The Pharaohs had ruled Egypt for ages when a revolution took place in the local pantheon; around 2000 BC, a new deity named Bastet appeared. First of all a protector of royal children, this kind goddess took on the appearance of a cat, represented lying down, nursing her young, crouching on her rear axle, or even standing, a woman with a cat's head equipped with the wicker basket of midwives and the sistre, one of the very first musical instruments. Who doesn't know about these bronze effigies in the greatest museums?
Soon inducted goddess of music and dance, protector of doctors, magicians and midwives, Bastet ended up ruling over the other Egyptian deities in the Saite era, a thousand years before our era. Its fame spread beyond borders, arousing the curiosity of the Greek historian Herodotus, who came to mingle with the pilgrims attending the Bastet festivals, which were held in the time of Bubastis, located in the heart of the Nile delta.
But how did the cats get to Egypt? There is a mystery here. Some argue that the animals were imported from Persia, already domesticated, at random from the war campaigns; others claim that the cats came from the Libyan desert, and that they followed the enlisted slaves to build the pyramids. Ancient Egyptians believed cats descended from the constellation of Leo, or even from Atlantis. No hypothesis, plausible or fanciful, could be verified! Egyptian mythology, on the other hand, sheds light on the birth of Bastet, the guardian goddess of all cats in the land of the Pharaohs.
Everyone knows how the sun burns its burning rays on the desert expanses of Egypt, reducing the areas of vegetation to the banks of the Nile alone and to a few oases. Re, the solar god, has always ruled the country as master, imposing his law, even within his divine family. So much so that he had such a violent quarrel with his daughter Tefnut, the goddess of humidity, that Tefnut left Memphis, the royal capital, and fled to the Nubian desert. Tefnout had a very violent character: it is not for nothing that she was nicknamed the Eye of the Sun! Drunk with anger and rage, eager to let off steam, the one whom the papyruses call the Furious became incarnate in the form of a fierce lioness, Sekhmet or Hathor according to the texts. The Eye of the Sun caused famine and epidemics, for the sole pleasure of destroying, and Re, desiring to put an end to this murderous horseman, sent the god Thoth, celestial clerk, to her in order to bring Tefnut to reason.
It was a tough game! The goddess did not want to hear anything, but Thoth, a skillful storyteller, distracted her with her stories and diverted her attention from the macabre pleasures that were hers. Thoth even left his traditional appearance as an ibis, occasionally becoming the war god Onouris, whose name means "the one who brought the Faraway", better equipped to fight the vindictive lioness that Tefnut had become. The ploy was fully successful: the roars of Sekhmet the cruel soon turned into a gentle purr, the strength gave way to grace; Sekhmet faded to give birth to the pussy Bastet. Thus was stopped the revolt of the Eye of the Sun.
This legend is based on a background of truth. The Eye of the Sun passing from savagery to sweetness, it is the lion that disappears from the Nubian desert - then from all the Egyptian soil - and the appearance of the cat soon divinized under the identity of Bastet. The priests were struck by this animal that could fix the sun star without embarrassment, but also capable of perfect night vision. This very strong link with the sun and the moon, the ease with which the cat gave birth, her fertility, her care in raising her young, her resistance to disease, as well as her innate sense of elegance and beauty earned her divinization. In addition, the animal was appreciated both for its predatory qualities and for the charm of its company by the population.
The myth of the Sun Eye is also a theological and political metaphor, showing the beginning of a transfer of power from Upper Egypt to Lower Egypt and the deltaic cities, precisely where Bastet will be venerated, at Tell Basta, later called Bubastis by the Romans, then Zagazig by the Arabs.
The myth of the Eye of the Sun, The Cat in Ancient Egypt by Jaromir Malek (1993)
Source and explanation taken from Robert de Laroche's collection "Contes et légendes du chat".