Bast (or Bastet) was originally a lion goddess, but over the years as her cult developed she became more associated with the cat and was considered to be the gentler counterpart of the lion goddess Sekhmet.
Cats were much loved by the Egyptians. Illustrations on papyrus show them sitting beneath chairs waiting for treats from the feast table, and appearing in hunting scenes where they assist their masters, having being trained to retrieve birds brought down from the sky by a throwing stick.
The ancient Egyptian word for cat was 'miw', which obviously reflects an attempt to imitate the voice of the cat itself. Such was the popularity of the cat that small girls were affectionately called 'miw-sheri meaning literally 'little cat' or 'kitten'.
Cats could be observed skillfully hunting and catching snakes, which had special relevance for the Egyptians in that in addition to being dangerous to man the snake was the symbol of Apophis, the demonic enemy of the sun god Ra. So cats became animals sacred to the solar deity, and in the markings upon cats' heads the Egyptians saw an image of the scarab beetle, symbol of the rising sun. Also the eyes of the cat were seen to change with the movement of the sun. When the sun was at its strongest cats' eyes would be almost completely golden, but when the sun set and darkness fell their pupils would open and the eyes too would become as black as the night sky.
Figures of cats were offered to Bast by her followers to win her favour and thousands of mummified cats were buried in the special cemeteries of Bubastis, 'house of Bast'.
Bast is shown on wall paintings as a cat-headed woman. In one hand she holds either a sistrum, a kind of musical rattle more commonly associated with the goddess Hathor, or an aegis, in her other hand she carries a basket. She is often confused by the Egyptians, possibly intentionally, with Sekhmet, and was therefore considered to be the wife of Ptah. Her fame lasted throughout the whole of the Egyptian period, but her popularity rose to a peak in the fourth century BCE. She had a son, the lion-headed god Mihos, the 'savage faced' lion god, 'Lord of Slaughter'.
As a sun goddess Bast was the goddess of plenty and the mistress of pleasure. The celebrations of her orgiastic festivals were renowned for being the most lavish of all the gods of Egypt. During these festivals it was forbidden to hunt lions for fear of suffering her wrath.
To her followers Bast was a virgin goddess, (despite the events occurring at her festivals and being the patroness of women and children) and was associated by the Greeks with their virgin goddess Artemis.
In other myths Bast is associated with the moon rather than the sun and is referred to as the eye of the moon, the twin of Horus or the eye of the sun. Her popularity extended through the Greek period and the Romans took her cult to Europe, where she was worshipped in various places, Rome and Pompeii amongst them.