The oldest and best known of the Egyptian feline deities is the cat goddess Bastet, who is attested since the Old Kingdom. Although Bubastis was obviously the town of her origin, evidence exists to suggest that she was worshiped in various other places and associated with a number of different deities. In Memphis, Bastet was identified with the lion goddess Sekhmet.
During the Middle Kingdom Sekhmet was known primarily for her wild and warlike qualities and was generally feared, like the ferocious lioness, and Bastet came to be considered the milder, appeasing aspect of the same divinity. Likewise, Bastet was considered the mild eye of Re, as opposed to the scorching Sekhmet-eye. This position of Sekhmet and Bastet as simultaneous complements and opposites is also reflected in the association of the first with war, pestilence, and illness, and that of the second with female fertility, sexuality, and the protection of pregnant women and infants. In Heliopolis, Bastet was equated to Tefnut; she was thus acknowledged as the daughter of Atum and consequently integrated into the Heliopolitan pantheon. From Old Kingdom times, Bastet was associated with Hathor, and during the Middle Kingdom with Mut. There are also references to an association with Isis, who is occasionally pictured as a cat; in Edfu, Bastet is referred to as “the bʒ of Isis.”
It is not always easy to distinguish the strictly feline traits from leonine traits in the representations of deities. A current suggestion is that Bastet had originally been a wild lioness, whose features in the course of time lost their ferocity and softened into those of a benevolent cat. This alleged change of character has often been ascribed to ecological and societal developments, including the gradual migration of lions from north to south and finally out of Egypt, and the increasing presence and growing popularity of the cat there. However, the proposition that mythology and religion followed zoological developments is one that cannot be confirmed. Furthermore, since in the Late period Bastet appears to have regained her lioness features, it is more likely that she alternatively represents both aspects.
To a certain extent, this ambivalence of character may also be attributed to the other goddesses that are sometimes, completely or partially, pictured as felines, such as Mut, Hathor, Wadjit, Pakhet, and Tefnut. As Dale Osborn points out, the goddess Mafdet, who is often included in this list, does not belong there: she must be identified as a lynx rather than a cat.
Although feline deities are predominantly female, there is one divine male cat that is often encountered in religious texts (for example, in the Book of Going Forth by Day [Book of the Dead]); he is pictured cutting off the head of a snake. This scene represents the traditional theme of the sun god in the act of destroying the evil power of Apep; the tomcat is but one of the many manifestations of Re.
- Kleinsgütl, Dagmar. Feliden in Altägypten. Beiträge zur Ägyptologie, 14. Vienna, 1997.
- Malek, J. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. London, 1993.
- Osborn, Dale. The Mammals of Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1998.
- Scandone Matthiae, Gabriela. “L'Occhio del Sole: Le divinità feline femminile dell'Egitto faraonico.” Studi epigrafici e linguistici sul Vicino Oriente antico 10 (1993), 10–19.
- Stück, L. “Katz.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 367–370. Wiesbaden, 1976.
Aleid de Jong