Bubastis (Tel Basta) and the false cat-god of Egypt.

Small statue of the cat-headed goddess

In ancient times many countries or regions were closely associated with a particular god. It was not uncommon for place names and even personal names to contain elements of, or reference to, the god's name to show reverence or allegiance. To the pagan lands surrounding Israel, Jewish worship of Yahweh (the God of the Bible) was thought to be the same. During the times of Israel's faithfulness, perhaps the only thing that stood out to them as different was that Israel only worshipped ONE God and claimed Him to be the only true God. In these other lands, while strongly associated with a particular god, the people often worshipped additional deities on the side plus they generally acknowledged the deities of other areas or lands - though usually claiming their own to be better or stronger.

With God's biblical revelation that He is the only God, with all others being merely so-called gods, truly false gods, God often displayed His awesome power and sovereignty through His judgment. Many of the place names in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, that were singled out by name for specific judgment were mentioned for one of two reasons: (1) It was a major city, truly or symbolically held to be the strength of a particular nation, or (2) It was associated with a particular false-god, held by the people to be the source of their strength. Both of these reasons applied to many locales.

Huge statute of the goddess Bast being reconstructed at Tel Basta (2005)

Egypt was one such land that claimed numerous gods to be the source of her strength and protection. God clearly showed, a number of times, that He was far greater than these gods (who are not) through specific and prophesied defeats of the nations and those who followed after these gods. For example; the miraculous signs performed by Moses, at the time of the Exodus, were each a specific judgment on these gods including Pharaoh, who was considered to be at least a half-god.

Many years later, God gave specific prophecy that Egypt would fall in judgment. Part of the passage found in Ezekiel, listing a number of specific place names, is as follows:

Ezekiel 30:17-19 The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will fall by the sword, and the cities themselves will go into captivity. 18 Dark will be the day at Tahpanhes when I break the yoke of Egypt; there her proud strength will come to an end. She will be covered with clouds, and her villages will go into captivity. 19 So I will inflict punishment on Egypt, and they will know that I am the LORD.'" (NIV)

 Site of the temple of Bast... nothing but formerly buried ruins

More of the temple ruins. Notice far background about 1/3 from left:
location of huge statute previously shown under reconstruction

The destruction of these great cities, cities displaying the professed power of man and gods, would show clearly that they were looking to false gods for protection. The living God alone can tell the future and guarantee its' fulfillment. As such, all these false gods of Egypt where nothing more than idols made by man.

Ezekiel 30:13 "'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: "'I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images in Memphis. No longer will there be a prince in Egypt, and I will spread fear throughout the land. (NIV)

Notice how, elsewhere, Jeremiah says that the judgment is on a particular god associated with a specific location. For example, Amon the god of Thebes...

Jeremiah 46:25 The LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: "I am about to bring punishment on Amon god of Thebes, on Pharaoh, on Egypt and her gods and her kings, and on those who rely on Pharaoh. (NIV)

Sometimes the god is held to be national, such as the sun-god who was one of the most prominent in the pantheon of Egyptian gods...

Jeremiah 43:10-13 Then say to them, 'This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I will send for my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and I will set his throne over these stones I have buried here; he will spread his royal canopy above them. 11 He will come and attack Egypt, bringing death to those destined for death, captivity to those destined for captivity, and the sword to those destined for the sword. 12 He will set fire to the temples of the gods of Egypt; he will burn their temples and take their gods captive. As a shepherd wraps his garment around him, so will he wrap Egypt around himself and depart from there unscathed. 13 There in the temple of the sun in Egypt he will demolish the sacred pillars and will burn down the temples of the gods of Egypt.'" (NIV)

A city directly referenced no where else in Scriptures appears among the prominent cities focused on in these passages of judgment. It is Bubastis. Again from Ezekiel...

Ezekiel 30:17a The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will fall by the sword...

Bubastis was a city of Lower Egypt located on the west bank of the Pelusiac branch (the easternmost branch) of the Nile, located approximately 40 miles from Memphis and thirty miles north-northeast of Cairo. More specifically the temple was on the royal canal almost at the join to this ancient branch of the Nile (as noted by Herodotus, Histories Book II, Chapter 59). The name Bubastis comes directly from its' patron goddess, Bast (alt. Bastet), meaning "house of Bast" or "house of Bastet." The hieroglyphic name is "Pe-bast (alt. Pi Bastis)," as the "house of Bast" was represented. In Hebrew the name appears transliterated as Pi-beseth, gaining the new meaning "mouth of loathing."

 Head from another large idol of Bast

Bast was probably the most famous Egyptian goddess after Isis. According to Egyptian mythology Bast was said to be the daughter/wife of Ra (the sun god). Her association with Ra - arguably the most powerful and widely worshipped god in Egypt who was said to be the creator (even of the lesser gods) - added to her prominence. Representations of Bast in drawings and statutes portray her as a cat or a woman with the head of a cat. (In later Egyptian mythology, due to Greek influence, Bast's association as sun goddess was changed to a moon goddess, probably due to the Greeks associating her with Artemis.)

Bast was portrayed as a wild goddess, full of blessings to those in her favor but capable of great wrath to those who were not. She was sometimes listed as one of Ra's avenging deities who punish the sinful and the national enemies of Egypt. It is not improbable that God singled out Bubastis (and by association the goddess Bast) solely to show that He was far greater than this deity-who-is-not that claimed to be capable of punishing other nations and their gods.

