Bastet, the form of the name which is most commonly adopted by Egyptologists today, is a modern convention offering one possible reconstruction. In early Egyptian, her name appears to have been bȝstt, where ȝ represents an aleph. In Egyptian writing, the second tmarks a feminine ending, but was not usually pronounced, and the aleph ȝ may have moved to a position before the accented syllable, as witnessed by the Aramaic spelling ȝbst. By the first millennium, then, bȝstt would have been something like 'obest' or 'ubesti' in Egyptian speech.
The town of Bastet's cult (see below) was known in Greek as Boubastis (Βούβαστις). The Hebrew rendering of the name for this town is Pî-beset ("House of Bastet"), spelled without Vortonsilbe.
What the name of the goddess means remains uncertain. One recent suggestion by Stephen Quirke (Ancient Egyptian Religion) explains it as meaning "She of the ointment jar". This ties in with the observation that her name was written with the hieroglyph "oinment jar" (bȝs) and that she was associated with protective ointments, among other things.
From the third millennium BC, when Bastet begins to appear in our record, she is depicted as either a fierce lioness or a woman with the head of a lion. Images of Bast were created from a local stone, named alabaster today.
Originally she was viewed as the protector goddess of Lower Egypt. As protector, she was seen as defender of the pharaoh, and consequently of the later chief male deity, Ra, who was also a solar deity, gaining her the titles Lady of Flame and Eye of Ra.
In the first millennium BC, when domesticated cats were popularly kept as pets, Bastet began to be represented as a woman with the head of a cat and ultimately emerged as the Egyptian cat-goddess par excellence. In the Middle Kingdom, the domestic cat appeared as Bastet’s sacred animal and after the New Kingdom she was depicted as a woman with the head of a cat or a lioness, carrying a sacred rattle and a box or basket.
She was a local deity whose cult was centred in the city of Bubastis, now Tell Basta, which lay in the Delta near what is known as Zagazigtoday. The town, known in Egyptian as pr-bȝstt (also transliterated as Per-Bast), carries her name, literally meaning "House of Bastet". It was known in Greek as Boubastis (Βούβαστις) and translated into Hebrew as Pî-beset. In the biblical Book of Ezekiel 30:17, the town appears in the Hebrew form Pibeseth.
- "save for the entrance, it stands on an island; two separate channels approach it from the Nile, and after coming up to the entry of the temple, they run round it on opposite sides; each of them is an hundred feet wide, and overshadowed by trees. The temple is in the midst of the city, the whole circuit of which commands a view down into it; for the city's level has been raised, but that of the temple has been left as it was from the first, so that it can be seen into from without. A stone wall, carven with figures, runs round it; within is a grove of very tall trees growing round a great shrine, wherein is the image of the goddess; the temple is a square, each side measuring a furlong. A road, paved with stone, of about three furlongs' length leads to the entrance, running eastward through the market place, towards the temple of Hermes; this road is about four hundred wide, and bordered by trees reaching to heaven."
The description offered by Herodotus and several Egyptian texts suggest that water surrounded the temple on three (out of four) sides, forming a type of lake known as isheru, not too dissimilar from that surrounding the Temple of the goddess Mut in Karnak at Thebes. Lakes known as isheru were typical of temples devoted to a number of leonine goddesses who are said to represent one original goddess, daughter of the Sun-God Re / Eye of Re: Bastet, Mut, Tefnut, Hathor and Sakhmet. Each of them had to be appeased by a specific set of rituals. One myth relates that a lioness, fiery and wrathful, was once cooled down by the water of the lake, transformed into a gentle cat and settled in the temple.
Herodotus also relates that of the many solemn festivals held in Egypt, the most important and most popular one was that celebrated in Bubastis in honour of the goddess, whom he calls Bubastis and equates with the Greek goddess Artemis. Each year on the day of her festival, the town is said to have attracted some 700,000 visitors ("as the people of the place say"), both men and women (but not children), who arrived in numerous crowded ships. The women engaged in music, song and dance on their way to the place, great sacrifices were made and prodigious amounts of wine were drunk, more than was the case throughout the year. This accords well with Egyptian sources which prescribe that leonine goddesses are to be appeased with the "feasts of drunkenness".
Bast was a goddess of the sun throughout most of Ancient Egyptian history, but later when she was changed into a cat goddess rather than a lioness, she was changed to a goddess of the moon by Greeks occupying Ancient Egypt toward the end of its civilization. In Greek mythology, Bast also is known as Ailuros.