Beloved cat goddess of the Egyptians, Bastet is goddess of the Delta, with possible origins in the Libyan Desert. When Bastet is associated with Isis, she becomes “the Soul of Isis,” but as a goddess of music and dance, Bastet is linked with Hathor. Their cult instrument is the Sistrum, which they carry as one of their attributes.
Bastet’s cult city, Per-Bast (modern Bubastis), is located in the Delta and is mentioned in the Bible as Pibeseth (Ezekiel 30:17). Bastet’s name is written with the bas jar and a loaf, and means “She of the bas-jar”—a special vessel that holds perfume associated with her festivals.
During the Old Kingdom, Bastet was called “Goddess of the North,” and in the Pyramid Texts of King Unas, she is “nurse and mother of the king.” When Sekhmet the lion goddess was named “Lady of the West,” Bastet became her counterpart as “Lady of the East.” Early depictions of Bastet show her with the head of a lion and associated with the lion-headed goddess, Mut. She is said to be the mother of Maahes, a lion-headed deity, and the wife of Ptah.
Like Sekhmet, Bastet has a dual personality, both gentle and fierce. Her association with Sekhmet reveals Bastet’s aggressive and vengeful side. In one version of the mythology, Bastet becomes the daughter of the sun god Re, and when she is called upon to protect her father, Bastet becomes the “fury in the eye of Re.” As a dutiful daughter, she carried out the orders of Re and was the “means of her father’s vengeance.”
By the end of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC), Bastet had become a popular household goddess. Egyptian families welcomed her into their homes as goddess of the hearth and protector of pregnant women. Her festivals were famous, and she was called “goddess of plenty” and “mistress of pleasure.” And as her popularity grew, her cult became well-known for its lavish festivals—some of which were called “Procession of Bastet,” “Bastet Protects the Two Lands,” “Bastet Goes Forth from Per-Bast” (her city), “Bastet Appears before Re,” and the “Festival of Hathor and Bastet.” These joyous occasions involved days of music, dancing, and merriment throughout Egypt.
The Greek historian Herodotus provides a lively description of the devotees of the goddess as they made their way to the “Festival of Bastet.”
When the Egyptians travel to Bubastis, [the city] they do so in this manner: men and women sail together, and in each boat there are many persons of both sexes. Some of the women shake sacred rattles, [sistrum, pl. sistra] and some of the men play pipes during the whole journey, while others sing and clap their hands. If they pass a town on the way, some of the women shout and cheer at the local women, while others dance and create a disturbance. They do this at every town on the Nile. When they arrive at Bubastis, they begin the festival with great sacrifices, and on this occasion, more wine is consumed than during any other time of the year. —Herodotus, Histories, Book II, Chapter 60
The worshippers approached the temple singing, beating drums, and playing tambourines. Some carried sistra (sacred rattles) as they danced through the streets. Herodotus describes Bastet’s lavish temple as standing on raised ground in the center of the city, so it was visible from every quarter. A temenos wall decorated with various animals surrounded the temple. The inner courtyard was planted with a grove of trees.
So popular was Bastet that the Greeks identified her with their goddess Artemis. The third-century Roman poet Ovid refers to the goddess Bastet in his work Metamorphoses and said the goddess could turn herself into a cat. Bastet was most often shown with the body of a woman and the head of a cat, wearing a long, narrow, sheath-style dress with wide decorated bands over the shoulders. The goddess holds her sistrum in one hand, and in the other she holds an aegis, a talisman representing a broad collar necklace with the head of a cat. Sometimes she is shown with kittens at her feet, a further depiction of her association with hearth and family. The ancient Egyptian word for kitten was miw, pronounced “meow”—the sound a cat makes. It became a term of endearment for children, who were called miw-sheri, “little cat.”
Pilgrims traveled from all over Egypt to visit Bastet’s temple and leave offerings to the goddess. Because the cat was sacred to Bastet, they left bronze statues, amulets, and mummified cats. Thousands of cat mummies have been discovered in underground crypts at the site of Bastet’s temple in Bubastis.
