the goddess bastet -- 3/24/20

Today's selection -- from The Cat in Ancient Egypt by Jaromir Malek. The Egyptian goddess Bastet:

"The chief deity of [Bubastis] was from the earliest times the goddess Bastet. Somewhat confusingly, her Greek name was Bubastis, the same as the name of the locality, but this may have been due to misunderstanding on the part of Herodotus. Early representations of Bastet show a woman with the head of a lioness and a uraeus (serpent) on her forehead, holding a long sceptre in one hand, and an ankh ('life') sign in the other. In this form she already appears on stone vessels from Saqqara which mention King Hotepsekhemwy (c.2800 BC).

"Bastet was a goddess without a real name; hers means simply 'She of the City of Bast'. The lion-god Mahes (Miysis or Mios in Greek) was regarded as her son. The goddess very soon began to be linked with other localities, in particular Memphis (perhaps through assimilation with another goddess represented as a lioness, Sekhmet, a companion of Ptah), Heliopolis, where she was regarded as the daughter of the creator and sun-god Atum, and Heracleopolis. She also became closely associated with several other goddesses, in particular Hathor, Mut, and Isis.

Wadjet-Bastet, with a lioness head, the solar disk, and the cobra that represents Wadjet

"The name of Bastet often occurs in New Year's wishes found inscribed on various small items such as blue-glazed flasks which would have been New Year's gifts. The reason for this may have been that as a lioness goddess she was associated with the five epagomenal days of the Egyptian civil calendar, i.e. the extra days which did not belong to any of the twelve months of thirty days each. These days were marked by religious festivals, but were also regarded as a dangerous period because of their unusual position within the year and the lioness goddesses, because of their bellicose character, would have been linked with them. It was characteristic of Egyptian thinking that a concept was understood as consisting of two opposites and that these two aspects were prominently stressed, for example the Nile valley and the desert, Upper and Lower Egypt, the white and the red royal crowns, and many others.

"The goddesses Sekhmet and Bastet began to be paired as such opposites complementing each other at least as early as c.1850 BC, perhaps even earlier, although at that time the main manifestation of each was still the lioness. 'She rages like Sekhmet and she is friendly like Bastet' is how the goddess Hathor-Tefnut was described in The Myth of the Eye of the Sun in the temple at Philae some 1700 years later when the link between Bastet and the cat had been long established. Eventually Sekhmet and Bastet came to be thought of as aspects of the same goddess, one threatening and dangerous, the other protective, peaceful and maternal. We do not know precisely when the female cat started being regarded as a manifestation of Bastet but it is certain that the association received a great boost with the rise to greater prominence of the city of Bubastis during the Twenty-second Dynasty (945-715 BC). ...

"The image of a cat-headed woman may also have been known before Bastet's rise to prominence. A goddess sometimes appears as an 'usherette' in scenes of the judgement of the deceased person known from one of the vignettes in the Book of the Dead. She is usually nameless but may be Mafdet, the 'female panther' deity who combines the characteristics of big cats. In the 'mythological' papyrus of the songstress of the god Amun-Ra, Dirpu, dated to c.1000 BC, such a goddess is shown bringing the deceased woman into the presence of Osiris, the ruler of the underworld. ...

"Some statuettes portray both forms of Bastet, as a woman with the head of a lioness, accompanied by a small figure of a cat. A fragment of such a piece shows a seated goddess, almost certainly the warlike lioness-headed Sekhmet, with her feet resting on the backs of prostrate bound captives, while a cat is perched rather nonchalantly on their legs. Child-bearing and nurturing instincts figured prominently in the 'character' of Bastet and other goddesses who manifested themselves as lionesses; the king is often called their son. ...

"The festival of the goddess Bastet at Bubastis became one of the largest and most popular in the country. These occasions usually included a ceremonial procession during which the image of the local deity was brought out and at least its portable shrine could be seen by ordinary people. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus described the large number of river boats on the way to the city, full of men and women making music, singing, and clapping their hands. He estimated that some 700,000 people attended such a festival of the goddess, whom he called Artemis. It is difficult to judge whether the inviting erotic gestures of the women pilgrims which he mentions were prompted by their pious zeal and served as a reference to the nature of the goddess, or were an expression of Chaucerian bawdy merriment. The festivities included large quantities of wine being consumed. Even wild animals associated with a deity could feel safe while festivities lasted; some 700 years earlier, Ramses IV (1153-1147 BC) claimed that he had not hunted lions during the festival of Bastet. Celebrations of Bastet were not confined to Bubastis but were also regular occasions at Esna and Thebes in Upper Egypt and in Memphis."



Jaromir Malek


The Cat in Ancient Egypt


British Museum Press


1993 Jaromir Malek


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