with her father and spreads fear in the deserts by her presence. The sun god transmits Thot to guide her back to Egypt, a difficult task as the god must calm the angry lioness and keep her happy on the long journey home. To accomplish his mission, Thot appears in the form of a baboon and uses music, dance and alcohol to please the lioness. Connecting this narrative to the festival at Bubastis, we conclude that festivities with dancing, music and drinking honoured the goddess who enjoyed the same activities.
The festival at Bubastis featured another activity of primarily local character: Papyrus Brooklyn 47.218, a 7th-century BCE manuscript containing local myths and legends of the Delta’s famous cities, including a tale about Bubastis. In this narrative, Bastet saved the eye of Horus from Seth at Bubastis and rowed on the sacred canals (Isheru) surrounding her temple in the moment of her triumph over the enemy: “And she was rowed within the Oryx-Antelope on the Isheru in the very moment as she rescued the Udjat-Eye from him; as Seth created his appearance, stealing the Udjat-Eye in Menhat. He came to Bubastis carrying the things he swallowed, but Horit (i.e. Bastet, EL-A) rescued the Udjat-Eye of her father”.
In their barque shrines, river processions of cult statues are a well-known element of ancient Egyptian religious festivals. It is easy to imagine the rowing of Bastet’s sacred barque on the Isheru of her temple at Bubastis was the sacred culmination of the festival. Surely the appearance of the triumphant goddess would be the summit of a celebration passionately attended by the thousands of pilgrims who journeyed to her city every year.