Mythic Felines
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Ancient Egypt

Mafdet (as a lynx) executes a venomous serpent

     Domestic cats were of great importance to the Egyptians.  Not only did they protect households from venomous animals such as scorpions and snakes, they also killed vermin that would otherwise destroy crops and food stores.  Cats were appreciated for their hunting skill and natural weapons.  To the Egyptians, cats were protectors and warriors and these were the roles they had as deities as well.
     Lions were associated with the sun, death, and rebirth.  Powerful lion deities were charged with protecting the Pharaoh.
     Here are some of the leading cat and lion deities of Egyptian mythology: 



In Egyptian Mythology, Bast (also Bastet, Ubasti, or Pasht) was the ancient lion goddess of Lower Egypt. Similar to Sehkmet  (another feline protectress of the Pharoah), Bast started out as a solar deity.  Because her identification with Artemis by the Greeks, Bast later began to emerge as a lunar goddess. In Greek mythology, Bast is also known as Aelurus (cat).  

     After her defeat by Sekhmet, Bast became a domestic cat – or Mau – rather than a lionness. Occasionally, however, she was depicted holding a lionness mask, which hinted at suppressed ferocity. Bast was also regarded as a good mother, and became the goddess of women in childbirth, fertility, and young children. Any woman who wanted children sometimes wore an amulet showing the goddess with kittens, the number of which indicated her own desired number of children.
     In Ancient Egypt, all cats were especially venerated because they killed rodents that threatened the food supply as well as poisonous serpents.  Because of this, Bast was also viewed as the protector of the lands – especially Lower Egypt.
     When the lion god Maahes became part of the Egyptian pantheon, Bast was identified, in the Lower Kingdom, as his mother. This paralleled the identification in the Upper Kingdom of the fierce lion goddess Sekhmet as Maahes’ mother.
     Later on, Bast became identified with – and sometimes merged into – Sekhmet, Hathor, Mut, and Artemis.  This merging of identities of similar goddesses has lead to considerable confusion, such as the idea of her as a lunar goddess (more properly an attribute of Mut). Indeed, much of this confusion occurred to subsequent generations, as the identities slowly merged, leading to the Greeks, who sometimes named her Aelurus, thinking of Bast as a version of Artemis, their own moon goddess. To fit their own cosmology, the Greeks made Bast the sister of Horus, who they identified as Apollo  (Artemis' brother), and consequently the daughter of Osiris and Isis.
     Today Bast is still celebrated by most Wiccans as a Moon Goddess and viewed as a friendlier form of Sekhmet.  She is the goddess of joy, women, and children.  Like Artemis, Bast is a fertility goddess who protects women in childbirth and protects both mother and children.  In art, Bast is reprented by an elegant cat (usually with an earring and necklace) or a young woman with a cat's head.  Her earlier form as a pregnant lioness is almost never seen.  Many people - even those who do not consider themselves pagan - are drawn to this cat goddess.  In Sabertooth's Pride, she is perhaps our most popular deity!


Bes with Beset

Lion or Cat Gods
     Maahes was the lion-headed god of war.  In Lower Egypt, he was the son of Bast; in Upper Egypt, he was the son of Sekhmet.  Maahes was associated with the war and the weather.  His father was a mortal who didn't suspect his lover's intent to conceive.  As the dutiful son of a cat (or lion) goddess, Maahes was considered the protector of matrilineal lines and the priests of Ammon.  He was also associated with devouring captives.  Maahes' cult was centered in Per-Bast and Taremu.
     The lion god Aker guarded the gateway to the netherworld through which the sun set and rose each day.  Because of this, Aker was associated with death and rebirth.  In Egyptian mythology, lions are often associated with the sun.
     Ruty was a double (or twin) lion also associated with the sun.  He (they?) were referred to a "yesterday" and "tomorrow" or as the god Shu and his consort Tefnut.  Shu was a god of calmness and coolness, just the opposite of Tefnut who was the goddess of moisture and more warlike in nature.  Once they quarreled, and Tefnut took the form of a cat and left, causing a drought.  Tefnut is often depicted as a lion-headed goddess.  It seems that Ruty is comprised of opposites!
     Bes was a lion or cat dwarf god worshipped as a household protector, especially for mothers and children.  His name comes from the Nubian word for cat.  Unlike most deities who are always shown in profile, Bes appears full faced in all his grotesqueness.  He is a stout, heavily muscled dwarf with a flat nose and hair resembling a lion's mane.  In early representations, he looks like a lion rearing up on its hind legs and his hands are more like paws.  Often, his tongue protrudes and he shakes a rattle.  Like Heracles, Bes wears a lion (or panther) pelt and is a formidable warrior.  His role as protector expanded until Bes was seen as the protector against all evil things and the symbol of all that was good in life: sex, music, dancing, feasting, etc.  The feminine form of Bes was Beset.

