The Goddess as Cat
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The Goddess as Cat: From Deity to Demon
by Susan Dawson
"It is in Ancient Egypt where the cat flourished. This was the time when popular religious belief was that the gods manifested themselves through animals. The animal was not worshipped per se, but it was viewed as a divine incarnation of their gods. It was during this time that the lion-headed Sekhmet and the cat–headed Bastet were paired together.
The two, as one, represented and came to be thought of as dual aspects of both goddesses.
Statue of the Goddess Sekhmet, 18th Dynasty
Sekhmet, was deemed fierce and dangerous, while Bastet was regarded as gentle and protective.
The reasons behind the sacredness of the cat in Egypt at this time were several.
Firstly, the cat is an incredibly fertile animal. A mother cat is able to reproduce as early as five months of age and on average has four kittens in a litter. This alone was reason enough for reverence by any ancient people. Maintenance of high birth rates was of great importance to early societies. Bastet’s greatest role was as goddess of motherhood and fertility. Mother cats also were willing to sacrifice themselves to save their kittens from harm.
Another reason the cat was so revered was as hunter and protector. Cats are hunters instinctually. As such, they protected the grain of these agrarian societies and its people from disease by keeping the rodent population at bay. As a killer of snakes and scorpions, the Egyptian cat embodied divine forces and protected them from evil, as well as supported fertility.
Additionally, the cat’s eyes with their reflective nature and their own waxing and waning pupil, made them associate of the sun-god Ra as well as moon goddesses. This is a very important association for the male cat. As such, every night Ra, in the form of a cat, would journey to the underworld and fight the snake-demon Apophis to ensure his return as the sun god.
"The Great Cat of Heliopolis" killing the enney of the Sun, Apophis
(credit: kairoinfo4u )
In addition, Bastet was known as goddess of music and dance. She was welcomed into Egyptian homes also as goddess of the hearth and pleasure and protector of pregnant women.
Another indication of the cats’ popularity as well as its sacredness, are the thousands of cat mummies and statuettes that were discovered. The multitudes of cat mummies reiterate its value and importance in Egyptian life. Preparation for the afterlife extended to the temple and the family cat. One did not want to be found out as the killer of a sacred cat, as it was punishable by death. Clearly, the cat was held sacred to the Egyptians.
(Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)
The cat outside of Egypt Though the names of the goddesses changed, some of their associations did not. The Greeks identified their most popular goddess, Artemis with Bastet. Artemis was also a fertility goddess and goddess of the hunt. These two aspects perpetuated the link between she and the cat.
As noted earlier, Artemis was linked with Diana as Lady of the Animals. Diana of Rome was also a fertility goddess and both she and Artemis was said to have been able to change into a cat and take refuge in the moon.
The statue of Artemis/Diana at Ephesus is known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. She is depicted as a many breasted, mother goddess figure.
(National Archaeological Museum, Naples)
She is covered in many of her animal associates, including the cat. This is an important link for the perception of the cat. As an associate of the goddesses, the cat remained a protected and revered member of pagan religions, but later, when Diana became identified with the witches of Europe, both the women and the cats would suffer the wrath of the new religion.
The sacred sistrum would link Bastet to Isis, and Isis would link the cat to the color black. Some myths say Bastet is the daughter of Isis and Osiris. Isis represents the link to the underworld and the dark of night, not as an evil association, but one filled with the moon and natural progression of the cycle of life. The black cat is sacred to her.
Bastet holding a sistrum in her right hand
It is worth noting other fertility goddess and their cat associations, as they all contribute to the rejection of the cat as a positive symbol. Initially positive, these goddesses were also subjected to reversal of the pagan understanding of them and were deemed negative.
Cybele, another Roman goddess of fertility, and noted Lady of the Animals, is pulled by a pair of lions.
Cybele in her chariot, drawn by lions
The Norse fertility goddess Freyja is pulled in her chariot by a pair of cats.
The Goddess Freyja, riding in her cat-pulled wagon
In association with Freyja, the cat is again seen linked to the underworld and death. Like Isis, Freyja was known for escorting the dead to the underworld. She was a popular and positive fertility goddess that was subject to Christian manipulations and her actions were used as demonstrations of “the evils of paganism”.
Hecate, though not a major goddess, was associated with cats via her link to Artemis. This made her an associate goddess of the moon and fertility. However, Hecate was also the goddess of magic and witchcraft.
As a “triple” goddess, she was representative of women of three different ages.
Hecate, inv. 1922, Roman after Hellenistic original
Though her followers believed she could bring both good and bad fortune, her magic was not believed to be evil. Later, Christian tradition would focus on the negative and would dub her “queen of the witches” (“Hecate”).