History tells us that the cats hiding in the loft of Bethlehem’s stable on Christmas Eve had themselves been revered for generations. Archeologists have found engravings and pottery that depict cats from the late Stone Age dating 10,000 years ago. The community cats outside your door evolved from cats that hunted rodents in these Fertile Crescent farming communities and eventually migrated outward on sailing ships and caravans crossing continents.
It was in ancient Egypt about 5,000 years ago that the first known feline-headed deity emerged. “Mafdet” had cheetah or African wild cat features and ruled over legal justice. As Wikipedia reports it, Mafdet ripped out the hearts of wrongdoers and delivered them to the pharaoh’s feet. It certainly sounds like wild cat justice, doesn’t it?
Amulets with cat heads and litters of kittens came into fashion 4,000 years ago and were worn by everyday Egyptians. Two feline-headed goddess ‘sisters’ who were worshipped at that time included 1) Sekhmet, the ferocious and vengeful lion-headed goddess of war and 2) Bastet, the fearsome protector of the pharaoh and cat-headed goddess of home and family.
At the height of Bastet’s popularity, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians (no children) would make an annual pilgrimage to pay their respects. The festival of Bastet at Bubastis was the most joyous and fervent holiday in the Egyptian calendar. Like today’s Mardi Gras, it featured drinking, dancing, making music, and (according to Herodotus after his 5th century BC visit) the raising of the skirts by women who were freed from all constraints. MEOW!!
Bubastis is an active archaeological site of red granite ruins with the Temple of Bastet one of its largest buildings. When visiting Cairo, go north along the Nile River to nearby Tell-Basta, which was lost for centuries and is the biblical city of Pi-Beseth mentioned in Ezekiel. When the temple was first excavated in 1887 and again in 1889 CE, over 300,000 mummified cats were found.
Another Bastet temple from around 230 BC was recently discovered under the streets of modern-day Alexandria Egypt, considered one of its most important discoveries in the last hundred years. The ancient site had some 600 cat statues.
The Goddess Bastet’s popularity as a deity declined with the rise of Christianity during the Roman Empire and the medieval persecution of cats. She is sometimes portrayed with a litter of kittens at her feet but more often as a sitting cat gazing ahead. Jewelry and other art featuring Bastet continues to be popular and make cat lovers purr.
This season, give the gift that benefits cats for life: spay/neuter and tip the left ear to prove it’s fixed. May your home and holidays be blessed with the purring of an eartipped cat curled up in your lap!
This article by Head Cat Susan Kumpf appeared in the December 2021 issue of Positively Haywood by Vicinitus.