Birthdays are good for you. The more you have, the longer you live.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bast, the Egyptian Cat Goddess

Text of my talk to the Wisdom Circle of the Goddesses of Shining Light, Murwillumbah NSW (Australia) 14 March 2017

Image from the public domain

First, a bit of background about me. 

My personal spiritual path is Pagan, which many people think of as being specifically Celtic, and indeed it is. But it’s wider than that, too, and I’m eclectic in my practices. Some people think we should stick to just one pantheon to avoid confusion, and I can see what they mean, but eclectic works for me. I have both Celtic and Hindu ancestry, I have been contacted by both Australian Indigenous and Native American beings in spirit, for various kinds of energy work, and I have strong, apparently past-life connections with Egypt. So today I’m focusing on the Egyptian connection.

[I would just like to note that there are many variations of the names we assign to Ancient Egyptian deities, places, etc. I’m going to use the ones I know best, which are usually the most widely-used today, even if they might not be the most strictly correct.]

Bast is the Egyptian cat goddess, also widely known as Bastet. She originated in a city known as Bubastis (which is the best-known variant of the name) in Lower Egypt, which was the northern half of the country. (The terms Upper and Lower referred to the direction of the Nile, which begins in the south and flows northward.) However she was worshipped throughout the whole country.

She was a warrior goddess – a protector – and was first depicted with the head of a lioness, which is how the Goddess Sekhmet is also portrayed. However Bast is not a version of Sekhmet; they are sisters, both daughters of the supreme God in the Egyptian pantheon, whom we call Ra. Sekhmet was a goddess of Upper (or southern) Egypt.

As well as a daughter of Ra, Bast was also his consort. We would regard that as shockingly incestuous, but the Egyptian deities were credited with complex family lives, due to the many functions each one acquired over time, which then needed to be added into the story. The Pharaohs also accepted such arrangements, for dynastic reasons. (As for cats, they are a different species, unaffected by human morality.)

After Lower Egypt was conquered by Upper Egypt, Bast began being portrayed with the head of a domestic cat, and her nurturing qualities were more emphasised. That's also when the name Bastet became used. Both are well-known, but I originally encountered the older form, Bast, and so that’s the name I call her.

As a protector, she was originally considered the warrior-protector of her father, Ra, and hence of every Pharaoh (who represented him on earth). This then extended to protecting everyone. For instance, people would keep statues of her in their homes as protection against thieves. We are told that she also protected houses against rats and snakes – a thing ordinary cats do too – and so ensured the health of the occupants. 

She became seen in the role of mother-protector, like a mother cat defending her kittens.

And she became the patron goddess of fire-fighters, due to the Ancient Egyptian belief that a cat running through a burning building would draw the flames out behind her.

She also became a goddess of sensual pleasure, and of fertility. Young women wanting children would buy amulets with figures of Bast and her kittens – the number of kittens showing how many children they hoped for.

She was associated with perfumes, because of similarities in the respective hieroglyphs, and she carried a special rattle called a sistrum, which linked her with music and dance. She also carried the ankh, symbol of life. In common with Sekhmet, she was considered to embody the all-seeing eye of Ra.

The Greeks likened her to Artemis, and so connected her with the moon and with children. In Egypt she was a goddess of sunrise, too.

Her worshippers gave her offerings of jewellery and other precious objects. Also they offered her, in huge numbers, the mummified bodies of cats who had died. I want to make it clear they did not sacrifice these cats. Egypt, as we know, was a society which esteemed cats very highly. There were severe penalties for injuring or killing one. They were given to Bast after they had died of natural causes. In addition to her protective role with humans, Bast was also, of course, the protector of cats.

It is said that her strengths were: as a protector; in her sensuality; and in being a caring mother figure. Her weaknesses are said to be that she was chameleon-like, and fierce when threatened. Personally, I’m unable to perceive those qualities as weaknesses!

It may be more useful to consider her aspects from the point of view of archetypes: Warrior and Lover. Warrior qualities are physical strength, and the protectiveness which enables you to fight for your rights and those of others. The shadow side includes the need to win at all costs, and abandoning your ethics for the sake of victory. The Lover shows both passion and selfless devotion, and includes what makes our hearts sing, e.g. music, art, nature. The shadow is obsessive, unhealthy passion. It is said that Bast had many lovers, but there is no record of unhealthy obsession – which I think might be un-catlike in any case.

I have two statues of Bast in my house: a traditional one on an altar, and a big black plaster cat presiding over my oracles and Tarot decks – which is a depiction of Bast because I say it is and hold it as being so. She was in fact sometimes portrayed as an actual cat rather than a cat-headed woman. (The one on my altar is that too, as you see; but in that case the maker also intended it as a representation of Bast.)

It was in her protector role that I first met Bast. At a time in my life when I thought I had some reason to be afraid, my friend Ridge who was a powerful magician, introduced her to me as someone to call on for magical protection. We can do that by calling her name, either aloud or mentally, or we can visualise the Hebrew letter Bet, the letter with which her name begins. If you’ve studied QBL, you’ll know it, but otherwise it looks like this:

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense.

Of course, the language of Ancient Egypt was not Hebrew, but we understand that the Semitic languages are closely related; and Ridge was a Hermetic magician, which meant his training was Cabalistic.  

The meaning of the name of the letter, Bet, means House. If you forget what the letter looks like, you can visualise a child’s outline sketch of a house instead, and that'll work. You can use her name and the visualisation together, or either one on its own. It’s handy when you need to call on protection quickly, in the moment.

Whenever I have done that, the dangers I feared did not come to pass; also I experienced a beautiful sense of reassurance, which felt motherly. 

I also felt empowered. This cat-mother goddess expects that her children will mature into strength and competence, able to take care of themselves. But, like all mothers, she will never regard us as too old to help if we call on her.

To sum up: as a role-model, she is both soft and strong; protector and nurturer. She knows how to enjoy the sensual pleasures of being alive; and she is practical and efficient in looking after the health and safety of those in her charge. She is a worthy representative of Great Mother.

I refreshed my memory of details with these online sources:
'Bast the Egyptian Cat Goddess’ at
and the article on Bast in the ‘simple English Wikipedia’

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