Cat History

Bast: The Ancient Egyptian Cat Goddess

Do you know that cats are held in very high esteem in Ancient Egypt, and Bast (also known as Bastet), the Egyptian Goddess who has a cat head, is one of the most respected ones?

The people of Ancient Egypt believed that animals were the pets of the Gods and Goddesses they worship, and can even manifest as an animal, hence they have a very strong culture of animal worship. Cats were one of the animals who had the rights of mummification after death and doing harm to cats would result in severe punishment both by the community and the law. Households who had domesticated cats would also mourn for their deaths as they would for any other human family member – by shaving off their eyebrows.

The First Feline Goddess

The Lioness GoddessThe first feline goddess is Mafdet, who has a lion head, which can be traced as far as 3,400 BC or so. She was known as the goddess of justice and execution, with one of the ancient legends telling how a divine jungle cat managed to cut off the head of Apep, a serpent god who brought about chaos, when he was trying to strangle a sacred Persea tree. This was probably also due to the fact that cats killed mice, snakes, scorpions and other pests which were posing troubles (such as poisoning or breaking into granaries) to the Egyptians.

After the unification of the Upper and Lower Egypt, Mafdet was replaced by Sekhmet, who also had a lion head, but the focus shifted from representing justice and execution to the power of royalty.
Bast, who appeared slightly after Mafdet, was originally represented as a form of a lioness and the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt. However, her image was softened over time to represent domesticated cats instead of a warrior lioness ever since the unification of the Upper and Lower Egypt due to the existence of Mafdet/Sekhmet. She is now more commonly known to be associated with protection, fertility, and motherhood.

The Domestication of Cats

Cats in the WildThe domestication of cats came naturally to the ancient Egyptians due to the rats and snakes problems that they were facing due to their geographical locations. Cats were the answer to those problems. The ancient Egyptians would place food in their homes to attract the cats and protect the cats from other natural predators. In exchange, the cats would cleanse the house of the rats, snakes and other pests and vermin (which is in accordance to their nature). Over time, the cats gradually settled down among the ancient Egyptians.

The cats which existed in ancient Egypt, however, were not how cats are like today. There were two main groups of cats – jungle cats, which were much fiercer and aloof to humans, and the wildcats, which are gentler in comparison, but still a far way from domesticated cats. As they lived together in the human community and bred with each other, with their kittens being brought up under the care of humans, there were several changes:

  1. They became smaller. This may be due to a preferential selection by the human community to selectively breed the smaller-sized cats for easier housekeeping.
  2. They have less and weaker muscles than the jungle cats and wildcats. This is most probably a result from the lack of need to escape for predators or catch their own prey when they live in the human community, where protection and food is offered in exchange for their services.
  3. They have increased tolerance to humans. Even today, a domesticated cat in your friend’s/neighbor’s house will react very differently to you as compared to a stray cat living on the streets. Increased tolerance (and to a certain extent, reduced aggressiveness) towards humans is a must if cats were to become part of the human community.

This domestication process and the softening image of Bast occurred simultaneously. After some time, Bast completed her transformation from a lioness to a cat, and a temple with a shrine is erected specially for Bast in the city of Bubastis. There was even research done saying that the cats that we see so commonly around us could trace their ancestry back to the land of Ancient Egypt!

The City of Bubastis

The City of BubastisThe temple dedicated to Bast was laid in the center of the city, and the terrain it was constructed on gave people the impression that it was constructed on a man-made island. The interior of the temple had a statue of Bast, and cats who lived here were loved, cared for, and respected by the priests.

It was recorded that the cat population in Bubastis were so large that the priests had no choice but to introduce a practice of sacrificial culling, the killing and mummification of kittens on a periodic basis which were then sold to pilgrims and travelers as unique relics of the city.

As Bast’s influence grew in Bubastis, there were changes to the marketplace. Artisans created sculptures and trinkets of cats in various postures and sizes, and were very well-received by both the local population and the rest of Egypt, which had their merchandise through the traveling merchants.