The dwarf god, with a frightening appearance and a kind nature, Bes was a god of the people and his popularity never waned. His grotesque features and the magical knife he brandished were meant only to ward off evil and frighten demons away from the families he protected. Families loved Bes and often painted his image in their houses to bring good luck and well-being. Bes, along with Tauret, the hippopotamus goddess, was a guardian of mothers during childbirth. Bes protected houses from snakes and scorpions that were a constant threat to young children in ancient Egypt. He was always on guard against the problems of daily life. Bes was also a god of music and merrymaking and was often shown with a tambourine.
Bes’s strange appearance has caused Egyptologists to speculate on his origin, for he looks nothing like the other slim and elegant Egyptian gods. One of the most significant differences is that he is almost always shown full face and only rarely in profile. Bes looks like a dwarf with a lion’s mane on his head, and his tongue is often sticking out. He has short, stubby arms and legs and a lion’s tail. At different periods in Egyptian history, Bes has been shown with a large knife; a tambourine; a tall, feathered crown; and a skirt. There are speculations that Bes originated in what is now modern Turkey, since his images have been found in Turkish excavation sites. Bes also might have originated in sub-Saharan Africa, because one of his titles is Lord of Punt, an ancient land on the west African coast. The tall, plumed crown that he sometimes wears is much like the crown of Anukis, a goddess from the southern borders of Egypt. Most Egyptologists now believe that Bes is an Egyptian god with ancient origins. Several different grotesque gods have appeared over time in different communities in ancient Egypt, and whatever their local name was, they eventually evolved into the god Bes.
The lioness-headed goddess, Sekhmet was called the “Powerful One,” a name that fit the destructive side of her personality. Mythology tells us that Sekhmet was the “destructive eye” of Re, and with the fire-spitting cobra (the uraeus), they
were protectors of the king. The hot desert wind was called the “breath of Sekhmet,” and it was said that she belched fire upon her enemies. So great was her fury that the evil Set and the terrible serpent Apophis gave way to her.
The Book of the Divine Cow says that Hathor becomes Sekhmet when the sun god Re sends her to destroy humankind. Sekhmet rampaged on a blood lust across the land. Only the gods’ trickery stopped Sekhmet’s fury, and humankind was saved.
In the capital city of Memphis, Sekhmet was the wife of Ptah and mother to Nefertum (see family of gods). In the Delta, she was associated with the cat goddess, Bastet. Sekhmet is shown as a lioness or as a woman with a feline head, wearing the solar
disk and a uraeus. Her garment is a long sheath dress with rosettes over her breasts.
When the Theban Triad—Amun, and his wife, Mut, and their son Khonsu—rose to prominence in Thebes, Mut became associated with Sekhmet and assumed many of her attributes. Numerous statues of Mut-Sekhmet were erected in the Precinct of Mut at
If a plague swept through Egypt, it was said to be carried by a “messenger of Sekhmet,” and the Egyptians believed that if Sekhmet could bring pestilence, then she could also ward off illness. So Sekhmet became a goddess of healing as well as of
A scorpion goddess, Selket is usually shown as a woman with a scorpion on her head, and her name is derived from a term that means “she who causes the throat to breathe.” Perhaps the rest of the phrase might have been “for the last time,” as a scorpion sting is extremely dangerous and can cause death. Selket is one of the most ancient goddesses in Egypt, having been associated with the Predynastic King Scorpion. In the Old Kingdom, she appears as a protector of the throne and the king, but her most important role is with the funerary cult and the deceased. She is called “Lady of the Beautiful House,” a reference to her assistance in the embalmer’s tent during mummification. In the Book of Two Ways, she watches over the “dangerous winding path,” a reference to moving the mummy to its tomb. She is one of four guardians of the canopic chest and assists Isis as she performs the funerary rites over Osiris. In the myth of the seven scorpions, the seven appear as a manifestation
of Selket when they accompany Isis to the Delta.