Egyptian Cat Goddess: Who Is Bastet?

Bastet was the revered Egyptian cat goddess with the head of a cat, and the body of a woman, who was known as a fearsome and almighty protector.

Oct 27, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

 

Also known as Bast, Bastet is one of the most important goddesses of ancient Egyptian mythology. She was most frequently represented as a long, slender woman with the head of a cat, while carrying a sistrum and a breast plate. A goddess of great power, she had many attributes, including protection, pleasure, good health and fertility. She is closely associated with the lioness goddess Sekhmet, and the two were even variations of the same goddess in different parts of early Egypt. Her many alternate epithets include: the Lady of the East, Goddess of the Rising Sun, and the Sacred and All-Seeing Eye. We take a closer look at her history and evolution.

 

An Egyptian Cat Goddess

Bastet, the Egyptian Goddess with the Eye of Ra (Re)
Bastet, the Egyptian Goddess with the Eye of Ra (Re)

 

In the later centuries of ancient Egypt, Bastet was primarily represented as a half-human, half-cat creature. Previously she had been a lioness goddess with the head of a lioness, and known in Upper Egypt as Sekhmet. Her closely tied relationship with cats gave Bastet special status in Egyptian culture. Cats were highly regarded for their ability to protect citizens from rodents, snakes and other pests. Through their highly effective pest control, cats warded off the spread of disease, and kept vital crops safe. Thus, Bastet shared many of these attributes with cats, and became known as a great protector who kept humans and gods safe from evil predators. Within the heavenly realms Bastet appeared as her human-cat hybrid, but while on Earth she took the form of a cat.

 

The Daughter of Ra

funerary stela Re Harakhty sun god
Funerary stela with Re-Harakhty, Egyptian sun god. Source: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

 

Bastet descended from the most significant family in Egyptian mythology. Daughter of Ra, the god of life and creation, she was by his side day and night. Egyptians believed she would ride through the sky each day with Ra, protecting him as his boat pulled the sun through the sky. At night, she turned into a cat to protect Ra from the deadly serpent Apep. In later Egyptian mythology Bastet became known as the calmer sister of Sekhmet. She married Ptah, and became mother to Mihos.

 

The Egyptian Goddess of Protection, Pleasure, Fertility and More

Bronze figure of Bastet as a seated cat, Late Period, Metropolitan Museum, New York
Bronze figure of Bastet as a seated cat, Late Period. Source: Metropolitan Museum, New York

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Bastet was worshipped as a deity throughout much of ancient Egypt’s evolution, most frequently in Lower Egypt, even if her form and power changed over the years. She was an Egyptian goddess with many associated attributes, including protection, pleasure, fertility, and good health. In many parts of Egypt Bastet also became known as Goddess of the moon, and was thought to be both the eye of the moon and the eye of Ra. Many Egyptians saw her feline attributes as all-powerful, with the ability to protect their homes from evil spirits and disease, much in the way cats could ward off vermin. Some Egyptians believed she had a particular benign form of power that could protect royalty, and her name was found in the valley temple of King Khafre in Giza.

 

A 25th dynasty Menat of King Taharqo
A 25th dynasty Menat of King Taharqo being nursed by the lion-headed goddess Bastet. Source: Met Museum

 

Throughout the course of ancient Egyptian history, festivals and temples were erected in Bastet’s honor, and she even had her own cult in the northeast delta of the Nile. Evidence suggests some select groups continue to worship her today.

 

Bastet Was Also Known as Sekhmet

sekhmet great harris payprus
Ramesess III in front of Ptah, Sekhmet, and Nefertum, from the Great Harris Papyrus, 1150 BCE, via the British Museum

 

Somewhat confusingly, both the Egyptian goddesses Bastet and Sekhmet share many similarities and overlaps. In Lower Egypt, Bastet was worshipped throughout the evolution of their civilization. Her earliest form was that of a woman with a lion’s head, rather than a cat. This made her remarkably similar to the goddess of Upper Egypt, called Sekhmet, who was also half woman, half lion. The pair shared similar attributes, both being the daughter of Ra, and as feline, female defenders of the innocent against forces of evil. In early mythology both goddesses were vengeful and bloodthirsty, but over time Bastet became softer, as her role shifted into that of a helper and friend. Both goddesses evolved from variations on Mafdet, the first feline deity to appear in Egyptian mythology, whose greatest attribute was that of protection.

 

When Lower and Upper Egypt merged, that’s when things became a little more complicated. Egyptians kept the two gods separate. Sekhmet became known as goddess of war, retaining her lion’s head, while Bastet became a cat goddess who was more peaceful and benevolent in nature.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.