Loving cats is far from a new fad. Ancient Egypt was known for its cat-loving ways! The Ancient Egyptians did not necessarily worship cats directly, but rather gave their deities aspects of a feline nature. Bastet (or Bast) was the Ancient Egyptian cat goddess of childbirth, fertility, the home, women’s secrets, and of course, cats.
Domestication of Cats in the Ancient World
Image: African Wild Cat, an ancestor of the modern house cat. Likely to have lived with the Ancient Egyptians via Canva.
Cats had a very important job in the ancient world. Unlike dogs, cats domesticated themselves (source). Their domestication was common among agricultural societies around the world. Why? It’s very simple. Where there were humans, there were crops. Then, where there were crops, there were rodents. And finally, where there were rodents, there were cats.
The relationship between cats and humans was mutually beneficial. Cats received an abundant food source by living among humans. Humans were able to keep more of their stored food and see relief from diseases spread by rodents.
Cats in Ancient Egypt
Humanity’s unique relationship with cats led to cats being revered in Ancient Egypt. They were related to the sun god, Ra, because cats love to bask in the sun and their reddish, yellow coat colors were a reminder of the sun (source). A set of gods and goddesses were given feline qualities. As a result, to kill a cat was punishable by death in Ancient Egypt as they could be the Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet, in disguise.
From Fierce Lioness to Egyptian Cat Goddess
Perhaps the most popular of the cat gods in Ancient Egypt, Bastet made her debut in the 2nd dynasty of Ancient Egypt (around 2800 B.C.). As the daughter of the sun god, Ra, she was viewed as a fierce lioness goddess, often conflated with her sister Sekhmet (source). Both Bastet and Sekhmet were pictured as having the head of a lion and the body of a woman. Sekhmet was said to have been created from the fire of Ra’s eye to destroy humans that disobeyed him (source).
As domestic cats became more popular, Bastet’s image became gentler (source). She became the famous Egyptian cat goddess that she is now known for being. Her image was now a goddess with a cat head or a cat with kittens. She now had a dual nature: protective and nurturing yet capable of terrifying vengeance. In the home, evils spirits and disease were warded off by Bastet. One of her minor roles even included guiding the spirits of the dead in the afterlife.
There is much disagreement over what the name Bastet means. One theory is that it means “she of the ointment jar”. As a protector of the home, she was associated with protective ointments. Also, the Egyptian cat goddess may have had a son, Nefertum, that was known as the god of perfume and sweet smells.
Festival of Bastet Egyptian Cat Goddess in Bubastis
The cult of Bastet was centered in Bubastis in Lower Egypt. Bubastis became a rich city because of all the people who would come to pay their respects to the Egyptian cat goddess there. People came from all around Egypt to bury their dead cats in Bubastis as well. Between 1887 and 1889 A.D. over 300,000 mummified cats were found at the temple of Bastet.
There were regular festivals held for Bastet in Bubastis. Both men and women were followers of Bastet and would participate in these festivals. They were known for music and revelry, much like modern Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States.
Worshippers would travel in boats along the rivers heading to Bubastis for the festival. As they did, some would play rattles and flutes while some would dance, sing, and clap their hands. When the boats traveled past a city on the way, women would mock women onshore to get them to leave their daily duties and come join the festival. Then, the women on the boats would lift their skirts and bare their genitals towards the shore. Finally, once reaching Bubastis, they would make sacrifices to Bastet and drink wine.
A War Won with the Help of Cats
Even in the ancient world, Ancient Egypt’s love for cats was well known. When Cambyses II of Persia invaded Egypt in 525 B.C., he used the Egyptian cat goddess to his advantage. He had his soldiers paint images of Bastet on their shields and herded cats and other sacred animals in front of his approaching army.
The Egyptian army was defeated because they feared the image of Bastet and the potential of harming the animals that were placed between the armies. To be fair, they probably would have lost the battle anyway as their young leader had only been in power for 6 months before the invasion by the much more prepared Cambyses II. However, the battle did show how much animals, especially cats, were revered by the Ancient Egyptians.
Sources & Continued Reading
- Smithsonian Magazine – A Brief History of House Cats
- American Research Center In Egypt – Cats, Bastet and the Worship of Feline Gods
- American Research Center In Egypt –The Goddess Bastet and the Cult of Feline Deities In The Nile Delta
- Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum – Deities in Ancient Egypt – Bastet
- Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum – Deities in Ancient Egypt – Sekhmet
- World History Encyclopedia – Bastet
- Britannica – Bastet