Monday, March 31, 2008

Mythological Cats - Bast The Cat Goddess

In Egyptian mythology, Bast (also spelt Ubasti, and Pasht) is an ancient goddess, worshipped at least since the Second Dynasty. The centre of her cult was in Per-Bast (Bubastis in greek), which was named after her. Originally she was viewed as the protector goddess of Lower Egypt, and consequently depicted as a fierce lion. Indeed, her name means (female) devourer. As protector, she was seen as defender of the pharaoh, and consequently of the chief god, Ra, who was a solar deity, gaining her the titles Lady of flame, and Eye of Ra.

Later scribes sometimes named her Bastet, a variation on Bast consisting of an additional feminine suffix to the one already present, thought to have been added to emphasize pronunciation. Since Bastet would literally mean (female) of the ointment jar, Bast gradually became thought of as the goddess of perfumes, earning the title perfumed protector. In connection with this, when Anubis became the god of embalming, Bast, as goddess of ointment, became thought of as his mother, although this association was broken in later years, when Anubis became thought of as Nephthys' son.

This gentler characteristic, of goddess of perfumes, together with Lower Egypt's position as the loser in the wars between Upper & Lower Egypt, lead to her ferocity being gradually toned down. Thus by the Middle Kingdom, she had come to be thought of as a domestic cat rather than a lion, although occasionally, she would be depicted holding a lioness mask, hinting at suppressed ferocity. Since domestic cats tend to be quite tender, and protective, toward their children, she was also thought of as a good mother, and sometimes became depicted with numerous (unidentified) kittens. Consequently, a woman who wanted children would sometimes wear an amulet depicting Bast, as a cat, with kittens, the number of which indicated her own desired amount of children.

Due to the severe disaster to the food supply that could be caused by simple vermin such as mice and rats, and their ability to fight and kill snakes, especially Cobras, Cats in Egypt were revered heavily, sometimes being given golden jewelry to wear, and being allowed to eat from the same plates as their owners. Consequently, as the main cat (rather than lion) deity, Bast was strongly revered as the patron of cats, and thus it was in the temple at Per-Bast that dead (and mummified) cats were brought for burial. Over 300,000 mummified cats were discovered when Bast's temple at per-Bast was excavated.

As divine mother, and more especially as protectress, for Lower Egypt, she became strongly associated with Wadjet, the patron goddess of Lower Egypt, eventually becoming Wadjet-Bast, paralleling the similar pair of patron (Nekhbet) and lioness protector (Sekhmet) for Upper Egypt. Eventually, her position as patron and protector of Lower Egypt, lead to her being identified as the more substantial goddess Mut, whose cult had risen to power with that of Amun, and eventually being absorbed into her as Mut-Wadjet-Bast. Shortly after, Mut also absorbed the identities of the Sekhmet-Nekhbet pairing as well.

Finally, all that remains our days about Bast is her forever living legend: the Cat Goddess.

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