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Bast, The Beloved Protector of Cats
By Susanna Duffy
She is the protector of cats, women and children. The ancient Egyptians celebrated her feast day on October 31 with convivial merry making, music, dancing in the streets and drinking with friends - the sort of holiday we would recognise instantly.
A great week-long festival was held in the holy city of Bubastis attracting devotees from all over the country to celebrate along the riverbanks and through the city streets. Herodotus tells of crowds swelling to 700,000. Sadly, Bast and her feast day are overlooked in modern times but you could perhaps say that Hallowe'en was originally celebrated as the Feast of Bast.
She holds the mysteries of the cat in her power - those magnetic animals with a strong power to fascinate or repel. Let's face it, all of us will admit that we either love cats or we can't stand the sight of them. Historically, the cat was first endowed with archetypal power in Egypt where it came to be regarded as a Sacred animal.
For the cat is identified with Bast and she is most recognised for her portrayal as a woman with the head of a cat. When a cat curls up with its head touching its tail, it forms a circle, the symbol of eternity, the symbol of the goddess in whatever form she has chosen.
Bast is the Goddess of the rising sun, the moon, truth, enlightenment, sensuality, fertility, bounty, birth, plenty, the home, music and dance. She was the beloved goddess and the protectress of women, small children, and domestic cats.
Bast was the possessor of the Eye of Horus, the sacred utchat. Over time the utchat became more associated with cats and was often cat shaped. Egyptian women used these cat amulets as fertility tokens, praying to have as many children as cats have kittens.
Our modern names for the cat are derived from the word utchat: cat, chat, cattus, gatus, gatous, gato, katt, katte, kitte, kitty, etc. One variation of her name was Pasht, and from this we get the remaining Indo-European words for the cat: pasht, past, pushd, pusst, and puss.
The Wildcats of Egypt first lived in the swamps and marshes along the Nile. As time progressed, and the people began to grow grains and other foodstuff and keeping it for longer periods of time, rodents and other vermin began to thrive. The wild cat was venerated for its ferocity and rapacity, qualities it used to keep the rodent population under control, qualities which it also shared with the lion. What a boon was the Wildcat to the Egyptians!
The domestic cats we know today are all descended from the felix sylvesteris, the Wildcat of Africa and friend of the Egyptian farmer. And so began the long domestication process. As the cat was identified with Bast, so then Bast gained enormous popularity from 1000 BC onward. Feline hunting instincts were honoured, but so was the cat's gentler side as a warm and loving mother to her kittens.
The ancient Egyptians must have truly appreciated the beauty of wild creatures; they took the frightening aspects of animals and turned ferocity into beneficial protection. Their gods possessed animal traits like the precision of the hawk and the strength of the bull. So then, we see in Bast the grace and elegance of a cat, the agility, strength, speed, and the deadly claws. She holds the charm, patience and affectionate nature of a domestic cat, as well as the potential for the raw brute strength of a lioness.
She also has the gift, like all cats, of looking deep into your soul.
And it’s easy to see why Bast has been associated with pleasure, music and dancing for millennia. Just think of your own comfort-seeking cat who loves to be stroked and petted. Cats also love to play, with their graceful movements and purring as musical accompaniment, luxuriating in coordination of movement.
Today, ruins mark the joyful city of Bubastis, the once-proud temple is nothing but tumbled blocks. However, the name of Bast endures. For at least 5000 years there have been many who praised her name. Many still do so today.
Take a moment to honour this ancient Egyptian goddess. Light a green candle, her sacred colour, and be affectionate to a cat, her cherished animal. When you address a cat, remember you are speaking to a little divinity, and a creature beloved of Bast.
Susanna Duffy is a Civil Celebrant, grief counselor and mythologist. She creates ceremonies and Rites of Passage for individual and civic functions, and specialises in celebrations inspired by the divine feminine in "A Goddess a Day."
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