I’m a cat person and my whole life has been in the company of felines. I am also fascinated with ancient Egypt and its serendipitous that they are closely related. When I finally made it to the British Museum, I bought myself a Bastet keyring to remind me of my experience and - obviously - to keep me safe in the car and help me see in the dark!! To this day, I still have Bastet as the guardian of my keys and I have started a little collection of Bastet statues - just to be on the safe side!
So what’s the go with cats in religion and why were so many recently found mummified in a tomb in Egypt? Humanity has had a long running love-hate relationship with cats. They are revered for their poise, curiosity and fierce protection of their young. Equally, they are abhorred by those who think cats are dismissive, sly and selfish. With these combined skills (or gifts?!), it certainly makes the feline a master of survival.
In Egypt, Bastet was associated with women, the home, childbirth and fertility. She also played a role in the afterlife. She has been a popular deity since the 2nd Dynasty with a cult established at Bubastis from the 5th century BCE. But don't think that Bastet was push over. She was also referred to as: The Lady of Dread and the Lady of Slaughter - as many cat owners can attest to if they wrong their feline companion!
What about her iconography? What can we learn by studying her statuary and images? The scholar Richard H. Wilkinson comments:
In her earliest known form, as depicted on stone vessels of the 2nd dynasty, Bastet was represented as a woman with the maneless head of a lioness. The iconography of the goddess changed, however, perhaps as her nature began to be viewed as milder than that of other lioness deities.
My favourite part of Bastet worship is the annual festival at Bubastis. Here, there was much drinking, dancing, merriment and a little genital displaying! This was all associated with the fertility aspect of Bastet. As Herodotus said:
Some of the women make a noise with rattles, others play flutes all the way, while the rest of the women, and the men, sing and clap their hands. As they travel by river to Bubastis, whenever they come near any other town they bring their boat near the bank; then some of the women do as I have said, while some shout mockery of the women of the town; others dance, and others stand up and lift their skirts.
Such festivals were not limited to the worship of Bastet, and such hedonism is easily associated with the feline! But what about the mummified cats I mentioned above? Why were they killed in such numbers? Who remembers the scene in the 1999 movie The Mummy where the intrepid adventurer Rick O’Connell bravely holds up a cat to ward of the approaching evil of the mummy? Such was the mummy’s fear, he whipped himself into a twisting column of sand and disappeared out the window. Bastet could protect the living from the powers of darkness. Hence why so many mummified cats have been found both at the temple in Bubastis and in many other tombs.
There is no doubt that Bastet continues to be popular well into the 21st C. A quick search of the internet reveals that cats dominate feeds and there are more cat videos, memes and posts than any other topic! Don't believe me? Check here. In fact, cat worship has taken on a whole new meaning since the death of designer Karl Largerfeld. There is no truer expression of one’s devotion than to leave a tidy fortune to the one’s deity. The British Museum has also released a book celebrating the magnificence of the cats in its collection and the cover image of this blog post is The Gayer-Anderson cat and her contemporary!
So, the next time your path crosses that of a cat, perhaps consider the possibility that you are in the presence of a deity!
Go forth and conquer.
(image credit: photographer Graham Portlock for, The British Museum Book of Cats (2011) )