History Religion

Bubastis and other cats in the Ancient World

Why cats have been so Popular till now.

In Iasos, in modern day Turkey, on the Aegean coast, Gaius Kaninios Synallassôn and his wife Kaninia Stratou dedicated an altar with incense to Anubis, Isis Pelagia and Isis Bubastis.

Dedicating altars was a common practice in the ancient Mediterranean. Perhaps as thanks or a promise kept to the gods.

The stone is damaged and the identity of the final divinity has been identified from the first three letters of her name only. 

It is a strange combination of gods. Anubis was the god of death, Isis Pelagia the goddess of the seas and Isis-Bubastis the feline goddess of feeling good.

Anubis and Bubastis make sense to modern sensibilities, the cat and the dog. But what are they doing with the goddess of the seas? And what is the cat goddess doing so far from home?

To work out why the goddess was venerated in Turkey, Greece and Italy, we must return to Egypt. 

The goddess Sekhmet in the British Museum’s Divine Feminine exhibition

Cats in Egypt

All domesticated cats descend from the wild cats which originated in this region of the world. 

Cats and humans likely became associated following the introduction of agriculture and storage of grain in granaries and silos (Around 4,000 BCE). These attracted mice and rats, which in term attracted the animals that hunted them. Wild cats are effective killing machines, killing 10,000 small rodents a year. Unlike snakes, which also hunt small rodents, they were non-toxic and less dangerous to humans. Over time cats and humans became closer, leading to full domestication (c. 2,000 – 1,000 BCE).

In the Egyptian language the word for Cat is ‘miu’, an onomatopoeic name. 

The Egyptians love cats.

Perhaps part of the cat’s appeal was its similarity to the more fearsome big cats. The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq states “When a man smells of myrrh, his wife is a cat to him. When a man grieves, his wife is a lioness to him”.

Some interesting tales have survived about the Egyptian love of cats.

According to Polyaenus, when Cambryses, a Persian, invaded Egypt he used animals as shields for his army knowing that the Egyptians would not risk killing them. 

Herodotus offers a reverse version of this tale. When the Assyrians invaded Egypt, the night before the Battle of Pelusium mice ate the quivers, bow strings and shield straps of the Assyrian army. The Egyptian army who marched with cats did not have this problem, as their cats ate any mice, and they trounced the Assyrians. 

Both tales might just be apocryphal. Nevertheless they provide evidence that Egypt was strongly associated with cats and cat worship at this time.

Cats have many particular resonances for ancient Egyptians, linked to Hathor and Sekhmet, but also to Ra. The cat was commonly depicted attacking the Apophis snake.

The sun god Ra, in the form of Great Cat, slays the snake Apophis (Public Domain, shared by Eisnel)

The cat’s most famous identity was the goddess Bastet, who became popular during the late period. This was a period of internal political disorder within Egypt when different groups and rulers sought power. One of these families was later identified as the 22nd Dynasty (aka the Bubastite Dynasty named after the city of Bubastis in the Delta from whence they came).

Bastet had been worshipped in the city for millennia. Her name means ‘She of the city of Bast’ (Bubastis is the Greek name for the city and the goddess). The earliest datable image from 2,800 BCE depicts the goddess with the head of a lioness.

During the 22nd Dynasty, the city became the de facto cultural capital of Egypt (although it did not replace Memphis or Tanis) and the Bubastite kings added to the city’s fabric, expanding the local temple to Bastet.

One of the kings of the 22nd Dynasty was called Pamiu (or Tom Cat).

Bastet seems to have been a goddess of happiness, fecundity, good times. Herodotus reports a festival to the goddess in which he says licentiousness and drunkenness prevail:

When the people are on their way to Bubastis, they go by river, a great number in every boat, men and women together. Some of the women make a noise with rattles, others play flutes all the way, while the rest of the women, and the men, sing and clap their hands. [2] As they travel by river to Bubastis, whenever they come near any other town they bring their boat near the bank; then some of the women do as I have said, while some shout mockery of the women of the town; others dance, and others stand up and lift their skirts. They do this whenever they come alongside any riverside town. [3] But when they have reached Bubastis, they make a festival with great sacrifices, and more wine is drunk at this feast than in the whole year besides. It is customary for men and women (but not children) to assemble there to the number of seven hundred thousand, as the people of the place say.

