Deity of the Day
Bastet was a goddess in ancient Egyptian religion, worshiped as early as the Second Dynasty (2890 BC). As Bast, she was the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt, the Nile River delta region, before the unification of the cultures of ancient Egypt. Her name is also spelled Baast, Ubaste, and Baset.
The two uniting cultures had deities that shared similar roles and usually the same imagery. In Upper Egypt, Sekhmet was the parallel warrior lioness deity to Bast. Often similar deities merged into one with the unification, but that did not occur with these deities with such strong roots in their cultures. Instead, these goddesses began to diverge. During the Twenty-Second Dynasty (c. 945–715 BC), Bast had changed from a lioness warrior deity into a major protector deity represented as a cat. Bastet, the name associated with this later identity, is the name commonly used by scholars today to refer to this deity.
Bastet, the form of the name which is most commonly adopted by Egyptologists today because of its use in later dynasties, is a modern convention offering one possible reconstruction. In early Egyptian, her name appears to have been 𓃀ꜣ𓊃𓏏𓏏. In Egyptian writing, the second 𓏏 marks a feminine ending, but was not usually pronounced, and the aleph ꜣ may have moved to a position before the accented syllable, ꜣ𓃀𓊃𓏏. By the first millennium, then, 𓃀ꜣ𓊃𓏏𓏏 would have been something like *Ubaste (< *Ubastat) in Egyptian speech, later becoming Coptic Oubaste.
During later dynasties, Bast was assigned a lesser role in the pantheon bearing the name Bastet, but retained. Thebes became the capital of Ancient Egypt during the 18th Dynasty. As they rose to great power the priests of the temple of Amun, dedicated to the primary local deity, advanced the stature of their titular deity to national prominence and shifted the relative stature of others in the Egyptian pantheon. Diminishing her status, they began referring to Bast with the added suffix, as “Bastet” and their use of the new name was well-documented, becoming very familiar to researchers. by the 22nd dynasty the transition had occurred in all regions.
The town of Bast’s cult (see below) was known in Greek as Boubastis (Βούβαστις). The Hebrew rendering of the name for this town is Pî-beset (“House of Bastet”), spelled without Vortonsilbe.
What the name of the goddess means remains uncertain. One recent suggestion by Stephen Quirke (Ancient Egyptian Religion) explains it as meaning “She of the ointment jar”. This ties in with the observation that her name was written with the hieroglyph “ointment jar” (𓃀ꜣ𓊃) and that she was associated with protective ointments, among other things. Also compare the name alabaster which might, through Greek, come from the name of the goddess.
She was the goddess of protection against contagious diseases and evil spirits.
She is also known as The Eye of Ra.
From lioness-goddess to cat-goddess
Bastet first appears in the 3rd millennium BC, where she is depicted as either a fierce lioness or a woman with the head of a lioness. Images of Bast were often created from a local stone, named alabaster today. The lioness was the fiercest hunter among the animals in Africa, hunting in co-operative groups of related females.
Originally she was viewed as the protector goddess of Lower Egypt. As protector, she was seen as defender of the pharaoh, and consequently of the later chief male deity, Ra, who was also a solar deity, gaining her the titles Lady of Flame and Eye of Ra.
Her role in the Egyptian pantheon became diminished as Sekhmet, a similar lioness war deity, became more dominant in the unified culture of Lower and Upper Egypt known as the Two Lands.
In the first millennium BC, when domesticated cats were popularly kept as pets, Bastet began to be represented as a woman with the head of a cat and ultimately, by the 22nd dynasty emerged as the quintessential Egyptian cat-goddess. In the Middle Kingdom, the domestic cat appeared as Bast’s sacred animal and after the New Kingdom she was depicted as a woman with the head of a cat or a lioness, carrying a sacred rattle and a box or basket.