Bastet: The Egyptian Goddess of Protection… And Much More

Bastet Cats | Courtesy of Musee du Louvre

Bastet, also known as Bast, was an ancient Egyptian goddess who originally had the role of protecting the Pharaohs. The inhabitants of the lower Nile depicted Bastet as a savage, lion-headed deity. After 1000 BCE, the Egyptians altered her image to the body of a woman and the head of a domesticated cat. Along with her change in appearance, she was also transformed into a peaceful and approachable deity. Instead of Bastet protecting Pharaohs, she was now a nurturer and protector of all households. Families soon began to invite cats inside their homes, thinking that they brought with them the spirit of Bastet. They worshiped these cats because they also hunted mice, snakes, and other pests that ruined their crops and their perishable goods. Bastet’s role as a goddess was further altered when she acquired the trait of fertility. Women would purchase pendants with Bastet and multiple kittens to enhance their fertility.1

Bastet | Courtesy of Wikiwand.com

Statues and depictions of Bastet vary. She transforms from a beast with a female lion’s head, to a woman with the head of a cat, to a regular black cat with kittens who sometimes held a rattle. Some thought the rattle was actually a musical instrument called a sistrum. Because of this, Bastet was also associated with music and dance. Soon after the sistrum was added to Bastet’s image, the Egyptians used the instrument at festivals where they would worship Bastet. Then, Bastet was depicted wearing a decorative dress, carrying the sistrum in her right hand and a shield in her left, with a bag over her arm.2

The Egyptians had an explanation for why she was transformed from a savage beast to a fertility and music goddess. Bastet was the daughter of Ra, the sun god who was vengeful. From him she got her aggressiveness. Her mother is unknown, but the Egyptians suspect that Ra sent young Bastet to Nubia as a lioness in isolation. There she was able to let out her rage, and then wander back to Egypt as a docile cat. Later an unknown king proclaimed that Bastet was his mother. Egyptian women then believed worshiping her would provide them with many children, as house cats would typically have up to twelve kittens; and one of her sons became king. Experts believe that the baby rattle was mistakenly interpreted as a sistrum, which led to her being known as a music and dance goddess.3

Bronze Statue of Bastet | Courtesy of irmabianchi.it

In depictions of wars on the walls of palaces, she was portrayed as a lion, and in homes she was a cat. Although Bastet was a goddess with many traits, that was not all that uncommon. In ancient Egypt gods and goddesses often served more than one purpose. Along with her most common traits, she was also thought of as the goddess of the sun, which she inherited from her father, as well as the goddess of physical pleasure. It was even believed that if a cat ran through a fire, the fire would be put out; therefore, she became the deity of firefighters.4

It is undeniable that Bastet was highly respected. Experts are still unable to determine when Egyptians first began to worship her as well as when her presence faded. Many statues of Bastet and mummified cats have been discovered along the lower Nile, which has led experts to believe that festivals were held there in her honor and locals worshiped her to the highest degree. Although she did have many roles, she is best known as the goddess of protection.5

“His totem animal in black onyx

erect on her haunches poised and aware

he brings in a dream that I might learn

cats are cats and gods—slit-eyed in the sun

in darkness with dilated iris she sees

protector I hope though at times in the night

I tense at her wild amorous cry…”

Bastet 6

  1. The Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2o16, s.v. “Bastet (diety),” by Latha Iyer.
  2. Kathryn Razavi, “The Lioness and the Kittycat: Egypt’s Great Feline Goddess” (Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Colorado, 2013), 20-25.
  3. Nora Scott, “The Cat of Bastet,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 1 (1958): 1.
  4. Kathryn Razavi, “The Lioness and the Kittycat: Egypt’s Great Feline Goddess” (Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Colorado, 2013), 23.
  5.  Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2o16, s.v. “Bastet (diety),” by Latha Iyer.
  6. Phyllis Stowell, “Bastet,” Psychological Perspectives 56, no. 3 (2013): 362-364.
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62 Comments

  • This article was very interesting to read! I loved the Egyptians, however I had never heard of Bastet before reading this article, but I’m glad I have now. I have always been curious as to why Egyptian culture included so much cats and/or the worship of feline-like creatures, and my newfound knowledge of Bastet has helped shed some light on that for me.

  • Bastet has always been one of my favorite goddesses from the ancient world. One thing I would like to mention is that when Bastet emerged from her father Ra’s vengeance, she was originally known as Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of war and wrath, and was born from his eye. Overall, although this was a relatively short article – I would have liked to see more sources – it was a nice way to introduce this goddess of many aspects. I especially appreciate the explanation of the fertility amulets with Bastet and her kittens, as that was something I had never heard before.

  • Nice article. The roles of Bastet are quite interesting. She could be both a fierce warrior and a comely kitty cat. I prefer her as the comely kitty cat who protects the home because I love cats and have one who is almost always with me when I am at home. It is interesting also that the worship of Bastet faded eventually it makes me wonder if that may happen in our religions today at some point in the future.

  • Bastet seemed to have been a very popular god among the Egyptians and now I see why. Her powers of fertility and protection is something every family would want. I now see why they mummified cats in ancient Egypt, given her status in the deity world (daughter of Ra) and her blessing of protection, the mummified cats were a must for pharaohs.

  • It has always confused me as to why cats were seen as deity figures in ancient Egypt. In my experience, cats have been lazy and all about themselves, making them as far from something I could worship at all. However, it was nice to read about how and why these ancient people did worship cats. It was also interesting to read about how the god transitioned from a beast at a regular cat.

    • They began as mice and rodent catchers for early farmers, possibly 10,000 years ago in the Near East. As humans learned to store grain, they began to attract rodents. Cats are also excellent small poisonous snake killers, and scorpion killers. Cats are lazy because they no longer have jobs to do in modern cultures; that is due to human behavior, not cats…:).

  • I am not very familiar with the Basket. I am interested in Egyptian art because it is so intriguing to know the meaning behind all the different facets of the Egyptian art form. I think the Egyptians were unique in the sense of their as well. Some art was used in their everyday life and I think in tat sense that is a whole separate art form. I enjoyed the images in your article and enjoyed the details given.

  • I love Egyptian art because it’s so interesting. Although I had never heard of Bastet, I am glad I read this article. I didn’t know that this goddess and her story would be so intriguing. This article really described her and the evolution of her very clearly, leaving me curious about even more information on her. I think it’s so interesting that these people worshiped these figures of cats for the hope of the goddess providing. Overall, this article was very well written and interesting.

  • This is such an interesting story about a goddess I had never even heard of in the first place. Baset has so many versions of herself, but one thing remains consistent, she is a powerful goddess. Wheter it be as a fertility goddess or a giant lioness she always radiates grace and power. It’s kind of interesting how people make different perceptions of a goddess to fit their way of life.

  • This article was very interesting, and from the description of her appearance, it made me wonder if this is where the artists for Wonder Woman’s comics got the idea of Cheetah, although she isn’t a lioness. I’ve never heard of Bastet until now, but from this article, it is very self explanatory why cats were worshiped in the ancient world of Egypt.

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