Myth Monday: Bastet, the Cat Goddess (Egyptian Myth)

By Kara Newcastle




You know that old joke about how cats used to be worshipped as gods, and cats have never forgotten it? Well, the ancient Egyptians really did worship cats—as goddesses, with Bastet being the most popular.

If you’ve looked at any ancient Egyptian art at all, you’ve likely seen Bastet (also known originally as Ubastis—which you might recognize as the goddess that Ren the multi-tailed Nekomancer from the Monstress comics worships—then as Bast, then Bastet, among other names) in either her form as a cat-headed woman carrying a type of sacred rattle known as a sistrum or more likely as a gracefully poised cat. Both forms depict her gentle and fun-loving side, but don’t be fooled; just like real cats, Bastet was complex, and could be deadly.

Before the worship of Bastet took place, the Egyptians worshipped the savage war goddess Sekhmet, a woman with the head of a lioness. Sekhmet had been dispatched by the sun god Ra to eliminate wickedness on earth, and nearly succeeded in wiping humanity out before she was stopped. Bastet was seen originally as Sekhmet in a much more calm state, and in time this gave rise to the belief that Bastet was a separate deity, but was no less fierce; likely having seen the way cats hunted and the way feline mothers protected their kittens, the Egyptians worshipped Bastet as a protectress of the home, of women and children. She soon became known as the spiritual bodyguard of the pharaoh as well.

By Rama, CC BY-SA 3.0 fr,
Cat Playing with Kittens, Egyptian Late Period Picture by Rama, Wikimedia commons

The Egyptians noticed how their cats’ eyes seem to glow in the dark, and they came to believe that the kitties actually stored some of the sun’s fires in their eyes. This led to Bastet being associated with the sun god Ra, and some artwork depicts Bastet accompanying the sun god to the Underworld where she (or Ra in his own cat form) slays the doomsday serpent Apep by slicing off his head with a knife. Some myths also say that when a soul fails to pass a purity test posed by Maat, the goddess of truth, Bastet releases the fires of the sun which obliterate the sinful spirit. Another story (which I might write about sometime) shows Bastet as an avenging goddess and protector of the dead, thoroughly humiliating a tomb raider out in public.

There was more to Bastet than just violence, though. Due to cats’ impressive reproduction rates, Bastet also became a goddess of love, sex and fertility, and was often shown with a litter of romping kittens at her feet. In myth, Bastet is frequently said to have married Ptah, the architect god of Memphis (other versions say Ra), and together they had the lion-headed god of war Maahes. Bastet is also said to be the mother of the perfume god Nefertum, possibly because her original name meant something to the effect of “She of the Ointment Jar” (offerings of perfumes were made to her in alabaster—repeat: alaBASTer, that’s where we get the word—jars.)

She also loved laughter (any cat owner will tell you about all the times their cat has cracked them up), music and dancing. Every year thousands of women and men—but no children—made pilgrimages to her city of Bubastis, where they celebrated her in a huge festival of dancing, drinking, joke telling, women lifting up their skirts to flash people (a combination of fertility blessing and a throwing-off of modesty), and lots of sex.

So Bubastis was basically Las Vegas but without the casinos.

To top it all off, since cats hunted the rodents that invaded the granaries, thus protecting the food and cutting down on pest-related diseases, Bastet was also seen as a defender of humankind against plagues and disease. All these traits made Bastet the second-most popular goddess in Egypt after Isis, and cats, her sacred animal, the most popular and protected creature there. Cats were seen as a manifestation of Bastet, so they were well cared for, and anyone caught killing a cat was executed.


Unfortunately, the Egyptians’ love for Bastet and cats might have been their undoing; according to legend, King Cambyses II of Persia wanted to annex Egypt to his empire. Knowing how the Egyptians loved cats, Cambyses ordered his soldiers to paint cats on their shields, then collect hundreds of cats and set the terrified kitties out between them and the Egyptian army. Fearful of angering Bastet if they harmed the cats or marred the images, the Egyptian army was said to have surrendered instantly. The historian Polyaneus wrote that Cambyses then proceeded to pull cats out of a bag (that’s not where we get the term) and throw the poor things into the faces of the Egyptians, mocking them for surrendering their city over a cat.

Nothing Cambyses said would change the ancient Egyptians’ minds about the cat and Bastet, and soon Bastet’s popularity spread into Rome. She was worshipped for hundreds of more years until Christianity unseated her and many of the other old gods. While she’s not worshipped as a goddess anymore, Bastet still continues to be popular in the world of art and entertainment—most notably now as a character in Neil Gaiman’s book and TV show American Gods.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s