Bastet, The Gayer-Anderson Cat
The Gayer-Anderson cat is a bronze figure depicting one form of the goddess Bastet. The goddess was usually shown as a cat-headed woman, or in the form of a cat. Her principal cult center was Bubastis in the Nile Delta. Bastet was a mother goddess and benign counterpart to the more aggressive lion goddess Sekhmet.
The sculpture is known as the Gayer-Anderson cat after Major Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson who, together with Mary Stout Shaw, donated it to the British Museum. The cat wears jewelry and a protective wadjet amulet. A copy of the statue is kept in the Gayer-Anderson Museum, located in Cairo.
“… [The feline] wears gold earrings [and a gold nose ring], and has a silvered collar round its neck and a silver wadjet eye amulet over the collar. Below the collar and wadjet eye is an incised winged scarab beetle, pushing a silver sun disc. A second scarab is modelled in the bronze on the cat’s forehead. The wadjet eye symbolizes protection and regeneration, and the scarab, symbolizing the sun, is also a metaphor of rebirth as exemplified in the daily solar cycle…”
― Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt, Nigel Strudwick, University of Texas Press, Austin, USA, 2006
This bronze figure probably comes from a temple. Thousands of bronze figures of gods, in varying sizes and forms, were dedicated in temples throughout Egypt. The donors of the statues hoped to communicate with the gods. Only the king or someone very wealthy could have afforded to commission an example as fine as this cat, adorned with precious metals.
The sculpture wears a silver protective pectoral and golden earrings and nose ring. The scarab beetle on the cat’s head and chest symbolizes rebirth, while the silver wadjet eye on the pectoral invoked protection and healing.
Late Period, ca. 664-332 BC. Now in the British Museum. EA64391
Cats in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, cats were highly valued as pets but also acquired religious significance. Cats were also popular because they kept granaries and the home free of mice, rats and snakes. Cats were considered to be a manifestation of the goddess Bastet, but were not quite sacred themselves. Some tomb paintings show cats sitting by their owners, sometimes with food nearby. In parts of Egypt, cats were bred in large numbers, so that worshipers of Bastet could show their devotion to the goddess by paying for a cat’s ceremonial burial.
The main place of worship of the goddess Bastet was the city of Bubastis. A temple dedicated to her was erected there, of which only ruins remain today. The historian Herodotus also tells of the festival of ‘Bastet’, one of the most elaborate religious ceremonies, attended by large crowds in honor of the goddess.