Sekhmet box handpainted by Muninn


Sekhmet was the Avenging Warrior Goddess of Upper Egypt and identified by some cults to be a daughter of the sun god, Ra. Because Sekhmet conquered the Lower Egyptian warrior goddess, Bast, she was considered more savage than Bast.  The fierce lioness became the goddess of blood, menstruation, and blood-lust.  She was a powerful avenging force that destroyed evil and injustice – all with extreme prejudice!

     Sekhmet was a fire or solar deity and shot arrows of flame at her foes.  Her very breath was the hot desert wind. (Bast was also originally a sun goddess, but was later associatedwith Artemis, a lunar goddess)
    In art, Sekhmet appears as a woman with the head of a lioness wearing a dress the color of blood.  Sometimes her dress exhibits a rosetta pattern over each nipple, an ancient leonine motif, which can be traced to observation of actual lions’ shoulder-knot hairs. In Leontopolis, tame lions were kept in Sekhmet’s temples.
     After battle, festivals to pacify Sekhmet celebrated the end of destruction., On such occasions, people danced, played music, and imbibed mass quantities of beer to soothe the wildness of the goddess, and drank great quantities of beer.  This gave rise to the myth in which Ra (Upper Egypt) created Sekhmet from his fiery eye, to destroy his enemies (Lower Egypt). In the myth, however, Sekhmet's blood-lust lead to her destroying almost all of humanity! Ra then tricked her into drinking mixed with pomegranate juice so that it resembled blood, making her so drunk that she gave up slaughter and became the gentle Hathor – a cow-headed goddess. Sekhmet, as a form of Hathor, was seen as Atum's mother. Atum was a merging of Ra and Horus, just as Sekhmet merged into Hathor for a time.
     Eventually Hathor and Sekhmet went their separate ways as individual goddesses.  In ancient times, many of the deities were absorbed into other divine forms or adopted by other pantheons as aspects of their own gods.  Today, many Wiccans tend to think of Sekhmet as a more savage (possibly crone?) aspect of Bast. Still others look to Sekhmet as an Amazon or warrior aspect of Bast (joy and fertility), representing individual freedom and unabashed sensuality.  Sekhmet has also been identified with Artemis and Hera because of her strength, power, and associations as protectress of the Pharoah.
In Sabertooth's Pride, we honor Sekhmet as a powerful force of nature, sometimes wild and destructive.  She protects her charges from evil, but her vengeance sometimes can get out of control and spill onto the innocent.  Sekhmet reminds us not to get carried away with negative or destructive energies.  In her aspect as Hathor, Sekhmet demonstrated that power can be tempered with mercy and still rule effectively.  Although as Hathor, Sekhmet was benign, the strength and ferocity of the lioness remained beneath the surface, ready to protect her people.


Mafdet: The Runner

     Unlike many of the Egyptian deities, Mafdet was not a lion.  She is usually depicted as a woman with the head of a cheetah and her name translates as (she who) runs swiftly.  Some images show her looking more lynx-like, so an alternate cat form may have been the quick caracal.  As probably the first Egyptian cat deitiy, dhe appears in the Egyptian pantheon as early as the First Dynasty.  She predates both Bat and Sekhmet.

      Mafdet was the deification of legal justice, specifically execution of criminals. She was also associated with the protection of the king's chambers and other sacred places, and with protection against venomous creatures, which were seen as transgressors against Ma'at (truth).

     One of the things that endeared felines to the ancient Egyptians was that they killed venomous scorpions and snakes. Mafdet, slayer of serpents, was depicted as a woman with a feline head, sometimes with braided hair ending in the tails of scorpions.  She was also shown with a headdress of snakes making her resemble the gorgon Medusa!

     As the administrator of justice, Mafdet was depicted as running up the side of the executioner's staff.  (On the staff image we found, Mafdet resembles a civet or, perhaps, a mongoose.) Like a cat presenting her owner with a slain bird, Mafdet would rip out the hearts of evil-doers and drop them at the pharaoh's feet.  Mafdet ruled the judgement hall in Duat (Egyptian Underworld) .It was in this hall that the king’s enemies and rebels were executed with his harpoon, which closely resembled a feline’s claw. This weapon was known as Mafdet’s claw.

     Although Mafdet was later replaced by Bast as the pharaoh's protector, she continued to be shown as a cheetah on personal items for the royal family.  Even the beds upon which the mummies were placed often bore the cheetah image.

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