One of the most popular and common works was an amulet of a cat with kittens. With the association of fertility, women believed that Bast would grant them as many children as the number of kittens on the amulet.

A major festival in Bubastis was the annual festival of honoring Bast. Ancient Egyptians would travel all the way from where they are (usually following the Nile) to Bubastis, where they feasted with the locals and made offerings and sacrifices to Bast, hoping to earn her favor. These offerings and sacrifices were often mummified cats (after their deaths) or cat sculptures (when they did not have a mummified cat). This was because they believed that the offering of mummified cats to Bast will allow the soul of the cat to be reunited with Bast and continue to watch over them.

Cats in Today’s Society

Even though cats today are more of a companion pet instead of a pet of service, they still bring about several major benefits to their owners. They might not be held in the same regards as they were in Ancient Egypt, but many cat owners do treasure their cats like any other human family member.

My own story: The first cat we owned was a black and white cat which we took in from the streets to nurse due to an injury. This wasn’t the first cat our house nursed back to health, but it was the first cat that we did not send to the rescue center, simply because we grew too attached to her, and also because she refused to leave us when we attempted to hand her over to the rescuers. She clawed, meowed, struggled, and displayed very strong signs of aggression towards the rescuers, a side that we had never seen in her prior to the hand-over. That was how we came to keep her, and we’ve never regretted it.

If you have any questions that you want to ask, anything you wish to clarify, or simply want to express your thoughts and feelings, feel free to leave a comment!

6 thoughts on “Bast: The Ancient Egyptian Cat Goddess

  1. Well i know Egypt to have the most adorable breed of cats but i never knew the history behind the cats. I have always wondered how cats got to be domesticated and why they are so different from the wild cats. Your article has explained this very well, i feel like i now understand my cat better and why he behaves as he does.

    1. Hey Anita!

      Indeed, it is hard to understand our own history and how we humans come to where we are today. When it is regarding another species, all the more it is harder to comprehend if we know utterly nothing about their past.

      I’m glad you have a better understanding of your cat now! 🙂

      Rachel

  2. Rachel, I had no idea there was so much to write about when it comes to cats, which we love. My wife and I have two rescue cats and love them to pieces.
    They bring a lot of enjoyment into our lives and complement the two dogs we have – oddly enough, the dogs seem to enjoy them too.
    Are you able to control the flees and ticks or do you keep yours indoors?
    We have such a challenge here in TN with the flees and ticks, our dogs must go out for a daily run and of course we do all we can to make sure they are flea and tick free, however, they still bring one in now and again.
    What do you do to keep your cat(s) free from flea’s and ticks?
    Thanks again – great site!

    Dallas McCalister

    1. Hey Dallas,

      Glad to see a fellow cat lover! My dog enjoys the company of my cats too, so I guess your dogs are cat lovers like you too.

      I live in a high-rise building so the animals are mainly kept indoors. However, we do bring them down for walks, and indeed, they do bring in one or two every so often.

      What we do is to ensure that we give them frequent grooming so that their fur is not so long and thick such that it makes it hard for us to spot any fleas and ticks on them. Also, whenever we found one, it will mean a flea/tick bath for all our animals and a thorough wash on all their items. It’s a lot of trouble, but we haven’t have a case of fleas or ticks running rampage within the house.

      I hope this helps you!

      Rachel

  3. I remember reading a few years back now that ancient Egypt were one of the first civilisations to breed smaller cat breeds as we know them now – this article managed to clear up a few surrounding questions I had on the subject. 

    It’s really interesting that they figured out that cats could be one of the first ‘pest controls’ and manged to near enough domesticate them with food. Do you know of any other early civilisations that used cats in this manner?

    1. Hey Chris,

      If you are inquiring about those really early civilizations, I would like to mention the Mesopotamian civilization, which existed way long before ancient Egypt. Archaeological excavations have discovered the fossils of cats and are hypothesizing that it is the Mesopotamian civilization and not the ancient Egyptian civilization that is the first civilization to domesticate cats. However, they are still lacking in more concrete proof, it isn’t really acknowledged by most people.

      Hope that answers your question!

      Rachel

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