Bastet, Ubasti, Pasht
Papyrus texts and engravings in Lower Egypt, Herodotus's Histories
Sometimes referred to as the daughter of Isis and Osiris
Bast is best known as the cat-headed goddess of ancient Egypt. Evidence of Bast has been dated as early as 2600 bce. Early myths suggest that she was the daughter of the sun god Ra, though later she was popularly known as the daughter of the goddess Isis (pronounced EYE-sis) and the god Osiris (pronounced oh-SYE-ris). In these later myths, she was also believed to be the sister of the god Horus.
Bast became closely associated with Sekhmet, a lion-headed goddess from Upper Egypt. Sekhmet was considered a warrior goddess, while Bast, being symbolized by a domesticated cat rather than a lion, was a gentler goddess who brought good fortune. Bast was the protector of cats and children, as well as the royal house of the pharaoh, or ruler of Egypt. Because of her early association with Ra, Bast was considered a sun goddess; however, later Greek descriptions of Bast referred to her instead as a goddess of the moon.
In one early myth, Bast protected Ra from his mortal enemy, a serpent named Apep. For her service, she was given the serpent of wisdom known as Uraeus (pronounced your-AY-us). Symbols of this serpent became associated with the pharaohs, and were worn as headpieces to indicate that they were protected by Bast and Ra.
Bast in Context
The ancient Egyptians were among the first to document the domestication, or taming, of cats so they could live with humans. As far back as 4000 bce, Egyptians used cats to keep rodent populations under control near areas of stored grain. Cats proved so important to maintaining grain supplies that they were considered sacred, or worthy of religious respect. They became common in many households, and when a family's cat died, the family went into a period of mourning. In fact, cats held a special place in the hearts of ancient Egyptians even after death: in 1888, a farmer near Beni Hasan uncovered a tomb containing tens of thousands of dead cats that had been mummified, or dried and preserved, thousands of years before.
Key Themes and Symbols
As the protector of cats, the main symbol associated with Bast is the cat. Another important symbol is the sistrum, a handheld musical instrument containing discs of metal that make noise when shaken. In ancient Egyptian art, Bast is often depicted with a human body and the head of a cat, holding a sistrum in one of her hands.
Bast in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The goddess Bast was mentioned in Book 2 of Histories by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century bce. Herodotus described the annual festival held at Bubastis, the city named in honor of Bast. Icons of Bast, depicting the cat-headed goddess, remain popular in modern times as decorative symbols of ancient Egypt. Bast appeared as a character in various Marvel comic book series beginning in 1966, and was the subject of a graphic novel trilogy entitled The Sandman Presents: Bast (2003). The goddess is mentioned in the 2004 film Catwoman as the source of Catwoman's unusual powers.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
In many ways, the ancient Egyptians treated cats much like modern pet owners do. Some historians claim that cats were important to Egyptians only because they controlled rodent populations. Why do you think domesticated animals such as cats and dogs remain popular in modern times? What functions, if any, do you think pets serve? Do you think we give our pets as much respect and adoration as the ancient Egyptians did?
Inviolable sanctuaries in Iran used to seek protection from political or religious persecution.
Bast means sanctuary or asylum. Mosques, holy shrines, and foreign embassy compounds have most frequently been used as bast. Although the period of the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) is when the most famous bast were taken, instances existed in early Islamic Iran. In April 1905, proconstitutionalist merchants, bankers, and retailers took bast at the Shah Abd al-Azim shrine in Rayy. The most celebrated bast in Iranian history took place in July 1906, when between twelve thousand and sixteen thousand Tehrani demonstrators took bast at the British legation in Tehran, while about one thousand clergymen left the capital in protest for Qom. The bast at the British compound was instrumental in the granting of a constitution, and the creation of a national assembly by the monarch, Mozaffar al-Din Qajar. In turn, the anticonstitutionalist cleric Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri took bast at the Shah Abd al-Azim shrine with some followers for ninety days, to protest the granting of the constitution. At times, the inviolability of bast was breached, when for instance Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi was expelled from the Shah Abd al-Azim shrine during the reign of Naser al-Din Shah. After the constitutionalist period, the majles (national assembly) was also considered a bast. Mohammad Mossadegh took refuge there in 1953.
see also constitutional revolution; mossadegh, mohammad; mozaffar al-din qajar; naser al-din shah; nuri, fazlollah.
Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785–1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Browne, Edward G. The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1910.
bast / bast/ • n. (also bast fiber) fibrous material from the phloem of a plant, used as fiber in matting, cord, etc.