Assimilation and Evolution of the Cat Goddess: PART II

Prior to Bast’s association with Hathor, the cat goddess might have originated from the god Bes, whose name in Nubian means cat.  Bes, a short dwarf-like figure with a cat face, sometimes wearing a cat skin with a tail hanging down to his feet, came from ancient Nubia and resembles a Sudanese dancer from the Dinka tribe.  Bes, known as the god of dance, also protected the home and infants from evil.  Perhaps the fact that Bes was a champion of children and dance crossed over to the cat goddess Bast. 



God Bes

Sistrum with Cat on top

Sistrum with Cat on top

Bast, the ultimate mother figure, is often represented holding a sistrum, a musical instrument based on the form of the ankh. The sistrum, a type of rattle called a “shaker” made of bronze, gold or silver, was most probably of African origin.  It was held in the hand and shaken to emit a loud shrill sound during dances, music festivals and rituals for Isis/Hathor.  However, according to Virgil, the army used it much as a trumpet is used for reveille today, to call troops together (Virgil, Aeneid, VIII, 696). The rounded top represents a woman’s womb, while the bottom handle symbolizes the male phallus.  The rounded loop has four bars representing the four elements of nature:  fire, water, air, and earth that shake when moved upon the bend of the sistrum.  According to Plutarch, the body of a cat with a human face often decorated Sistrums.  Sometimes one side of the Sistrum had the face of Isis, symbolic of birth, and on the other side, the face of Nephthys, symbolic of death (Oldfield Howey, 2003). Both represented man’s eternal journey from birth to death.  Isis, herself, would later be depicted holding a sistrum too. 

Isis Holding a Sistrum

Isis Holding a Sistrum
Roman Period 180-190AD
Courtesy Archeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete



Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 


Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats


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