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Rise of the Cat Goddess Bastet and the Domestication of the Ancient Egyptian Cat and

Author: Rob Mabry

In Ancient Egypt, the cat was known as mau and played a significant role in the society and mythology of Ancient Egypt. Even feral and untamed, the cat served a useful purpose for the farmers in Ancient Egypt by protecting their crops from vermin.

Cats protected the grainaries of Egypt from rats and mice, and earned respect from the human population of Egypt for their ability to battle and kill Cobras and other snakes. Two breeds of cats populated the region at the time, the jungle cat (Felis chaus) and the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica).

The African wildcat was more docile and possessed a demeanor that was more conducive to domestication. A mutually beneficial existence where the cats controlled the vermin and the humans tolerated and provided protection from other predators who avoided humans, helped to push along the domestication process.

Another influence on domestication was the practice of raising kittens caught in the wild as pets, a fashionable practice amongst Ancient Egypt‘s wealthiest citizens. Evolving beyond mere tolerance, the Egyptian people began to embrace the newly domesticated creature as a symbol of grace and elegance.

Ancient Egyptian was deeply influenced by the animal world and worship of animals was common. Mafdet, the deity associated with justice and execution, was depicted as a fierce lion-headed goddess and the earliest representations of Bastet from around the Second Dynasty show a fierce lion-like warrior goddess.

Over centuries as cats became more domesticated and placid, the cat goddess Bastet or Bast, rose in popularity to become the deity representing fertility, motherhood and protection. Statues from later periods depict the goddess with the head of a domesticated cat and often accompanied by her kittens, a more representative depiction of her nurturer role and the domestication of the cat in Egypt. Bastet was frequently depicted in her full feline form, often with gold or jewel-encrusted ear and nose rings.

The Pharaoh Shoshenq I built Bubastic, a center of worship for the Goddess Bastet east of the Nile Delta (50 miles Northeast of Cairo) into an important cultural city where thousands would travel each year to celebrate the cult of the cat. In the marketplace, merchants and artists peddled bronze sculptures and jewelry festooned with the image of Bastet or of a mother cat with her kittens, popular with women attempting to conceive a child.

Their prayers to Bastet would often ask that they be granted the same number of children as kittens depicted on the amulet they had purchased in the market. The fifth century Greek historian Herodotus described the pilgrimage to Bubastis as a carnival-like scene wild with music and drink to celebrate the Cat Goddess, Bastet.

In death, the cat was often treated with the respect extended a human family member. Family members would grieve their loss deeply and in many cases, the cat’s body would receive the full mummification treatment. Their is ample evidence that the burial of a cat was frequently treated with much the same revelry as his human counterpart, including the ceremonial burial with provisions for the afterlife such as dishes of milk and even mummified mice. In the late 1800s at the temple of Bast, a huge tomb holding more than 19 tons of mummified cat remains was discovered. Along with the mummies were the popular bronze statues of the goddess Bast in cat form. It’s suspected that most were already stolen by thieves before the discovery as the image remains a popular with collectors of rare antiquities.

While the popularity of the cat in Egypt has waned and they are probably celebrated more in the United States today, statues of the goddess Bastet remain a popular decorating choice for cat-lovers or those who appreciate the feline representation of nurturing motherhood.

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About the Author

Rob Mabry is a former Army journalist, screenwriter and technologist. He is owner of Balance Bikes 4 Kids, specializing in bikes and scooters to help your child learn to ride.

Posted in Animal Deities, Cats, Egypt.

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