Anyone who has ever spent time in Egypt must have seen many a statue of a majestically-looking cat. This is Bastet, the goddess and protectress of many things: the house, perfume, fertility, joy, dance & music, to name a few. Most often she is holding a sistrum in her hand, a musical instrument from ancient Egypt.
There isn’t much known about the goddess herself. What we know, is there to be seen. In the course of time she underwent – which was quite common among the gods – quite a metamorphosis. As the daughter of Ra, the sun god, she initially looked like a lioness. Later on she became protectress of the domestic cat and got a more friendly appearance. Her fiercer feline properties were taken over by her sister Sekhmet. According to another view they embody the different aspects of one and the same goddess. Among them there are many contrasts, such as passive-aggressive, cunning-gentle and fierce-protective.
Bastet was at the height of her popularity when she was protectress of the domestic cat. In the fertile Nile Delta, the farmers were counting on their felines to protect the harvest against vermin such as mice, rats and even snakes. The love went so deep, that if someone – even unintentionally – would kill a cat, ran the risk of getting a death penalty. After all, harming an incarnation of Bastet was like attacking the goddess herself!
Although mummies of a large variety of animals have been found, cats have proven to be exceptionally popular. Not only were they often mummified and buried along with their owners, in Bubastis, close to present-day Zagazig and the then epicentre of the cat cult, a cemetery with over 180.000 cat mummies was found.
Eventually, their love for cats was niftily used against the Egyptians. During an attack by the Persians around 500 BC, the hostile fighters used them as a way to beat their opponents. Prior to the start of the fight they caught thousands of cats, only to release them right before the first attack in order to create chaos. The plan succeeded, as the poor Egyptians were terrified of causing harm to their darlings. They resisted only sparsely. What followed was centuries of occupation, during which the poor cats were used again to torture the locals. What could happen, was that a cat was thrown at them from out of nowhere. It didn’t lead to the end of the cat cult straight away; that happened only gradually and much later.
In spite of a very different position for the cat in contemporary Egypt, it is still very well possible to see a bit of Bastet everywhere!