Herodotus, 2:60

It has been argued that ‘bast’, the colloquial word for happiness in Arabic derives from the goddess’ name. The folk etymology that ‘puss’ (as in Puss in Boots) derives from her name has been discredited. It’s more likely derived from the sound people make to attract a cat’s attention.

She was also associated with New Years. Her name has been found on blue-glazed flasks given as New Year’s gifts.

While Bubastis was not widely venerated in the Greek world, the cat’s association with fertility was known by educated Greeks. Plutarch writes:

“the cat they symbolize the moon because of the varied colouring, nocturnal activity, and fecundity of the animal. For the cat is said to bring forth first one, then two and three and four and five, thus increasing the number by one until she reaches seven,2 so that she brings forth in all twenty-eight, the number also of the moon’s illuminations”.

Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 60

If Bubastis was a friendly goddess, she could also turn fierce. She was often twinned and then later merged with Sekhmet the lioness. One text says ‘She rages like Sekhmet and she is friendly like Bastet’.

Ancient Egyptian religion had complex overlapping identities of divinities who become identified and merged with each other. From the late period onwards, the goddess Isis became the predominant goddess in the Egyptian pantheon. Around this time Bastet became increasingly identified with Isis.

Another strange aspect of Egyptian religion are the animal mummies. Millions have been found. These were born and brought up in special catteries attached to temples. The cats were likely killed young in order to mummify them to meet the demand of pilgrims.

Cat mummy held in the British Museum

Greece and Rome

The cat was probably brought to Greece and the Aegean islands by humans. Evidence for cats is quite long in the region. A skeleton of a large cat was found in Cyprus dated to c. 6,000 BCE. Several images of cats have been found from the Late Bronze age including frescos on Akrotiri on the Island of Thera, seal stones and crockery from Crete, and Mycenaean daggers. Donald Engels suggests that the domestic cat was present in Greece from around 1,600 BCE.

Its popularity was again linked to its role as a ‘mouser’, a destroyer of rodents.

In Greece, ferrets and snakes had earlier filled this role. Indeed, earlier versions of ancient animal fables like Aesop’s often feature a ferret where later versions feature a cat. 

A Man caught a Weasel, and was about to kill it. The little animal prayed earnestly for his life. “You will not be so unkind, “said he to the Man,” as to slay a poor creature who kills your Mice for you?” “For me!” answered the Man; “that’s a good joke. For me, you say, as if you did not catch them more for your own pleasure than for my profit. And in respect of eating and gnawing my victuals, you know that you do as much harm as the Mice themselves. You must make some better excuse than that, before I shall feel inclined to spare you” Having said this, he strangled the Weasel without more ado.

The weasel and the man

A cruel end.

It is also interesting to note that cheetahs may have been common on the streets of Classical Athens, as they were kept for hunting and walked on leashes for exercise. 

The cats were brought over to the islands and mainland Greece and Turkey on ships, where they may have been considered the presiding spirits of the vessel.

Then as now, cats were aloof, proud and haughty creatures. Donald Engels has suggested that “the Romans found it difficult to appreciate the cat’s more “Greek” values. To the Greeks, freedom (eleutheria), independence, and autonomy (autonomia) were the most important human concerns” (Engels, 2001, 93).

Yet these creatures were much loved. 

