Bast, Perfumed Protector, Cat Goddess...
by Caroline Seawright
Bast, Perfumed Protector, Cat Goddess...
In early times Bast (written as 'Bastet' by scribes in later times to emphasise 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 Mahes, a lion-headed god. 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, Atum (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'. 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 was also considered to be the mother of Nefertem, as were a few other goddesses! Sekhmet was given the title the 'Eye of Ra' when she was 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 rights.
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):
The breast of this Meri-Ra is the breast of Bast; he cometh forth therefore and ascendeth into heaven.
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.
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 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 Bubastis, 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 Bubastis, 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 Bubastis, 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 Bubastis, 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 Chap 60
Her cult centre was in Bubastis (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). She was also worshiped all over Lower Egypt.
Caroline Seawright is a full time worker, part time traveler, anime and manga lover and HTML programmer! She writes many articles on or about Egypt.
For additional articles and information on Egypt, see her web site.