 Hieroglyphics showing captives found in ruins of temple to Bast

In keeping with her portrayal, cats were sacred to the worship of Bast and to harm one was consider a great transgression. Cats, of course, were useful to their ancient society through killing vermin such as rats (which would have subsequently reduced the spread of disease). Even as cats sometimes kill or warn of snakes, one of the enemies Bast is portrayed as defended her parent/consort against is the serpent (perhaps generally used to show evil but, as such, just another competing deity called Apophis). Accenting this mythology, the light reflected in the eyes of a cat at night was considered to be the sun carried through the night by the cat. This light was said to help the sun god Ra make it from sunset to sunrise, with the cat killing the serpent to ensure a new day would begin.

 Cat (Bast) killing the snake (Apophis)

The worship of Bast was widespread and her cult apparently had a great deal of power. Shrines and items honoring her were found at Sakkara and Dendera, but the largest by far was Bubastis. The ancient historian Herodotus (who wrote circa 430-424 B.C. and called the location Bubastis) described her temple here as a place of great splendor and beauty, rivaled only by the temples of Ra and Horus.

"Other temples are greater and more costly, but none more pleasing to the eye than this." (Herodotus, Histories Book II, Chapter 137)

Bust of Herodotus

Herodotus elsewhere describes Bubastis as the seat of one of the primary annual festivals of the Egyptians. This is his description of the festival of Bast, held around April or May.

"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. 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. 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, Histories Book II, Chapter 60)

Certainly the debauchery and wickedness of this annual festival, not to mention the apparent popularity of the same, all warranted God's attention in judgment. In terms of God's law, the focus of their worship, turning god into an image of nature - specifically the cat - was clearly proclaimed to be wrong.

Classic cat-god statue circa 664-525 B.C.

Another cat-god statue (dating unknown)

Exodus 20:3-5a "You shall have no other gods before me. 4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them... (NIV)

While it's true that this admonition against worshipping images and items of nature was specifically given to the Israelites, it is rooted in His eternal law revealed from creation to the present, that He alone is God.

Romans 1:20-23 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (NIV)

The Egyptians had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images, such as cats, big time. The largest cat cemetery ever found is at Bubastis (it could, perhaps, better be described as a series of cemeteries). Other significant graveyards were found at Saqqara and Dra Abu el-Nagga at Thebes, plus some lesser ones at Dendera, Abydos and Dakhla Oasis. Yes, that's right, dating back to around 900 B.C., all these elaborate cemeteries just for cats! All mummified in ritual adoration for the afterlife and in tribute to this pagan goddess.

Cat mummy

God's judgment, as prophesied by His prophets, certainly came. The Persians took the town and razed the walls, the ruins of which now bear the name Tel-Basta (and are located near the modern southeastern Delta town of Zagazig). Bubastis was certainly not a minor town in its' day, as there are historic suggestions that it may even have been the temporary capital of Egypt during the 22nd and 23rd dynasties. Obliteration of this important town by the Persians did not stop the worship of Bast (Bastet) throughout the country and even at this location. History records that subsequent generations continued this cult. As late as the Ptolemaic Period (circa 332-30 B.C.) and the following Roman Period, cats continued to be mummified in great numbers.

"Dead cats are taken away to sacred buildings in the town of Bubastis, where they are embalmed and buried." (Herodotus, Histories Book II, Chapter 67)

Another cat mummy

Consider these other quotations and inscription also showing their cultic devotion to the cat goddess.

"Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who had accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired." (Diodorus Siculus, Greek Historian circa 49 B.C.)

"You are the Great Cat, the avenger of the gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy circle; you are indeed...the Great Cat." (Inscription on a royal tomb at Thebes)

Mask for cat mummy

Egyptians mummified cats in virtually the same manner as they did humans (and occasionally some other animals). The bodies were embalmed, wrapped in linen and sometimes decorated. Although the people worshipped the cats, it is untrue that Egytians never killed them. An x-ray study of fifty-five mummified cats shows that nearly all were less than a year old and that several had broken necks. It is likely that temple priests may have killed kittens to control the temple cat population and then sold their mummies to the common folk as offerings to the goddess Bast. Cat amulets and statues were also part of the commercialized fare.

Small statute of the cat-headed goddess Bast

The temple at Bubastis, where these priests would have served, stood in the center of the city, virtually surrounded by canals connected to the local branch of the Nile. It was down in a valley from the surrounding city, enabling the populace to have a good view of what was in the temple compound. While excavations are ongoing, the temple appears to have been a square building made of red granite. The sacred enclosure included a grove of tall trees, something unique to this temple, holding a shrine to the goddess within them.

A portion of one of the red granite pillars.
The pillar was made to look like a bundle of papyrus reeds.

Archaeologists continuing to catalog and uncover ruins of the temple

In summary, while it's easy for our modern western mindset to mock these ancient practices, we're not far removed from them. Today, the neo-pagans have revived many of these practices directly (and yes, there are modern worshippers of the goddess Bast). More generally our society has created modern false-gods and idols, molding God into who we want Him to be, rather than whom He has revealed himself to be. It doesn't matter what your false god looks like (physically or mentally), because apart from the salvation found only in Jesus Christ the result will the same: God's judgment.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (NIV)

The ancient well at Bubastis. Local Christian (Coptic) legend holds that Mary and Joseph stopped here with the child Jesus while fleeing Herod's slaughter of the innocents in Judea. It is not improbable that they could have, since this was a public source of water located on a major route through Egypt.

The women and children above and below are the ones hired to
weed and clean the site... jobs considered to menial by the culture for men.

Notice the hand pointing towards the cartouche (hieroglyphic name)

Part of the upper supports for the temple roof... these sat atop the pillars

Statue of Rameses II from Bubastis is here.