Memorial showing a standing youth, the head in profile, holds a small bird with a crouching cat (on left). It has been identified as the work of an artist who was possibly trained in the workshop of the sculptor Agorakritos and worked also on the Parthenon frieze. 430 – 420 BCE

Divine cats in the Roman world

The base of an Offertory Table from Roman Alesia, in modern day France, depicted a male figure holding a cat in his raised tunic. Given his unusual stance (exposing his genitals) this is perhaps a hybrid Gallic god. Engels has argued he is a follower of the goddess Isis. (Engels, 2001, 120)

The goddess Isis was popular all over the Mediterranean in the Roman period. It has been suggested that the goddess spread from Egypt via trade ports like Byblos, Delos and Puteoli.

Although educated Romans may have known about the goddess Bubastis, this aspect of Isis was not common.

Bubastis is a relatively obscure figure outside of Egypt. In his comprehensive catalog of evidence for the Isis cults, Laurent Bricault has recorded only a handful of cases where she is named on an inscription.

The most intriguing of these inscriptions must come from Iasos, on the Aegean Sea, where Gaius and Caninia dedicated a statue to Anubis, Isis Pelagia and Isis Bubastis. The inscription dates from the Roman imperial period.

Laurent Bricault argues that the inscription was possibly dedicated to ask for help ahead of Canina’s pregnancy. 

Mistress of joy and dancing, protectress of maternity, in Egypt she had woven direct links between Hathor and Isis. Outside of Egypt, she seems to have found a place in the Isiac micro-pantheon, either by being associated with or assimilated to Isis, or by preserving a certain degree of autonomy. Her role of protectress of young women, women in labor and children drew to her numerous worshipers. Here, the joint presence of Isis Pelagia and Isis Bubastis perhaps becomes clearer if one remembers that in Egypt Isis, Lady of the North Wind, had the capacity both to unleash (or calm) storms and to give breath to those giving birth, like Hathor. It is without doubt this goddess with the two different facets who is involved here, probably because Caninia was expecting a child.

Bricault, 2020, 153

Bricault also notes that coins depicting Isis with a sail were minted in Iasos.

Rome and the surrounding regions seemed to have been an important centre for the cult.

In Ostia, the Port of Rome, an inscription has been found naming the goddess. Caltila Diodora Bubastiaca, a priestess, dedicated a silver statue of Venus and two gold wreaths to her. 

The Treasury accounts of the Temple of Diana in Nemi lists the items dedicated to Isis and Bubastis. Bubastis received silk garments, a marble wash basin, water vessel, golden belt and key (Engels, 2002, 122-3).

While in Rome, a tombstone dedicated to Ostoria Successa, mentions that she was a priestess to Bubastis. 

These inscriptions evidence for sanctuaries or priesthoods to Bubastis in this region.

Three other dedications have been found outside Egypt and the region surrounding Rome. A dedication has been found to “Isis Augusta and Bubastis”, in what is today Croatia. In Porto Torres, Sardinia, Caius Cuspius Felix, dedicated to the goddess. The altar was decorated with symbols of the Egyptian gods including a situla (vase), sistrum (rattle) and caduceus (staff). While a third inscription found near Seville is dedicated to ‘the young mistress Bubastis’ (“Dom(i)nulae Bubasti”).

These pieces of evidence are perhaps too elusive to draw conclusions on the nature of the Bubastis cult but they suggest it was not unknown in large and cosmopolitan settlements around the Mediterranean.

Faience amulet from Birmingham Museum

The benign influence of the feline goddess may have continued into the early modern world, in ways not always fortunate for the cat. Engels links Midsummer’s Eve bonfires and the Cat Festival in Ypres to Bubastis, as well as an attestation of a cult of Diana in Moderna, Italy in the early modern period.

Perhaps Bubastis’ power was recognised in the fear and hate the cats attracted in medieval Europe. To this day you can still identify a ‘wrong ‘un’ by the way they treat cats. But there remains something uncanny about the cat, perhaps something of the divine.

Read more

Isis Pelagia: Images, Names and Cults of a Goddess of the Seas by Laurent Bricault

The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat by Donald W. Engels

The Cat in Ancient Egypt by Jaromir Malek

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics