It is sensible to ask why ancient Egyptians worshipped deities (gods) and then ask why one of them was a cat (Bastet). There are various theories on why humans created a range of gods in the ancient world. These are my thoughts. Bastet means ‘She of the City of Bast’.
Why have deities?
Ancient Egyptians worshipped deities for the same reason that people worship a single god today. They do it for comfort, to find security and to feel better. There seems to be a natural human desire to worship a higher being. Worshipping a higher being is in humankind’s DNA although as civilisation develops this concept is waning.
Ancient Egyptians believed that the deities represented natural or social phenomena. I understand this to mean that they believed that the gods controlled social events and nature which would impact their lives in the future.
Therefore in order to try and improve their lives the ancient Egyptians tried to please the deities to gain favour. They did this by offering gifts to the gods, which were sacrifices and bronze effigies of Bastet. The sacrifices were mummified cats. In order to appease the fearful gods young cats were deliberately killed so that cat mummies could be made. Creating mummies was a commercial enterprise undertaken by the priesthood. This fatally undermines the concept of ancient Egyptians loving cats.
Why is Bastet a cat?
It seems to me that there are two main reasons. These are my thoughts. Firstly, there was an earlier god called Sekhmet represented by a lion. She was a war goddess and feared. One of her abilities was to protect people from their enemies. A new more helpful goddess was needed and Bastet was gradually created as the domestic cat became more important and respected in the lives of ancient Egyptians. There is an ancient story of Sekhmet drowning her anger in the sacred waters of Philae which turned her into a smaller domestic cat. This helped the transition from a lioness god to a more friendly cat god.
Secondly, as the ancient Egyptians believed that divine behaviour governed nature, and as the deities represented natural phenomena, it was logical to chose a cat to represent the god Bastet as the cat played a big role in the lives of ancient Egyptians. They had to choose some sort of tangible idol and capable animals are a natural choice. For instance the jaguar in the Amazon jungle was worshipped thousands of years ago. It quite possibly still is in order to gain some of the powers of the big cat. People turn to strong animals to take from them the animal’s powers. This is still the case today. The Chinese believe that eating a tiger’s penis makes them better in bed. Yep, human superstition is alive and well. It is natural for humans to choose animals to represent natural phenomena. Strong animals are the embodiment of nature.
The bottom line is that the god Bastet was a human construct to make people feel better, to assuage anxiety and reduce fear arising from day to day living. The cat was chosen as a tangible representation because of its abilities as is evident in the lion. Life can be pretty scary for humans today and it was more so in Egypt about four thousand years ago. People were scared some of the time.
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